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The prime minister who’s remembered for all the wrong reasons

Contrary to popular belief, Deve Gowda’s brief tenure as PM was quite productive. A new biography sets the record straight

Former prime minister Deve Gowda, March 2009.
Former prime minister Deve Gowda, March 2009. (Hindustan Times)

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Sir, I am not a Member of this House. Even then, all the United Front friendly parties took a decision and expressed their confidence in me though I am not so experienced, though I am not so matured a politician in so far as the parliamentary functioning is concerned… I am too small a man. In this very chair, if we go back to the history, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who was one of the tallest men in our Indian history, functioned as the Prime Minister, up to the last one, that is Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayeeji… I may tell you very frankly that I am not going to say that I am such a learned man.

(Extracts from H D Deve Gowda’s speech on the Motion of Confidence moved by him, Lok Sabha Debates 11-06-1996)

On 1 June 1996, H.D. Deve Gowda was sworn in as the 11th prime minister of India. Deve Gowda, who? asked many. Few had heard of him and what they had heard was not appealing. Those were the early years when coalitions were suspect, an aberration to single-party governments. The dominant media was acutely critical of coalition experiments and reserved particular condemnation for the actors, especially when they appeared unfamiliar. Not surprisingly, the media painted a poor image of Deve Gowda, focusing more on what they saw as weaknesses and shortcomings.

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Furrows In A Field: The Unexplored Life Of H.D. Deve Gowda is singularly focused on undoing the impression that he achieved little as a politician, both in his state and at the Centre, and answering the question: Who is Deve Gowda? At a brisk pace, Sugata Srinivasaraju traces the extraordinary journey of a farmer’s son from Haradanahalli in Karnataka, who began his life as a civil works contractor, to the position of prime minister of India. Besides the remarkable life story of the politician and the public figure, the biography also captures the complexities of Deve Gowda’s character, his vulnerabilities and his humaneness.

Like his life, there are two parts to the biography: The first, situated in Karnataka, covers Deve Gowda’s beginnings, including his education and marriage, entry into politics, role as opposition leader, his epic battle with Ramakrishna Hegde and his time as chief minister in 1994. Srinivasaraju spends time on his often overlooked contributions to Karnataka’s development trajectory, including managing the Krishna and Cauvery water disputes, developing infrastructure, and attracting investment and industries to the state.

In the second part, the action moves to the national capital, Delhi, and here we get much detail about Deve Gowda as prime minister. These include the behind-the-scenes action of choosing the leader of the United Front, the working of the prime minister’s office and his key confidants, how he dealt with cabinet colleagues, his reasoning for decisions on Kashmir and the North-East and economic liberalisation, and the resolution of the Narmada and Tehri dam issues.

Contrary to popular belief, Deve Gowda’s brief tenure as prime minister was quite productive. The origins of landmark legislation, like the Right to Information Act, the Lokpal Bill and the women’s reservation Bill, lie in decisions made during his term, which lasted less than a year. His government inaugurated an era of more harmonious Centre-state relations and pushed economic reforms, while paying attention to the rural and agricultural sectors.

Furrows in a Field by Sugata Srinivasaraju; published by Penguin Random House India; 600 pages; Rs. 799. 
Furrows in a Field by Sugata Srinivasaraju; published by Penguin Random House India; 600 pages; Rs. 799. 

Since Deve Gowda often looked “drowsy and disengaged”, the media frequently mocked and portrayed him as someone who slept through meetings and conferences. In more than one place, Srinivasaraju rubbishes this, citing people who worked closely with him to underline the point that he was always at the top of his game, alive to the issues under discussion.

Srinivasaraju has received unprecedented access to Deve Gowda, and the senior politician frankly discusses the ideas and goals that drove many of his decisions. We also get a bird’s-eye view of the intrigue that finally brought down his government, apart from details of his relationship with the Gandhis and his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and a look at his life as an elder statesman after his stint as prime minister.

Five issues stand out in this engaging biography. First, like Shakespeare’s Othello, who continually feels that he is of a different colour and does not have the finesse of others in the Venetian court, Deve Gowda repeatedly underlines that he neither has the skills nor experience of others in Parliament. The Delhi-centric media also treated him that way. However, Srinivasaraju doesn’t make it clear whether he deliberately chose the role of an outsider. The independence of an “outsider” gave him greater scope to manoeuvre in the brutal world of politics.

Second, Deve Gowda is deeply influenced by the Nehruvian consensus, though he was in the Congress only briefly. Like others in this first generation of modern Indian politicians, he is deeply influenced by the values of the nationalist movement, Constitution-making, and the vision of a secular, socialist, democratic nation.

Today, Deve Gowda is perhaps among the last surviving leaders of the Nehruvian generation, and Srinivasaraju correctly paints him as the quintessential secularist and pluralist. His secularism and pluralism were not derived from academic sources but from his lived experience of coexistence. There are numerous examples where a god-fearing and devout Deve Gowda consistently rejects majoritarian impulses and calls for the inclusion of India’s diversities.

The Nehruvian also comes out in his policies towards Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East states. Deve Gowda probably did much more for the region in the short period he was in office than others who claim to have done more in a short period. He had no baggage when approaching problems in these regions and genuinely wanted solutions, and tellingly, his policies have been carried forward by subsequent governments.

Third, Deve Gowda appears to be a realist grounded in his own self-defined idealism. He believes there is an appointed time for everything and avoids short cuts to reach his goals. He waits patiently for his turn, and there are numerous examples of this: He resisted Indira Gandhi’s enticement of chief ministership if he shifted to the Congress, stuck with Morarji Desai, respected party policy when Hegde was selected ahead of him as Karnataka chief minister, rejected the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) backing in 1996 when the Congress withdrew support. At the same time, Deve Gowda the realist adroitly balanced economic reforms with his pro-farmer, pro-poor image.

For Deve Gowda, his ordinariness was more important than his acclaim as prime minister. In his reply to the motion of confidence in June 1996, he says, among other things: “I am a person who lives in my village. I am a person who lives with my farmers.... I am a man who lives with my workers. That is how I have come to this position.” Acutely aware of his limitations, he made preparation his best weapon, whether it was for debates and discussion or the Machiavellian manoeuvres he oversaw.

Fourth, when we speak of farmer leaders, the names that come to mind are mainly from the north; Deve Gowda’s is unlikely to be at the top of the list. For while he is described as a “humble farmer”, his contribution to agriculture and irrigation is underrated. He defended farmer interests when it mattered, while understanding the need to modernise agriculture and strengthen its links to the rest of the economy. He has consistently raised issues such as waivers for farmers’ debts even after he stepped down as PM. That the farmers of Punjab, a state far from where he plied his trade, named a paddy variety after him is probably the best tribute to his efforts.

Fifth, Deve Gowda may have inaugurated a political dynasty but it does not appear from the narrative that he deliberately created space for the family in the party. He comes across as a family man and, like most Indian parents, wants his children to do better than he did. Like many of that period, he was obligated to care for an extended family. And like many Indian parents, he seems rather blind to the injudiciousness of his son, who joined hands with the BJP in 2006 (apparently without his knowledge), causing him immense mental and physical trauma.

Deve Gowda has been in active politics for 70 years. In the turbulent world of politics, it is an eternity. His rise from the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy to the national arena is testimony to the success of India’s ongoing democratic experiment. Srinivasaraju’s narrative underscores his passion for the causes he espoused—agriculture and secularism. Yet his passion was tempered by responsibility and proportion. Max Weber, in his lecture “Politics As A Vocation”, underlined three qualities of a good politician: passion, a feeling of responsibility and a sense of proportion. Deve Gowda has all three qualities in necessary measure and has managed to retain them through the highs and lows of his career.

Furrows In A Field is a rewarding and necessary read to understand the real Deve Gowda and his contribution to contemporary Indian politics.

K.K. Kailash is with the department of political science, University of Hyderabad

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