HD Gowda had a love-hate relationship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Gowda’s biographer Sugata Srinivasaraju

Last few years of 20th century in Indian politics are known for weak and short-term governments. Described as the Coalition Era, the time saw many unexpected dark horses riding seat of power in Delhi

HD Gowda had a love-hate relationship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Gowda’s biographer Sugata Srinivasaraju


Last few years of the 20th century in Indian politics are known for weak and short-term governments. Described as the Coalition Era, the time saw many unexpected dark horses riding the seat of power in Delhi.

Founder of the Janata Dal (Secular) HD Deve Gowda was one such leader who ruled the country. Gowda who started his career as a Congressman was forced to take up the top job by the Communist patriarch Jyoti Basu.

A Shudra by birth and farmer by profession, Gowda reached his pinnacle of political career in 1996. Author-journalist Sugata Srinivasaraju chronicles Gowda’s remarkable journey that made him one of India’s most improbable prime ministers.

Author-journalist Sugata Srinivasaraju chronicled Gowda’s remarkable journey in his book “Furrows in a Field: The Unexplored Life of H.D. Deve Gowda”. Excerpts of an interview with Sugata Srinivasaraju:

HD Gowda had a love-hate relationship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Gowda’s biographer Sugata Srinivasaraju

1. Gowda is remembered as the Kisan leader from the south who ruled the country. Why is there no Kisan politician at the center stage of Indian politics at par with HD Gowda or Chaudhary Charan Singh today?

A: Gowda is remembered as a kisan PM but he was actually much more than a kisan PM. He was an engineer with deep interest and expertise in urban infrastructure, law, and river basin planning. But yes, he came from a farming family and agriculture was his primary passion. To identify with farmers and farming gave him a larger purpose that transcended linguistic, caste and religious identities. It helped him widen his base and imagine mass politics. As PM he tried to forge a political constituency of farming communities across India. He gave his budgets a conscious Kisan slant. He was successful to an extent. The proof of which is the farmers of Punjab named a fine paddy variety after him.

It is true that we do not have leaders who represent Kisan politics anymore at the national stage because as a nation we have transitioned. Agriculture is no longer at the centre of our economic thinking. The opening up of our economy in 1991 altered not just our economic worldview but also our political, social and cultural perceptions.

For instance the way we looked at land changed. From being an inheritance that you pawned and passed on from one generation to another, it became real estate which fetched a good price. The emotional connection with land was loosened. The urban space was thought of as a driver of growth and the rural was either put in service of the urban or was seen as a burden.

Also, faith and caste-based identity politics in the 1990s, advances in technology and communication changed the manner in which one constructed mass politics. The way a farmer perceived himself and the world around him changed. For a politician there was no pride or incentive to represent a farmer exclusively because India had stopped ‘living’ in its villages. Gowda will remain in history as the first and last kisan PM. Charan Singh was not confirmed as PM.

2. Is Kisan politics relevant today? Recently concluded poll-results of UP show the one year long historic movement led by the SKM failed miserably in achieving its political goals…In Lakhimpur Kheri, BJP won all 8 seats.

A: Kisan politics is still important, but the outcomes it seeks are different. It now has a very specific professional agenda for reasons we discussed in the previous question. The kisan identity that existed earlier, before the 1990s, was a cultural one. It drove nationalism and nation-building (recall the slogan ‘Jai Jawan-Jai Kisan’). The farmer had a pride of place in the national firmament. He was seen as someone who fed a nation. He was much more than a tiller of the soil and a harvester of grains. He was a keeper of your culture and values. Now, farmers do not provoke or determine passions anymore. In songs, books or cinema, the farmer has vanished.

3. As per the book, Jyoti Basu forced Deve Gowda to take up the top job of the country. Do you think Gowda fulfilled his responsibility? His party, JDS later stitched an alliance with the BJP in Karnataka and formed the government.

A: Gowda very much fulfilled the expectations of Jyoti Basu and Harkishen Singh Surjeet in particular, and the Left in general. The fact that the two leaders had great affection and respect for Gowda during and after his prime ministership is evident in their own words and gestures, and I record it in the book. We should remember when Gowda could have easily accepted Vajpayee’s support to continue in power, he refused it.

His party later stitching an alliance with BJP later had nothing to do with Gowda. It was his son hijacking the party. I explain the events in the book. Gowda is devastated and faces a near-death situation as a result. His medical records speak loudly about his condition. However, Gowda manages to recover and re establish control over his party by 2008 but pays a huge cost.

His party sits out of power for ten years in Karnataka. Later too in 2018, and in 2019, he ensures his party and his son do not succumb to the charms of Modi. Gowda has been steadfastly secular. Even when most of the 13 United Front partner parties (DMK, Telugu Desam etc.) and colleagues went with the Vajpayee-led BJP alliance and later returned to the Congress alliance, Gowda never demonstrated such opportunism.

In fact, tying up with the BJP in Karnataka would have electorally benefitted him (like the BJD in Odisha did), but he chose against it and has remained largely a 20 per cent, South Karnataka party. It is not easy to resist such temptations in power politics. His colleagues like Ramakrishna Hegde and JH Patel created a vote share for BJP just to spite Gowda.

4. Recent developments in Karnataka show that the state has become a Hindutva laboratory in the South. We are witnessing the worst form of communal politics in Karnataka. Do you think Gowda failed his own state?

A: Yes, Gowda had a love-hate relationship with Vajpayee. They were friends from the 1970s. Gowda keeps Vajpayee’s conscience during the Godhra riots of 2002 and also prior and after that. The letters between them and parliamentary record are proof. However, to place the burden of a state’s regression on the shoulder of just one 90-year-old person is unfair.

The so called cosmopolitan, secular and socialist leaders of the state like Ramakrishna Hegde, JH Patel, SM Krishna, S Bangarappa, the Bommai family all openly aligned with and benefitted from the BJP. Siddaramaiah’s own faithfulness to the Congress and the secular cause has been suspect. Some of his closest men toppled the secular coalition in 2019. Why is it that we do not discuss these things.

In fact, if there is anybody who has stood by the minorities in Karnataka in the last few weeks of crisis it is Gowda’s son HD Kumaraswamy. The same person was accused of grabbing power in 2006 by aligning with the BJP. The reason for Karnataka’s communal crisis is complex. To say Gowda has failed Karnataka is akin to saying Nehru alone is responsible for the failures of India. Things are never so simple and we know who has generated that rhetoric.

5. You have described a meeting between Modi and Gowda after the former became the PM. Gowda wanted to resign from Lok Sabha...There are many who say Gowda and his party JDS is actually responsible for BJP’s entry into South.

A: On JDS being responsible for BJP's entry — people who speak that language have fallen prey to propaganda of Gowda’s local rivals, upper caste media and his former protégés. It was Ramakrishna Hegde and JH Patel in 1999 who ensured the growth of BJP. They did it to spite Gowda. The data of the 1999 Lok Sabha and Assembly polls in Karnataka are publicly available for all to study. Hegde became CM for the first time in 1983 with BJP support, nobody remembers that. In 1983, when two OBC leaders — Gowda and Bangarappa, had the strongest claim to the CM’s chair, why was Hegde, a Brahmin, without a base or even a constituency picked and imposed on the state?

We all know in Modi’s India how media narratives are formed. It has never been different in India. Media, which is least diverse, is prejudiced against those leaders who are neither upper caste nor upper class. Gowda is perhaps the only top politician who has never spent a single penny on public relations or image management. Also, why does nobody speak of Congress’ stagnant electoral growth for decades? Why did they not edge out a Gowda and a BJP?

6. Why has Gowda chosen to do Kisan-secular politics rather than caste-identity politics? Since he comes from the lowest strata, Shudra, pursuing caste politics could have been more fruitful to him.

A: In fact, he has very effectively combined community identity, Kisan and development politics. Benefits have accrued because he has played this complex game deftly. The Vokkaligas are a dominant community (not caste) in southern Karnataka and he has evolved as their patriarch over the decades.

It is another thing that Gowda who came from a poor family had no social or cultural capital and was an outsider to the landed elites of his own community. But yes, to Gowda’s credit he has never been communal, a language chauvinist or a stridently casteist person. I speak from his public record of seven decades.

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