Political rancour can spring forth many ways, at times to signal the start of a power tussle, at other times, its culmination with a parting of ways. And it’s on display in Rajasthan.
Always careful with words, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, veteran of many battles in Jaipur and Delhi, finally turned to name-calling. He dug deep to find a word for party rival Sachin Pilot: Nikamma, the useless.
That was his way of saying it was over between them.
But that choice of word would have made two former prime ministers sit up. Because nikamma was the word rivals had picked, 11 years apart, to target H D Deve Gowda and Manmohan Singh during attempts to unseat them from power.
Deve Gowda couldn’t save his government in 1997 while Singh managed to rustle up numbers in 2008.
Hurt, both Deve Gowda and Singh gave it back — the first to Sitaram Kesri who, as president of the Congress supporting the United Front government, pulled the plug, and the second to then leader of opposition, L K Advani of the BJP, following Left withdrawal of support to the UPA-I government.
The remarks of the two prime ministers are part of Lok Sabha records on the motion of confidence each moved in the House. Saved for posterity, the debates offer a glimpse of an India when coalition was the norm and governments relied on external support.
In 1997, at the 11th hour of 11th April, the 11th Prime Minister of India moved a motion of confidence in the 11th Lok Sabha. The fate of his 11-month government was sealed 11 days ago when he found out that Kesri had moved to bring him down. Deve Gowda decided to go down fighting.
Other than him, 25 members participated in the debate, among them Rajesh Pilot, the MP from Dausa and father of Sachin Pilot. Gehlot was then the Congress MP from Jodhpur.
Replying to the debate, Deve Gowda singled out Kesri for calling him a nikamma. “Today, I would like to tell the nation, through this House, what the language used by the Hon. president of the Congress (I) who is aspiring to become the Leader was… I am unable to understand the meaning of the Hindi word, ‘nikamma’. He said: You are foolish, coward and powerless. Just come into the open and let us see who is powerful.”
“He has quoted in Hindi… This man is not only incompetent, but he is also communal.”
“…Sir, a foolish and an incompetent prime minister, at least, tried to do something for the nation… There is no need of any certificate from the present president of the Congress (I)… As long as Shri Narasimha Rao was president, there was no problem. On the day Shri Sitaram Kesri became president of the Congress party, I called him for lunch… But on the fourth day, when one of my chief ministers, Dr Farooq Abdullah… went to see Shri Sitaram Kesri, he was told not to join the United Front government because he was going to withdraw support.”
“The charge levelled against me was that I had neglected Shri Sitaram Kesri after he became president. It is not based on truth, but based on something else. There is a headline which correctly says, ‘India’s old man in a hurry: Now or Never.’ This was not written by any of the Indian papers. It had appeared in the London Times.”
Deve Gowda’s old-man-in-a-hurry remark had the Congress protesting and P J Kurien, MP from Mavelikara, sought the Speaker’s ruling. His objection was overruled.
The prime minister too refused to back down. “It is not a question of attacking an individual… I have got the highest regard for you, Kurienji. But what is this nikamma or akamma?” he said.
After he completed his reply, the motion of confidence was put to vote. Ayes-158, Noes 292. Motion negatived. Deve Gowda and his government fell.
Eleven years later, it was the turn of Manmohan Singh to move a motion of confidence in the Lok Sabha after the Left, protesting against the Indo-US nuclear deal, withdrew support.
The debate began on July 21, 2008, and continued the next day. The Prime Minister’s reply was marred by interruptions and the Speaker told him: “You may lay your speech on the Table of the House.”
Singh did that. He did not just record his objection to the word nikamma, but also took a swipe at Advani — very similar to Gowda’s old-man-in-a-hurry remark about Kesri.
This is what Singh placed on record: “The leader of opposition, Shri L K Advani, has chosen to use all manner of abusive objectives to describe my performance. He has described me as the weakest prime minister, a nikamma PM, and of having devalued the office of PM.”
“To fulfil his ambitions, he has made at least three attempts to topple our government. But on each occasion, his astrologers have misled him. This pattern, I am sure, will be repeated today. At his ripe old age, I do not expect Shri Advani to change his thinking. But for his sake and India’s sake, I urge him at least to change his astrologers so that he gets more accurate predictions of things to come.”