‘He never compromised on his values’

Print edition : August 31, 2018

Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda with M. Karunanidhi at the foundation conference of the All India Federation of Backward Classes Employees Welfare Associations in Chennai on January 20, 1997. Photo: The Hindu Archives

H.D. Deve Gowda, former Prime Minister, reflects on M. Karunanidhi.

Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda’s close observation of politicians in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu goes back decades, to the early 1980s, when he was the Karnataka Minister for Public Works and Irrigation in both the Ramakrishna Hegde and S.R. Bommai governments. And one politician who had always impressed Deve Gowda was former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and stalwart of the Dravidian movement M. Karunanidhi. The octogenarian former Prime Minister reflected on his interactions with Karunanidhi.

The former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and one of the pillars of the Dravidian movement, M. Karunanidhi, has passed away. What are the thoughts that come to your mind immediately about him?

He was one of the seniormost leaders from the southern part of this country, a five-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Please understand this. He was a man from a rural background, but he was able to run a major political party uninterrupted for 50 years. This is no easy task. That is the level of confidence that the party and the party workers had in him. He even fought his political battles from a wheelchair. And, I would like to state quite frankly and categorically that what is even more important is that right from the time the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [DMK] split [in 1972], all his followers, right from the lowest village level to the highest echelons of the party, never ever left him. Even when he was out of power, even when he went to prison, or when members of his family faced corruption charges, even when he was incapacitated and had to carry on from a wheelchair, no one ditched him. This was the biggest gift that the party workers gave him. This is also an indication of the maturity of his leadership. He was a leader who never compromised on his values.

Karunanidhi was a five-time Chief Minister but he never aspired for a role in the national government.

Yes, he never aspired for office in Delhi. But his service to the nation in supporting and providing stable coalition governments that successfully ran the country cannot be forgotten. This he achieved through two coalition governments, the National Democratic Alliance, headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999, and the United Progressive Alliance government of Manmohan Singh, in 2004 and 2009. Both these coalition governments were stable, thanks to Karunanidhi’s political wisdom, maturity and support.

Being one of the tallest leaders from the south, he could have aspired for a role at the Centre.

He chose not to. But this decision of his did not hamper him in his home State. His support to coalition governments at the Centre gave a lot of importance and advantage to Tamil Nadu. His support to the governments at the Centre ensured sanctioning of road and rail projects and other benefits for Tamil Nadu.

In 1996, you were also reluctant to take up the role of Prime Minister. But you allowed yourself to be persuaded.

Yes, in 1996. I had clearly stated to leaders like Jyoti Basu, V.P. Singh, Harkishen Singh Surjeet and others that I was not keen and I had asked them not to harm my career. But they persuaded me to become Prime Minister, and among those leaders who strongly insisted was Karunanidhi. He was partly responsible for making me Prime Minister in 1996 and I cannot forget it. I had a lot of respect for him. Even after I demitted the office, Karunanidhi stood by me. In fact he remarked at a later date: “I had pushed him [Deve Gowda] to the office of Prime Minister but I had made him suffer so much humiliation that he cannot even lift his head after demitting office.”

You mentioned that the greatest gift that the DMK party workers gave Karunanidhi was to support him through victory and defeat.

Yes. Contrast this with my party. The party that was originally formed in 1977 as the Janata Party. Today, just one faction is with me, that’s all. Over the years, the Janata Party has split into so many political outfits. Leaders such as Moraji Desai, Chandra Shekhar and Charan Singh left the party. V. P. Singh even changed the name of the party, making it Janata Dal. Many leaders even deserted the party. There were some secular leaders who associated themselves with the Janata Party only to secure power. Today, I head the Janata Dal (Secular). But there are so many other splinters too…. Leaders and workers have gone in many different directions. This is my bad luck.

Your interactions with Karunanidhi go beyond politics and state matters.

Yes, very much so. His daughter lives in Bengaluru and he has a farm here and because of this he used to visit the city from time to time. We have met on some of these visits.

Both Karunanidhi and you had a role in protecting your respective State’s share of the Cauvery waters. What are your views on Karunanidhi’s role?

(Smiling) He never allowed even a drop of water of Tamil Nadu’s allocated share of Cauvery waters to be lost or given up. When I was the Prime Minister and he the Chief Minister, I personally had discussions with him on the feasibility of constructing a reservoir at Mekedatu on the Karnataka side to store water that was anyway going to flow into the sea. But he stood firm. He gave no scope for me to move forward. Karunanidhi never ever gave me any scope. He never agreed to the Mekedatu project.

Did Karunanidhi’s stand of “never giving you the scope to move forward” upset your equation with him?

No, no. In my experience, all politicians from Tamil Nadu, whatever their political differences, have always spoken in one voice when it came to Tamil Nadu’s position and rights with regard to the Cauvery dispute. Karunanidhi and other former Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers such as M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayalalithaa were very tough when it came to protecting Tamil Nadu’s interests in the Cauvery river dispute. And unlike in Karnataka, all political outfits in Tamil Nadu, be it the DMK, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Pattali Makkal Katchi or the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, have always spoken in one voice when it came to the Cauvery. And have never given any scope to move “forward”. This was the situation even in the 1980s when M.G. Ramachandran came to Bengaluru to discuss the Cauvery issue and I was Karnataka Irrigation Minister.