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Home > 2022 > An Accidental but Secular Prime Minister | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL LX No 22, New Delhi, May 21, 2022

An Accidental but Secular Prime Minister | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 21 May 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy

Furrows in a Field: The Unexplored Life of H.D. Deve Gowda

by Sugata Srinivasaraju

Vintage/Penguin Random House

Pages: 562; Price Rs 799

ISBN: 9780670093434

He was a reluctant Prime Minister but proved his worth once he entered 7 Race Course Road; he remains a devout Hindu but respects all religions; he rose in politics the hard way, taking loans each time he fought elections; he was a product of provincial politics but embraced a national vision. Meet Haradanahalli Dadde Deve Gowda, India’s 11th Prime Minister who led the country’s first Centre-Left government in 1996-97.

Journalist and author Sugata Srinivasaraju has done full justice to a politician few seem to know well despite the decades spent espousing people’s causes. This may be partly due to the ingrained prejudices against a lowly born in Hindu society. Born a Shudra, his parents saw no signs of his future glory even as his father sold two sheep to fund the writing of his horoscope by a Brahmin.

Poverty forced Deve Gowda to help his father in the field or take out cattle for grazing. He was an early victim of caste prejudices. When he supplied dairy supplies, the Brahmins would sprinkle water on them before taking them in. Some houses gave him food to eat but he had to clean up the area he sat on with cow dung. However, throughout his political career, Gowda “neither claimed to be a victim of caste bias nor did he use a caste slur against anybody”.

While in high school, he took a small room in Holenarasipur where he washed his own clothes, bathed in the river Hemavthi and cooked for himself. Once he lost his fees money of four annas; fearing a beating from father, Gowda sold a part of the ragi given by his family for four annas to pay the fees. The result? He skipped a meal daily for an entire month. Again, he never weaved tales about his hardships to craft a fan base.

After initially teaching tuition to students before becoming a contractor, Gowda entered politics, joining the Congress during the British rule. But he was perpetually in debt. His first electoral battle in 1962 proved what the Congress was capable of. After his name was axed as a candidate, he contested as an independent and won. He later returned to the Congress and went with the rival faction after Indira Gandhi split the party. In 1972, as leader of the Opposition, he took a house in Bengaluru on a rent of Rs 200 to be with his family. That house had just one room; his children slept in the car shed. He shunned official perks.

The 1970s helped Gowda grow politically. He learnt how to be a skilled legislator, punch above his weight, build a pan-India network and, most important, to bide his time until destiny’s moment arrived. In the Assembly, he was pitted against a successful Chief Minister, Devraj Urs. The two had a cordial relationship although Gowda was at his aggressive best against Urs.

The Emergency saw Gowda jailed along with thousands of others across the country. But the Janata Party which he joined did badly in Karnataka in the post-Emergency elections; many accused Gowda of selling tickets. Dejected after being vilified, Gowda quit politics and returned to his village to plant paddy and potato. Once Urs left the Congress, Indira Gandhi sent Kamalapati Tripathi to persuade Gowda to join forces with her and become the Chief Minister. He declined the offer.

But unlike with many politicians, the Emergency victimhood did not become Gowda’s persistent political rhetoric. He moved very close to Morarji Desai, who headed India’s first non-Congress government. Although independent minded, Gowda often acted like a practitioner of socialist ideas. Essentially, he was a Vokkaliga caste leader who practiced pragmatic politics laced with idealism. His faith in God, destiny and karma never wavered. Once Chandra Shekhar gave him Rs 2 lakhs for election expenditure; he returned the money in the presence of Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, L.K. Advani and Jagjivan Ram.

Gowda waged many epic political battles in Karnataka but none as bitterly as he did with Ramakrishna Hegde, who climbed ladders without a mass base because he knew how to play the system. Hegde eventually shook hands with the BJP, giving it a much needed space in Karnataka. Gowda helped Subramaniam Swamy bring down Hegde from his high pedestal, proving the media darling to be corrupt.

Gowda was a rare clean man in politics. He had no other diversions or indulgences. He read but only if it helped further his career. The only weakness he had were for Chinese food and action movies. When he finally became the Chief Minister, he was widely respected because he never lost patience with his staff or Secretaries. He never displayed anger. His would work for 19 hours a day. His administrative acumen was applauded.

It was destiny which catapulted Gowda, after just 18 months holding the reins in Karnataka, to the country’s highest office. He was not very enthusiastic about it. He was convinced the Congress would topple him. He told Jyoti Basu that he had no command over Hindi and had not travelled much in the country. “I touched his feet and requested him to accept my argument.” But Basu, 20 years older, didn’t give up: “Mr Gowda, do I go out and tell the people of India that we have no secular alternative to Vajpayee? Can we put out an advertisement in the newspaper for a secular Prime Minister? Please understand, we will have no face to show people if you do not accept this offer, and we do not have time.”

At the Prime Minister’s Office, Gowda was a workaholic. He almost never slept. As a result, in most meetings, he would get into a somnolent state. “He would not exactly sleep, but to the rest of the world, he looked drowsy and disengaged.” In the process, what was never discussed about Gowda for 40 long years in Karnataka became news every day in Delhi.

According to the author, Gowda was self-aught in economics. He sparingly and hesitantly used economic jargon. But he had his own way of sorting out basics and large ideas in his head. He became a later trenchant critic of Manmohan Singh’s economic policies. Gowda’s greatest skill as an administrator was to balance and reconcile varying worldviews without a rupture. It was Gowda who negotiated a ceasefire with the NSCN (IM) that was officially signed in July 1997, after he had quit as the Prime Minister. It was he who gave financial closure to the long pending Delhi Metro project, for which he never gets credited. Despite tackling issues like the northeast (he spent almost a week in the region), Kashmir and Pakistan, Gowda had no interest in anything except work, prayers and politics.

When the Congress did withdraw its crucial legislative support, the BJP and Shiv Sena promised to prop him up. BJP’s Jaswant Singh gave a note to Srikant Jena, to be given to Gowda: “We will save your government. Don’t resign. Accept our support.” Bal Thackeray called him from Mumbai. But Gowda rejected BJP’s support. “He would not betray his political beliefs.”

Gowda lost the parliamentary election in 1999 and was in deep debt within two years. He formed the Janata Dal (Secular). He got elected to the Lok Sabha in a by-election in 2002, just when the horrific riots erupted in Gujarat. He repeatedly tore apart Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee over the killings in Gujarat. By December 2002, he predicted that Vajpayee would not return to power.

Despite the betrayal by the Congress, Gowda never took a harsh line against the Congress. Neither did he please them. Although his sentences are broken and he almost mumbles, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the author says, is no match for the Karnataka man’s thoroughness and engagement with big ideas. Gowda feels that Modi is trying to convert India into a Hindu nation and has compared the present situation to an undeclared Emergency. Gowda was furious with his son H.D. Kumaraswamy for aligning with the BJP in Karnataka, and forced him not to transfer power to it. He threatened to disown Kumaraswamy if he embraced the BJP again.

This thoroughly-researched biography does full justice to one of the tallest men that Indian politics has produced. Thank you, Srinivasaraju!

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