The encounter happened nearly 40 years ago, but Kishore Chandra Deo has not forgotten it. In 1980, Deo was appointed member of a committee set up by then prime minister Indira Gandhi to probe the massacre of tribals in Tripura’s Mandai. At the time, Deo had just got re-elected to the Lok Sabha on a ticket given by the breakaway Congress faction led by Devaraj Urs.
On one occasion, as members of the committee were leaving after submitting their report to Gandhi, she asked Deo to stay back and said, “Why are you youngsters against me, why are you in the Congress(S).” He replied, “Madam, I defeated your candidate and came to Parliament. Will it be proper for me to come and join you just because you are the ruling party?” Deo recalls Gandhi smiling and responding, “If that is the reason, I respect your views.” She also told him to approach her if he wanted any help for his constituency.
“That was a different era, leaders were of a different calibre,” Deo says, adding that he did not think twice before turning down Gandhi’s offer, who had just stormed back to power. “It was a principled decision.”
Several years later, he has taken another principled decision: to quit the Congress, a party he joined in 1972. On February 3, the former Union minister resigned from the Congress, saying he can’t simply sit and watch when the party is being “liquidated” and brought to a “nought” in his home state of Andhra Pradesh by “four-five people”, and accused Congress president Rahul Gandhi of not giving him time to meet since November.
Former colleagues in the Congress call Deo a “gentleman” politician. “He is not a mass leader or for that matter a local satrap. In fact, he has never been in Andhra Pradesh politics or part of any clique or group, in the state or in Delhi,” says a Congress leader.
Known for his erudition, the soft-spoken Deo is an old-school leader lacking the usual shrewdness associated with politics, say colleagues. While most Congress leaders believe the party will not suffer much electorally from his exit — barring in Araku Valley in Andhra, from where he has been elected MP five times — they admit his absence will be a “loss” for the party. “In the times that we live in, we may not value such old-school politicians… But they are always an asset,” said a senior Congress functionary.
Deo belongs to the tribal royal family of Kurupam, which has had several members in politics. His great-grandfather was a member of the Governor’s council in Madras presidency; his grandfather was an MLC in Madras province; and his father became an MLA in the composite state of Madras way back in 1952. Interestingly, he won as an independent candidate after the Congress refused to field him citing his royal lineage. Deo’s uncle too was an MLA for five terms.
Deo first became an MP in 1977, in the aftermath of the Emergency. But, a year later, when the Congress split, he went with the
‘Reddy Congress’ backed by Y B Chavan and Brahmanand Reddy. The party was then named the Congress (U) and, later, in the 1980s, the Congress (S).
In 1979, he was appointed minister of state for steel, mine and coal in the Charan Singh government. He continued to be a part of the Congress (S) till the early 1990s, although Sharad Pawar, who headed the Congress (S), returned to the parent party in 1986. Deo, along with leaders such as K P Unnikrishnan, remained in Congress (S) and returned only in 1993, when P V Narasimha Rao invited him back to the party.
“I have never left the Congress stream…The breakaway factions were all Congress,” Deo said. A graduate in economics and post-graduate in political science, Rao made him a Rajya Sabha MP in 1994. Ten years later, Deo became a Lok Sabha MP for the third time. Between 2007-2008, he was briefly inducted into the Congress Working Committee and was also made AICC general secretary.
He was chairman of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill during the UPA regime – a position which perhaps, in July 2011, also earned him the post of Cabinet minister in charge of Tribal Affairs and Panchayati Raj.
Although soft-spoken, Deo is known to be firm about his views. Just days after the Congress’s defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he blamed the “the rootless wonders and spineless creepers” in the party for the defeat.
Five years later, as another Lok Sabha election approaches, he has decided to part ways with the Congress. “I felt unwanted,” he said.