Falling in line (or not)

Recently I ran into a friend of union minister for science and technology Vilasrao Deshmukh who told me the latter had been quite incensed with his recent cabinet colleague Gurudas Kamat.

“Kindly don’t tar me with your brush,” he is reported to have told Kamat. “You may be unhappy with what was doled out to you but I am not. So don’t make out that I am annoyed and thus put my job in jeopardy.”

Kamat and Deshmukh are two ministers who skipped the swearing-in ceremony during the recent cabinet reshuffle. But while Kamat was rebelling, in Deshmukh’s case the reasons lay elsewhere. Not only was he busy with his elections to the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) at the time that Dr Manmohan Singh’s new cabinet was being sworn in, I am told, he was also celebrating the birth of his first grandchild. So his High Command ‘understood’, as it did not in the case of Kamat, why Deshmukh was not present at his swearing-in in New Delhi on the day.

Kamat’s rebellion has been remarkable – I have never known anybody in either the UPA or the NDA or any other government before that to quite refuse a berth in the cabinet. But Kamat was miffed that he had been given only independent charge while many others junior to him in the party had a cabinet rank. He was also quite upset that his department was being handed over to the relatively junior MP Milind Deora, son of his rank rival in Bombay, Murli Deora, I am told.

Kamat had written letters to both the Prime Minister and his party president Sonia Gandhi pointing out his seniority and how unjust it would be to expect him to work in a junior position to his own juniors in the state (read Mukul Wasnik).

Sonia Gandhi had previously been quite kind to and accommodating of Kamat and his demands so there was nothing that led the former minister of state for home to believe that she would not give in to his demand once again.

But that is where, this friend told me, Kamat read it all wrong. “He held out the subtle threat of rebellion and resignation. And one thing I have noticed is that if this lady scents even the slightest whiff of a threat, she absolutely drops you like a hot potato and it is a really long, long time indeed before you could be rehabilitated. So she asked Kamat to just get lost.”

No wonder Deshmukh was scared. I recall him telling me, at a time when his exit from the job of Maharashtra’s chief minister the first time round was imminent, “I was made chief minister by Soniaji and only she can remove me from the post. I serve at her will. So if she has lost confidence in me and asks me to quit, I have to go. Without a word of protest.”

People had been urging Deshmukh to make a show of strength from among his supporters in the legislature (which at the time outnumbered his detractors) but he declined. ” It will serve no purpose,” he said, “besides jeopardising the careers of all those who sign a petition in my support. As an obedient soldier, I have a chance. Any sign of resistance and I am done for.”

Might seem very sycophantic and spineless but from the Congressmen’s point of view, they at least live to fight another day. So, not surprisingly, Deshmukh was rehabilitated within weeks with high level party posts and returned as Maharashtra’s chief minister again – only to fall prey to 26/11 and have to go again. But then once again he was back in quicker time – as a full-fledged minister in the Union cabinet. And he would rather leave it that way in the hope that there will be more coming his way – the ‘more’ being his heart’s desire to return as CM a third time.

Congressmen know that however important they may be, they are still not indispensable to the party. And that was Kamat’s fatal flaw – since then he is making himself indispensable to his constituents with vigorous jan sampark programmes to retain legitimacy and now can only pray and hope his party leader is not really offended (or gets over it soon).

For a chaotic party like the Congress I find all that rather bemusing and mystifyingly disciplined. So it was such a contrast last week and this when the BJP, which has positioned itself as a party with a difference, should have to face so much rebellion from its own cadres in Karnataka.

B S Yedyurappa would not go without a fight, he cocked several snooks at his leaders, showed them scant respect, presented them with fait accomplis (by declaring his heir as Karnataka chief minister) and ultimately compelled his own high command to give in. Now he has added a codicil: he will be back in six months and his party leaders, clearly, will have little to do with it! Not predictably, with little iron control at the top, the state unit of the party has now gone fractious and the BJP leaders put into the untenable situation of taking sides to quell further rebellion which can only engender, well, even further rebellion.

But that is as it only can be. For even Gopinath Munde’s rebellion, not once but twice, against party leaders has been tolerated in the BJP as the Congress would never have fathomed vis-à-vis any of their own state leaders. Remember? — When Sharad Pawar questioned Sonia Gandhi’s legitimacy, she resigned. That prompted a mass congregation around her and it was Pawar, who had dreamt of taking over the party, who had to go and form another one of his own.

So over the years, and reinforced by the events of the last couple of weeks, I have learnt several things about our political parties. The disciplined ones are actually chaotic and the seemingly unruly ones actually operate to a strictly orchestrated regime. Also, that the party with a difference has so many differences that they just cannot keep them under wraps and the party with so many voices does not allow a peep out of place and none gets through (as in the case of Sonia Gandhi’s illness that took the entire nation by surprise).

I can now just keep my fingers crossed for the BJP top brass and for Gurudas Kamat.

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