Ex-PM told Major about coalition conundrum

London: The short-lived United Front government of the 1990s was under considerable strain, struggling to manage a coalition of 13 diverse partners, and then Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda and finance minister P. Chidambaram did not always see “eye to eye,” according to a confidential document just released by the UK’s National Archives.

Deve Gowda told then Prime Minister John Major during the latter’s week-long visit in January 1997.that Chidambaram was “very good” in the world of finance, but was not inclined to prioritise the problems of rural India, says the document.

A three-page account of discussions between Major and Deve Gowda while flying from Kolkata to Bengaluru was one of the documents released by the National Archives. No officials were present on either side ; the only other person who was present when the discussion took place was Major’s wife Norma.

A spokesperson for Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) said the then Prime Minister had said nothing negative about Chidambaram, and “it is a fact that governments and finance ministers in India had not been very focussed on rural India.” “So our leader just pointed out that and tried to focus on rural India during his short stint in power,” added the spokesperson T A Sharavana, an ex-member of the legislative council

HT reached out to Chidambaram but received no response.

Described as a “virtually unprecedented degree of access”, the note based on details reported by Major and written by John Holmes in Downing Street to Fiona Mylchreest in the Foreign Office says that Deve Gowda “went out of his way to speak frankly to the Prime Minister, for example about internal difficulties”.

Deve Gowda at the time was heading an uneasy 13-party United Front government after the 1996 election threw up a fractured verdict. Chidambaram had resigned from the Congress in 1996 and joined the Tamil Maanila Congress, which was part of the coalition.

Deve Gowda told Major during the 150-minute flight that there were “significant strains” within the coalition, explaining how difficult and constraining it was to manage 13 parties, and added that he and Chidambaram “did not see eye to eye” in some areas.

According to the note, “He (Deve Gowda) told the Prime Minister…Chidambaram was very good but his skills lay in the world of finance and big city life. He was not inclined to give sufficient priority to the problems of rural India”.

He “went on to say that he was very concerned about the future of rural India, and in particular about Indian agriculture…It was clear to the Prime Minister that the way to Deve Gowda’s heart was through extra help for agriculture, for example training, new techniques and assistance of any kind”.

Deve Gowda, who was prime minister between June 1996 and April 1997, went on to make two political claims that were later proved wrong. The note says that he believed at the time that the Congress had been “permanently fractured” and that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was “unelectable”.

The note says: “Deve Gowda began with the Indian political scene…He believed that the Congress Party was now permanently fractured and that in the post-dynastic era of Indian politics (he was particularly scathing about the dynasty phenomenon) they could not regroup. The Party was too corrupt and their time had passed. Meanwhile the BJP was unelectable”.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance went on to win two successive elections in 2004 and 2009, while the BJP similarly won in 2014 and 2019. The declassified note suggests that Deve Gowda developed a rapport with Major, who faced a general election back home in May 1997.

At a reception in Bengaluru, the note says: “{Deve} Gowda surprised everyone by calling for silence as the Prime Minister was leaving and saying that he was sure everyone present shared his desire to see the Prime Minister win the election (greeted by a round of applause).” Major’s Conservative party lost the election to Labour led by Tony Blair.

The note adds: “The Prime Minister believes that he has established an excellent personal relationship with {Deve} Gowda, who pressed him and Mrs Major to return to India whenever they wanted, preferably soon”.

“It was noteworthy that Gowda not only came to the reception in Bangalore, but also insisted on coming to see the Prime Minister off, although Indian protocol had insisted beforehand that he could not possibly do either of these things.

Janata Dal (Secular) spokesperson said Deve Gowda had been “prescient if what is happening in the Congress today is any indication,” and his assessment then that the BJP was unelectable was in the context of the circumstances prevailing then, adding: “Politics is not stagnant water but keeps changing.”

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