Interpreting the life and times of a prime minister, who rose from a humble background to leave his mark in history, is no easy task. Sugata Srinivasaraju deserves our kudos, as he seems to have achieved his aim as a biographer with ease.
WILL India ever have another accidental Prime Minister? Of the 14 Prime Ministers India has had so far, the elevation of four of them to the Prime Minister’s office could be described as accidental. They are P.V. Narasimha Rao, H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral and Dr. Manmohan Singh, who held the office for two terms. Of these, the tenure of Deve Gowda, the subject of the book under review, is fascinating and unique in all respects.
‘Accidental’ Prime Ministers are those who did not contest as leaders of their respective parties in the preceding general elections seeking a mandate from the electorate to form the government at the Centre after the elections. Their assumption of office was purely an accident of political circumstances, which they did not anticipate.
As the author of this book, journalist and author Sugata Srinivasaraju narrates, although Gowda was an entrenched player in India’s political system for four decades, he was labelled a ‘dark horse’ because he was a rank outsider to the Delhi-Lutyens establishment. However, the author finds perfect reasoning for his selection within the political class: arguably, it was one of the finest moments of democratic India when a poor peasant’s son without pedigree, pelf or patronage was given charge of the nation.
Gowda was also from the bottom of the varna pyramid – he was a shudra who had often been trapped in the prejudices and stratagems of upper caste politics. He was arguably India’s first full-fledged prime minister from the bottom rungs of the pernicious Indian caste system.
It was one of the finest moments of democratic India when a poor peasant’s son without pedigree, pelf or patronage was given charge of the nation.
In a sense, if the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] at the Centre appears electorally invincible today, its root causes may perhaps lie in the events of 1997, when Gowda had to quit as the Prime Minister, without completing his term, due to the withdrawal of outside support by the Indian National Congress.
Gowda was prime minister from June 1, 1996 to April 21, 1997, when he was succeeded by Gujral. Gowda’s short-term in office had raised huge expectations among various sections of people with regard to key parameters. To mention a few: transparency, cooperative federalism and growth with social justice, were high on his agenda. But Gowda was also a man in a hurry: he knew that he would not be allowed to stay in power for long and therefore had to quickly make a mark. He was also a principled politician; he refused to take the help of the BJP, which was offered to him, to secure a majority in the Lok Sabha, when Congress withdrew its support.
The author recalls that Gowda’s brief tenure as the prime minister had kindled hopes of political settlement in Kashmir and a thaw in India-Pakistan relations. Gowda had also successfully negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the Naga leaders to bring peace to the region. The ceasefire came to effect from August 1, 1997 after Gowda had stepped down as prime minister, and lasted till March 2015, when National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) broke the agreement and killed several defence personnel in a spate of attacks over the next few months.
The author mentions a little-known fact that the farmers of Punjab named one of the finest varieties of paddy as ‘Dev Gowda’ after he stepped down as prime minister. The paddy variety was very popular for over two decades. The author says that farmers who could not converse with Gowda in Punjabi, Hindi, Kannada or English had understood and acknowledged the man’s intent. The naming of the paddy after Gowda was a tribute to his life-long commitment to the farmers’ cause and for his policy initiatives towards the peasant community, and the stellar pro-farmer budget of 1996-97, the author says. Ironically, this tribute too remained little-known and unsung, like all other things associated with Gowda. Interestingly, Gowda himself came to know about this paddy variety named after him only in 2014.
Of particular interest is the author’s comparison of Gowda with the present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. He writes: “While Modi is very articulate, very communicative, and in the eyes of many ‘a demagogue’, Gowda is at a totally different end in this department. He does not relish speaking much; his sentences are broken, he almost mumbles; rhetoric is not in his realm. Gowda speaks straight and with data and documents, and that makes his communication bland and boring. In an old way, he believes that action should speak louder. He does not believe in publicizing his actions, but wants them to be discovered. Actually, he does not dwell on communication and publicity; therefore, chaos and confusion have reigned around his actions. However, Modi is no match to Gowda’s thoroughness and engagement with big ideas. Gowda has areas of expertise like law, irrigation, agriculture, water disputes and general administration. Modi is, at best, a very vague generalist.”
Is this biography a hagiography? No doubt, the author defends Gowda on many of his perceived traits. He praises Gowda for his phenomenal memory, and also suggests that the public perception of him as being drowsy and disengaged in public meetings, and yawning prodigiously in conferences and seminars, was probably incorrect. He quotes several people who say that he was fully alert despite getting into a somnolent state.
Gowda’s short-term in office had raised huge expectations among various sections of people with regard to key parameters: transparency, cooperative federalism, and growth with social justice. He was also a principled politician; he refused to take the help of the BJP, which was offered to him, to secure a majority in the Lok Sabha, when Congress withdrew its support.
But the author balances his praise for Gowda with critical assessment where necessary. Thus, he discloses that Gowda himself regretted his blunder by appointing Joginder Singh as the Central Bureau of Investigation [CBI] director. Singh played havoc with his loose talk with the media, embarrassing the Gowda government on many issues. The CBI at that juncture was handling sensitive cases, and it involved people who were central to the survival of the Gowda government.
The book does not deal with Gowda’s life after 2004, in order to maintain a biographer’s objectivity, and distance from too close contemporary events. Gowda’s post-2004 life, when his family gained ascendancy in state politics in Karnataka, may merit a critical treatment in the hands of his future biographer.
As Gowda approaches 90 years of his life, the book offers fascinating insights into the man and his political journey. As the author shows, he has shown an enormous appetite for hard work and risk-taking. He never chose the winning side. He always joined the struggling ones, which gave him an identity that a winning side could never have.
The author makes Gowda’s philosophy clear by stating that he has never romanticized his secularism. He took tough and unpopular positions that were politically expensive on the Ram Temple movement in Ayodhya, and later, when he waged a battle against A.B. Vajpayee’s government when communal carnage broke out in Gujarat in 2002. He visited Muslims in camps they were pushed into in Gujarat, and wrote angry letters to the then prime minister, Vajpayee. He called out the hate that had spilled over to the streets.
Secularism for Gowda, like it is for most Indians, whose common sense and humanity teach them to coexist and empathize with others, is a default setting, the book suggests.
As a peasant’s son, he became prime minister by just ploughing the field with local knowledge, native wisdom, common sense and extraordinary perseverance, and saw the world in a grain of sand, says the author.
For those aspiring to make a mark in politics without compromising with principles and a personal ethical code, Gowda is a living example of what it takes to climb the political ladder, and remain satisfied with what one accomplishes, when the ladder gives its way.
His political journey began in 1962 when he contested assembly elections in Karnataka as an independent candidate, and won. He waited 21 long years to become a minister for the first time, and later Chief Minister. He was also the opposition leader in the Karnataka assembly for seven years. For those aspiring to make a mark in politics without compromising with principles and a personal ethical code, Gowda is a living example of what it takes to climb the political ladder, and remain satisfied with what one accomplishes, when the ladder gives its way.
Srinivasaraju’s biography of Deve Gowda is elegantly written and would be an insightful read for anyone interested in understanding contemporary Indian politics and governance.