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Crisis Shows Power Politics, Patronage Still Dominate in India

July 17, 1990 GMT

NEW DELHI, India (AP) _ Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s battle with his chief rival in the Cabinet showed Tuesday that old-style patronage still plays a big role in India’s political life.

But Singh’s victory in the four-day government crisis also demonstrated that India’s traditional power politics may be changing as the democracy matures.

In last year’s election, Singh ousted the Nehru-Gandhi family, which had governed India virtually since independence in 1947. Over the weekend, he forced the deputy prime minister, Devi Lal, to rescind the appointment of his son to a powerful local post.


Singh, a self-styled champion of clean politics, emerged from the fight slightly muddied.

″No doubt V.P. Singh’s image has suffered. The events have damaged his reputation, but he will come out of it,″ predicted Bhabani Sengupta, a political commentator for the Center for Policy Research.

″What happened was a clash between the old style of politics and the new style. Singh wanted to be democratic, but Devi Lal played the bad old game and he lost,″ Sengupta said in an interview.

The crisis erupted last Thursday when Devi Lal engineered the reappointment of his eldest son, Om Prakash Chautala, as chief minister of the northern state of Haryana.

Chautala, 55, previously held the post, but was accused of indirect responsibility for election violence in his constituency that killed at least 12 people, including an independent candidate. He was forced to quit May 22, but the violence was never investigated.

News reports said his reappointment was part of a deal between Singh and Devi Lal to end a cold war between them. Denials from both failed to dispel all suspicion.

Challenged by Devi Lal, Singh resorted to a threat to resign. Many commentators thought it was a ploy, and he retracted the threat within 24 hours.

Before the conflict was resolved, 13 ministers in the 38-member Cabinet, or Council of Ministers, resigned and the workings of government came to a halt. Air force planes flew leaders from around the nation to New Delhi, where about 100 meetings took place in four days.

The crisis ended Monday when Chautala agreed to step down ″for the good of the party.″ His father remained in the Cabinet, and the 13 ministers who quit were reinstated.

But few believe the game has been decided. The skirmish exposed the deep cracks in the governing Janata Dal party, which dominates the five-party minority coalition and underlined the personal hostility between Devi Lal and Singh.

″After all this mudslinging, it looks they all are friends again,″ said Mool Chand Jain, a political analyst in Haryana. ″For them, political survival is more important than clean politics.″

Chautala inherited the post of Haryana’s chief minister when it was vacated by Devi Lal, a former wrestler and landowner who built a power base on pro- farmer populism and political handouts.

Indian news reports say that as many as 135 family members of Devi Lal received government favors in one form or the other.

″Dynasty is natural,″ Devi Lal said in a magazine interview recently. ″Everyone learns from the head of the family.″

He added: ″I appoint my relatives because I have got control over them. They will go by my directives.″

Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi called the crisis an internal affair of the Janata Dal party, but Gandhi’s supporters enjoyed watching Singh’s difficulties.

″The events since Thursday have made it clear that the clean government Mr. Singh had offered us is just a mirage,″ said one official of Gandhi’s Congress party.