Twenty-five years after he was ousted as PM, why do you think it was important to write HD Deve Gowda’s biography?
After the 2019 victory of Narendra Modi, the question on my mind was: What is the real alternative to Modi? The Congress was not able to put its act together, but a federal challenge could be mounted. And that’s when I thought I should look at HD Deve Gowda’s life. Because he was one of the finest examples of a chief minister who became a Prime Minister. There were others before him. But unlike Morarji Desai, who had been a part of national politics, or Narasimha Rao, who was a part of the Delhi establishment, he was a politician with a great grassroots experience. As a prime minister, his democratic engagement was very deep. The federal spirit was reflected in the work he was doing as PM.
The subtitle of your book is The Unexplored Life of HD Deve Gowda. Why did his life remain unexplored?
First, caste. Most Indian PMs belong to the upper caste or the trading community, except for Charan Singh, who was a Jat. Deve Gowda was the first Shudra Prime Minister of India. But caste was an impediment and reflected in the coverage that he received in the media. Some may say that the Vokkaligas in Karnataka also own land, but Deve Gowda’s family had four ragged acres. He did not have any social, cultural, caste or real capital. Second, language. Charan Singh came from the Hindi heartland, and Hindi is seen as a language which will deliver you to the national space. Finally, class, evident in how the Anglophone elite dismissed him. For example, Sunil Khilnani in Idea of India writes of him as a PM, “who neither speaks English nor Hindi.” That is completely false. Gowda had a working knowledge of Hindi, as he regularly communicated with Janata Party colleagues like Jagjivan Ram, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Chandra Shekhar. His English, as is evident in the long hand-written letters he writes to his political contemporaries, is grammatically impeccable.
There are interesting parallels between Deve Gowda and Modi, especially when you consider both are OBC leaders, with humble origins, and Modi’s pronounced anti-elitist politics.
It is true. Both came from the outer fringes of power. But Modi had an entire ideological superstructure that could prop him up. He never contested an election until 2002, after he was made the CM. Deve Gowda has been fighting elections since 1954. In 1962, he became a legislator. Modi is not a grassroots leader, he is the ideological representative of an institution that has been struggling to become mainstream for a very long time, the RSS. I see him becoming the PM as a reaction to what the Congress did for 10 years. Congress completely disengaged itself from the democratic process of the country. It appointed a technocrat as PM. It was not Manmohan Singh’s fault, but he didn’t have the political wherewithal to engage with a diverse country like India. He thought managing the economy was the only job of the PM. Now we realise, post Modi, that it is not enough. For me, Deve Gowda is a very important leader from that point of view, because you see him engaging at a social level, at a democratic level. As a PM, he was trying to revive a democratic process in Kashmir; to engage with the Northeast. He was a person from the fringe, who also felt neglected, humiliated by the Anglophone elite. And so, he tried to bring the “fringe” to the mainstream. That’s why he went to Kashmir four times in 11 months, when for nearly a decade no PM had gone there. But Modi is not that kind of a leader. Even after becoming PM, his centralising impulse is greater than his grassroots engagement.
You say that Deve Gowda’s story is also an argument for coalition governments.
It’s a great idea for a country like India which is so diverse, linguistically, ethnically, culturally, to not have one national party. A national party, whether BJP or Congress, will manufacture a certain idea of one-ness. Coalition governments have delivered. If you look at the agricultural growth rate in Deve Gowda’s time, it was fantastic. Vajpayee put India on a certain trajectory. But in the 1990s, when coalitions started coming into their own, it was the Congress that sowed the seed of doubt in the minds of people. The Congress that is today trying to recover India’s diversity, federal importance, what was it doing then? How many governments did it not pull down? Charan Singh, VP Singh, Deve Gowda, Chandra Shekhar. Has there been any reasoning offered for this?
When Deve Gowda goes to Delhi as PM, he is aware that it will be a short stint, you write. Does that free him up?
He tells his joint secretary, “You come with one suitcase, I will come with one’. History is telling him that the Congress will not allow him to work for a long time. But once he gets into the chair, he realises he can manage. It’s the same government system. It is about democratic engagement. All of those things are not alien to him. He has always been making policy for the poor, or thinking about it. Of course, it is a vast country. But being the politician he is, with his common sense and intuitive understanding of the Indian political system, he builds a diverse, good team around him. Two, he slowly started realising that he has to make a mark quickly. He sees that Kashmir is alienated, and he is an alienated man. Militancy was at its peak, there was no government after 1991, Farooq Abdullah had gone away to London. Deve Gowda calls him and asks him to return. “Let’s have an election,” he says. He drafts a common minimum programme, and engages with everyone. As a goodwill measure, he sanctions a loan waiver for the state. He sends out the message that he is willing to meet everyone. By his third visit, he is ready to hold elections. He tells the foreign press to go report freely, and asks four ambassadors to be election observers. Twenty-five years later, look at the situation in Kashmir and contrast it with Deve Gowda’s engagement.
You draw a portrait of an organic secularist. How do you see that in the context of his son Kumaraswamy joining the BJP in 2006?
Deve Gowda’s secularism is organic, it is not theoretical, or drawn from academic ideas. It arose because he was exposed to certain things as a child — acts of kindness from Muslim neighbours or strangers — and he borrows his ideas from there. As a politician, he knows his life’s work was with workers and farmers. He was pragmatic about the fact that you need society to be inclusive, without it you cannot progress. But in 2002, after the Gujarat riots, as a former PM, he goes to Godhra alone, visits Muslim relief camps, sits with the victims, and writes anguished letter after letter to Vajpayee. In Parliament, he calls it state-sponsored terrorism.
Then, two years after Deve Gowda’s JD(S) wins 59 seats and joins a coalition government with the Congress in 2004, his son HD Kumaraswamy joins the BJP. That is painted in Karnataka as something he was complicit in. As I write in my book, he slips into severe depression after that. He is morally finished. His son-in-law, a famous cardiac surgeon, describes the physical aftermath of that event — he is so afflicted that he could physically never stand erect after that. His moment comes in 2008, when he vetoes the transfer of the CM post to the BJP. This was Deve Gowda’s way of repairing things.
Does he share a sense that he has been deprived?
That is a very deep hurt that rankles him. He thinks that he has not got his due. When I first approached him, I don’t think he jumped at the idea. Every other journalist in English had always belittled him and dismissed him. I had to earn his trust over a period of six-eight months. He is an introvert, and does not give a damn about promoting himself. He says people understand me, they vote for me.
What would you count as his failures?
He would have looked better had he not promoted his bloodline. He should have continued his national engagement after 1996. He shouldn’t have thought of himself as a regional leader. Otherwise, he is a stellar politician. He was always teased as a humble farmer. But today when you see a PM who is not willing to engage, you understand the value of being humble and accessible. During Deve Gowda’s time, any MP could call the PM. He would take calls at midnight. How many opposition politicians can talk to the PM now? How many of his own ministers can talk to Modi today?