‘Deve Gowda’s democratic engagement was deep’

Print edition : December 31, 2021

Sugata Srinivasaraju. Photo: K. MURALI KUMAR

H.D. Deve Gowda entering Parliament House. A file picture. Photo: The Hindu photo archives

Interview with the author and political commentator Sugata Srinivasaraju.

Haradanahalli Dodde Gowda Deve Gowda was born in 1933 in a village called Haradanahalli in Hassan district in southern Karnataka. Born in a peasant Vokkaliga family with no political connections, he ascended the highest political office of the country when he was sworn in as the 12th Prime Minister of India on June 1, 1996. In his just published biography of the veteran politician titled Furrows in a Field: The Unexplored Life of H.D. Devegowda, the Bengaluru-based journalist and political commentator Sugata Srinivasaraju recounts the rich and extraordinary life of Deve Gowda in minute detail.

Deve Gowda’s tryst with politics began in the 1950s when he joined the Indian National Congress. His association with the grand old party, however, ended in 1962 when he was elected as an independent candidate to the Karnataka Legislative Assembly. In the 1970s, the young Deve Gowda, as the Leader of Opposition, managed to dent the image of the popular Chief Minister Devraj Urs. During the Emergency (June 1975-March 1977), Deve Gowda was jailed for several months.

He was a prominent contender for the Chief Minister’s post through the 1980s, a turbulent decade in Karnataka politics, but his friend-turned-rival Ramakrishna Hedge stymied his chances of becoming the Chief Minister. Deve Gowda held the Public Works and Irrigation portfolios during this decade, and this helped him gain a deep understanding of irrigation issues that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his political career.

Deve Gowda became Chief Minister for the first time on December 11, 1994. The term was truncated as he was chosen by the 13-party United Front, led by the Janata Dal, to head its coalition government at the Centre in 1996. Aware that his government was wobbly as it depended on outside support from the Congress, Deve Gowda began to work at a feverish pace. His notable achievements during the 10 months that he was at the helm were the conduct of elections in Jammu and Kashmir and the inauguration of development projects in the north-eastern States.

When the Congress under Sitaram Kesri withdrew its support for his premiership, Deve Gowda stepped down but continued to remain relevant in national politics as a Member of Parliament. He founded the Janata Dal (Secular) in 1999 after the Janata Dal split. The JD(S) is now led by his son and former Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. Deve Gowda is currently a Rajya Sabha member and continues to remain relevant in Karnataka and in the wider Indian political landscape.

In an interview with Frontline, Srinivasaraju spoke on a range of issues concerning the life of Deve Gowda. Excerpts:

The major purpose of the book seems to be to rehabilitate the legacy of Deve Gowda. It is clear from your narrative that Deve Gowda has not been given his due. You articulate this succinctly in the biography: "The larger social, cultural and political prejudice that surrounds him [Gowda] has not allowed credit to accrue on the riverbank of his public life." Can you explain this?

I disagree that the major purpose of the book is to rehabilitate the legacy of Deve Gowda. I was commissioned to do the biography because there was a gap [in the understanding of his political career], and there was practically no reading material on a man who became India’s 11th Prime Minister, and who had been in politics for seven decades, rising from the very bottom of the ladder. When I started exploring his life and work, I felt deeply embarrassed that as a journalist [with 25 years of experience] I had not paid attention to his work and to his expertise in fields such as irrigation, river basin planning, agriculture, governance and constitutional law.

Why was Deve Gowda ignored? The answers became obvious as I began to do my research. He came from the bottom of the varna hierarchy. He was a Shudra, and even among Vokkaligas, he did not belong to the educated and landed minority. He had never worn a zari-brocaded silk headgear, a symbol of having attained a certain station in life. Deve Gowda did not have the cultural capital of his upper-caste political peers. He was the ultimate outsider to every pattern and structure that existed in politics in India until he became Prime Minister. Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, who succeeded him, had similar backgrounds, but Manmohan Singh had received the finest education abroad and was basically a technocrat, not a mass leader. Narendra Modi was propelled by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Manmohan Singh never won a popular election and Narendra Modi had never contested a popular election until he became Chief Minister of Gujarat. That was not the case with Deve Gowda. Right from 1954 he was among people, contesting elections and battling it out. His democratic engagement was deep. He grew up without pelf, patronage or pedigree. This should have been celebrated in a democracy, but we did not seem to care.

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The other prejudice against Deve Gowda was perpetrated by the Anglophone elite. Deve Gowda wore a dhoti, ate ragi, had strange mannerisms and did not speak Queen’s English. He called himself a “humble farmer”. This was converted into a joke in the elite’s cocktail circuits. The superficial attributes became more important than his democratic nature, commitment to India’s plural inheritance and administrative acumen. Sunil Khilnani, whose Idea of India was published in 1997 when Deve Gowda was Prime Minister, begins his book with a half-truth. He says Deve Gowda does not know English or Hindi, whereas he conducted his legislative business and correspondence for close to four decades in English. His father had struggled to get him an English-medium education in Holenarasipur. All of this is in the public domain, yet falsehoods were propagated.

The history of post-independent India’s politics has been partial to some and cruel to many. It has celebrated a chosen few but ignored numerous stars. For me, studying Deve Gowda’s life, politics and times has been about restoring the balance, not rehabilitating his legacy. It was also about studying the magnificent interplay between the local and the universal and viewing the world through a grain of sand. Deve Gowda became a metaphor for such a study.

Do you think Deve Gowda did not focus on media and image management? Is that the reason for his enduring image as a rustic farmers’ leader?

Deve Gowda never spent a single penny on media management or image management all through his career. He never cultivated pan-Indian journalists and intellectuals like Ramakrishna Hegde did or the information technology elite of Bengaluru like S.M. Krishna. He never tried to lure media professionals and intellectuals with residential sites, expensive gifts and foreign trips. He always remained a representative of the common man and a street fighter. After a point, he became so conscious of his image that he deliberately hid his voracious reading habit. His reading was never for pleasure but was with a purpose to understand anything that consumed him at that point in time. Sometimes the knowledge he gained by reading tumbled out when he referred to, say, Joseph Stiglitz’s argument in the middle of his parliamentary speech.

Battle with Ramakrishna Hegde

Deve Gowda’s epic battle with Ramakrishna Hegde constitutes one of the most evocative as well as longest chapters of the book. You write: “Even seventeen years after Hegde’s death (2004), if there is anything that animates Gowda’s conversations, monologues and victimhood, navigates his impulses and judgments and is a touchstone to reckon his life’s good and bad moments, it is the memory of Hegde.” How does the long shadow cast by Ramakrishna Hegde over Deve Gowda’s life continue to have a hold to this day?

Ramakrishna Hegde was Deve Gowda’s senior in politics and in the Janata Party. The early arrangement between them was Deve Gowda would work with the masses and Ramakrishna Hegde would take care of the management and strategy and deal with the party’s finances. This worked fine for a few years. But by 1978, Deve Gowda felt that Ramakrishna Hegde was playing games. Between 1978 and 1994, Deve Gowda missed the chance of becoming Chief Minister four times and each time he discovered Ramakrishna Hegde’s hand. Ramakrishna Hegde did not have an Assembly constituency to contest from when he was made Chief Minister. Deve Gowda got him elected from Kanakapura. The imagery that tabloids in Kannada used for the two in the 1980s were that of an ‘ox’ and a ‘fox’. It was obvious who the ox was. The animus between the two grew and exploded around 1987-88. They patched up in 1993-94, but the relationship broke after Ramakrishna Hegde was expelled [from the Janata Dal].

Ramakrishna Hegde’s toxic media statements when Deve Gowda became Prime Minister, in which he repeatedly maintained that Deve Gowda was unworthy of the chair he was going to occupy, hurt him badly. He felt betrayed. But Ramakrishna Hegde’s insinuations pushed Deve Gowda to work hard and expand his footprint across India as Prime Minister. His initiatives in Kashmir and the north-eastern States were to prove the point that he understood India better than Ramakrishna Hegde. The two areas became symbols in his mind. Deve Gowda thought they were neglected and misunderstood like him. He went to Kashmir four times in 11 months and stayed in the north-eastern region for six days, becoming the first Prime Minister to do so. I discuss all this in great detail in the book. There are separate chapters on his Kashmir and north-eastern engagement. We love to discuss the ‘rivalry’ and personality contrasts between [Jawaharlal] Nehru-[Sardar Vallabhbhai]Patel, Indira [Gandhi]-Morarji [Desai], V.P. Singh-Devi Lal and [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee-L.K. Advani. To that list we should add Ramakrishna Hegde-Deve Gowda; it is so colourful that it could make an independent book or a web series.

Deve Gowda emerged as a dark horse to become the prime ministerial choice in 1996. What were his notable accomplishments during his brief stint?

Deve Gowda’s greatest achievement, I would say, was his democratic engagement. He met protesters like Medha Patkar, Sunderlal Bahuguna, and sugarcane farmers, and engaged with them one on one. The way he conducted himself with Sunderlal Bahuguna, who was protesting against the Tehri dam, was particularly moving. His accessibility was his greatest attribute. In fact, even members of the opposition who were voting out his government spoke eloquently about his accessibility. He was a man of the masses and held Janata darshans as Prime Minister, something unthinkable today. Since he was familiar with every layer of the government machinery and thorough with the legislative process and the law in view of his long decades in the opposition, he took decisions swiftly and decentralised clearance of files in the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] for the first time.

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Besides this, his big achievements were in Kashmir and in the north-eastern region, the ceasefire with the Nagas, the Farakka treaty with Bangladesh, the two splendid budgets he gave. He has not been given enough credit, but you will find people like [former Union Finance Minister] P. Chidambaram and Montek Singh Ahluwalia speak about it in my book. If Delhi has a Metro rail today, it is because he fought his own Finance Minister to give it a financial closure. The accelerated irrigation project that gave funds for irrigation projects that were languishing was a big move. He was not ideological or dogmatic as Prime Minister but a pragmatist. He worked with enormous common sense. He surrounded himself with some legendary IAS [Indian Administrative Service] officers in his PMO, men of integrity and credibility, and that included T.R. Satish Chandran, T.S.R. Subramaniam, B.N. Yugandhar and S.S. Meenkashisundaram. He picked J.M. Lyngdoh and made him Election Commissioner. He gave an extension to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam [as Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister], which the scientific community detested. The diversity of his PMO is something I found very interesting and I discuss it threadbare.

You write that Deve Gowda felt betrayed and went into clinical depression when Kumaraswamy joined hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2006 to become Chief Minister. In fact, you cite a family source who says that Deve Gowda was so devastated by this move that he (the family member) feared for his life. This was a salient event of Karnataka politics because the subsequent withdrawal of support by Kumaraswamy to the BJP-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government is what, some would argue, allowed the BJP to entrench itself politically in Karnataka. What is your reading of this event?

If you look at the vote shares of the Karnataka Assembly elections, it is clear that the BJP did not expand or entrench itself after Kumaraswamy joined hands with them. Yes, he gave them greater legitimacy, and after the refusal to transfer power, gave them a powerful emotional plank to woo voters. Even then it was not an ideological BJP that we are speaking about. It was B.S. Yediyurappa’s BJP with a saffron of caste [Lingayats], not religion [Hindutva]. It is Ramakrishna Hegde, J.H. Patel and other socialists and backward class leaders who electorally made space for the BJP in 1999 to defeat Deve Gowda. They succeeded in defeating Deve Gowda but made way for the BJP big time. Ramakrishna Hegde’s Lok Shakti party and J.H. Patel’s Janata Dal (United) aligned themselves with the BJP. Ramakrishna Hegde even became a Minister in the Vajpayee-led government at the Centre, which lasted 13 months. After Ramakrishna Hegde and J.H. Patel passed away, Yediyurappa took their place [ in the State’s political firmament]. I will not absolve Kumaraswamy [of paving the way for the BJP’s entrenchment in Karnataka], but I would say that the first to betray Deve Gowda regarding the BJP were his long-time colleagues. We seem to have forgotten this. After this watershed moment in Karnataka politics, Deve Gowda had to rely on caste identity politics. His game changed totally after 1999. It was about survival.

Caste identity politics

You have demonstrated in your book that Deve Gowda remained committed to a progressive social justice agenda throughout his political life, but is it not ironic that his most prominent legacy today, the JD(S), is identified as furthering the cause of only the Vokkaliga caste? Could it not be argued that Deve Gowda’s leadership of the Vokkaliga community has prevented the deepening and democratisation of Karnataka’s politics?

A part of the answer to this question is there in my previous reply. Karnataka right from the 1950s, from the time of [Chief Ministers] K. Hanumanthaiah and S. Nijalingappa, has been deeply entrenched in caste identity politics. Devraj Urs, with his backward class agenda, took it to alarming levels in the 1970s. After that everything in Karnataka appears to be about caste. Deve Gowda, coming from the erstwhile Mysore state, naturally played the caste game but added a development and legislative agenda to create his own formula. The dominant Vokkaliga community to which he belongs became his natural vote base not because he pandered to them aggressively [there were many Vokkaliga leaders snapping at his heels all through], but because he became a patriarch of the Cauvery basin fighting for water rights.

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Later, after 1999, when the development agenda became secondary and survival became primary, caste was used far more aggressively. By then Deve Gowda had lost power and had to build his own party. I agree that if the Janata Dal had not splintered, we would have had a relatively balanced political setting. Caste was not just Deve Gowda’s problem in Karnataka, it was that of every big leader from Nijalingappa to Yediyurappa and Siddaramaiah. Each one of them was accused of placing the interests of his community first.

Having deeply researched Deve Gowda’s life, what do you think are the notable qualities that have ensured his longevity and significance in Indian politics?

His optimism that is rooted in divinity makes him feel that he is destined to do certain things and he shall not depart until he has done them. That is about his mental energy. He is also committed to study and reason. There is pragmatism and uncommon commonsense as well. He has never mixed faith and politics. (The book contains sharp letters he wrote to Vajpayee during the Gujarat Godhra riots in 2002). All through his career, you observe there is an intent to do something constructive. He is constantly struggling with a big idea. His personal habits are spartan—no fun in any form.

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