Interpreting the life and times of a prime minister who rose from humble circumstances to make his mark on history is no easy task. Sugata Srinivasaraju deserves our praise as he seems to have achieved his goal as a biographer with ease.
WILL India ever had another random prime minister? Of the 14 prime ministers that India has had to date, the promotion of four of them to the post of prime minister could be described as a fluke. They are PV Narasimha Rao, HD Deve Gowda, IK Gujral and Dr. Manmohan Singh, who held the post for two terms. Of these, the tenure of Deve Gowda, the subject of the book reviewed here, is fascinating and unique in every respect.
“Accidental” prime ministers are those who did not run as leaders of their respective party in the previous general election and are seeking a post-election mandate from voters to form the center government. Her assumption of office was a pure coincidence of political circumstances that she had not reckoned with.
As the author of this book, journalist and author Sugata Srinivasaraju recounts, despite being an integral part of the Indian political system for four decades, Gowda was labeled a “dark horse” for being an outsider in the Delhi-Lutyens establishment . However, the author finds a perfect justification for his choice within the political class: It was arguably one of the finest moments of democratic India when the son of a poor farmer with no pedigree, fur or patronage was placed in charge of the nation.
Gowda was also from below Varna Pyramid – he was a Shudra who were often caught up in the prejudices and strategies of upper-caste politics. He was arguably India’s first full Prime Minister from the lowest echelons of India’s pernicious caste system.
It was one of the finest moments of democratic India when the son of a poor farmer, with no pedigree, fur or patronage, was put in charge of the nation.
In a sense, when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] While the center appears invincible in elections today, its causes may perhaps lie in the events of 1997, when Gowda was forced to resign as Prime Minister without completing his term due to the Indian National Congress withdrawing outside support.
Gowda was Prime Minister from 1 June 1996 to 21 April 1997 when he was succeeded by Gujral. Gowda’s short tenure had raised great expectations in various circles of people about important parameters. To name just 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 he could not stay in power long and had to make a quick statement. He was also a principled politician; he refused to accept the BJP’s offer of help to gain a majority in the Lok Sabha when Congress withdrew its support.
The author recalls that Gowda’s short tenure as prime minister raised hopes for a political settlement in Kashmir and a thaw in India-Pakistan relations. Gowda had also successfully negotiated a truce agreement with the Naga leaders to bring peace to the region. The ceasefire came into effect on August 1, 1997, after Gowda resigned as Prime Minister, and lasted until March 2015 when the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) broke the accord, killing several defense forces in one barrage of attacks in the next month.
The author mentions a little-known fact that Punjab farmers consider one of the best varieties of rice to be “Dev Gowda‘ after he resigned as Prime Minister. The rice 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 understood and acknowledged the man’s intention. Naming the paddy field after Gowda was a tribute to his lifelong commitment to the farmers’ cause and to his political initiatives towards the farming community, as well as the excellent Farmers’ Budget of 1996-97, says the author. Ironically, like all other things associated with Gowda, this tribute too remained little known and unsung. Interestingly, Gowda himself only found out about this rice variety named after him in 2014.
Of particular interest is the author’s comparison between Gowda and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He writes: “While Modi is very articulate, very communicative and, in the eyes of many, “a demagogue”, Gowda is on a completely different end in this department. He doesn’t like to talk much; his sentences are broken, he almost mumbles; Rhetoric is not his domain. Gowda speaks directly and with dates and documents and this makes his communication dull and tedious. In an old way, he believes that actions should speak louder. He doesn’t believe in the publication of his deeds, but wants them to be discovered. Actually, he is not concerned with communication and advertising; Therefore, chaos and confusion have reigned around his actions. However, Modi is no match for Gowda’s thoroughness and commitment to big ideas. Gowda has specialties such as law, irrigation, agriculture, water disputes and general administration. Modi is a very vague generalist at best.”
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Is this biography a hagiography? No doubt the author defends Gowda for many of his perceived qualities. He commends Gowda for his phenomenal memory and also points out that the public perception of him as drowsy and disinterested in public gatherings and as prodigiously yawning in conferences and seminars was probably wrong. He cites several people who say that he was fully awake despite falling into a drowsy state.
Gowda’s brief tenure had raised great expectations among diverse communities in terms of key issues: transparency, collaborative federalism, and growth with social justice. He was also a principled politician; he refused to accept the BJP’s offer of help to gain a majority in the Lok Sabha when Congress withdrew its support.
But the author balances his praise of Gowda with critical appraisal where necessary. Thus he reveals that Gowda himself has regretted his mistake by appointing Joginder Singh to the Central Bureau of Investigation [CBI] Director. Singh wreaked havoc with his loose talks with the media and embarrassed the Gowda government on many issues. The CBI was handling sensitive cases at the time, involving individuals who were central to the survival of the Gowda government.
The book does not deal with Gowda’s life after 2004, in order to preserve a biographer’s objectivity and distance from too close contemporary events. Gowda’s life after 2004, when his family rose to prominence in Karnataka state politics, may merit critical treatment in the hands of his future biographer.
As Gowda nears his 90th year, the book offers fascinating insight into the man and his political journey. As the author shows, he has shown a tremendous appetite for hard work and risk-taking. He never chose the winning side. He always sided with the fighters, 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 costly, opposite the Ram Temple movement in Ayodhya and later when he led a fight against the AB Vajpayee government when communal slaughter broke out in Gujarat in 2002. He visited Muslims in camps where they were being pushed in Gujarat and wrote angry letters to then Prime Minister Vajpayee. He called out the hatred that had spilled over into the streets.
Secularism is a default for Gowda, as it is for most Indians, whose common sense and humanity teaches them to live with others and to empathize, the book suggests.
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The son of a farmer, he became prime minister by plowing the field with local knowledge, native wisdom, common sense and exceptional perseverance, seeing the world in a grain of sand, says the author.
For those who aspire to make a name for themselves in politics without compromising principles and a personal code of ethics, Gowda is a living example of what it takes to climb the political ladder and remain content with what you achieve when the ladder gives way.
His political journey began in 1962 when he ran as an independent candidate in the Karnataka general election and won. He waited 21 long years to become a first-time minister and later a chief minister. He was also opposition leader in the Karnataka Assembly for seven years. For those who aspire to make a name for themselves in politics without compromising principles and a personal code of ethics, Gowda is a living example of what it takes to climb the political ladder and remain content with what you achieve when the ladder gives way.
Srinivasaraju’s biography of Deve Gowda is elegantly written and would be insightful reading for anyone interested in understanding contemporary Indian politics and governance.