Haradanahalli Doddegowda Deve Gowda may have been prime minister of India, but his heart still beats for Karnataka. The
10 months of primeministership in 1996-97 were welcome, which was a completely unexpected windfall.
The epitome of his ambition had always been the Karnataka chief minister’s chair. It is a spot, his close friends claim, he still covets, despite having occupied it once for two years from 1994 to 1996; if he could hold the position again, he would not consider it a comedown.
“C. Rajagopalachari became chief minister of Tamil Nadu in 1952, after he had already been governor general of India from 1948 to 1950,” a long time acquaintance quotes Gowda as saying. “Then why can’t I be Karnataka CM, even though I have been PM?”
Most Indian prime ministers have either died in office, or faded away once they stepped down. The only exception is the ‘humble farmer’ Deve Gowda. He may not have become chief minister again, but he remains a pivotal figure in Karnataka’s politics. Most observers agree that his son H.D. Kumaraswamy would have — albeit reluctantly — stuck to his pact with the BJP, but for Deve Gowda's intervention.
Why was Deve Gowda so determined to prevent this development?
His supporters provide two reasons. First, the 10 per cent Muslim vote in Karnataka, which Deve Gowda believes still stands firmly behind him. He has always taken his Muslim following very seriously. Or else there was no reason for him to cling to his rump of a JD(S) when the Janata Dal last split in 1999, with the bulk of leaders, led by Sharad Yadav, forming the Janata Dal (United) and supporting the NDA. Nor would the elaborate charade of February 2006 — when the BJP-JD(S) coalition government was formed — have been required, when he kept pretending that his son Kumaraswamy had teamed up with the BJP against his expressed wishes.
The other reason, reveal people close to him, is entirely personal. The clash of interests between the Deve Gowda family and some senior BJP leaders over the iron ore mines in Bellary, which even led former tourism minister B. Sriramalu to allege that Kumaraswamy was trying to get him murdered, inevitably embittered relations between the parties too. There was also Deve Gowda’s distinct personal dislike for the BJP CM-in-waiting, B. S. Yediyurappa.
“Deve Gowda saw himself as a sort of overall mentor of the present government, though he occupied no position in it,” said one of Gowda’s old acquaintances. “But Yediyurappa as finance minister, made it a point never to consult him.”
On the contrary, Deve Gowda had reason to suspect that Yediyurappa was clandestinely encouraging all those —in the JD(S), BJP, and elsewhere — who hated him and were conspiring against him.
In particular, Deve Gowda suspected Yeduyirappa of being close to Ashok Kheny, the flamboyant managing director of the Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprise (NICE), promoters of the Bangalore-Mysore expressway. Never before has a mere road attracted as much controversy as this 111-km-long stretch, and largely because Deve Gowda used every strategem he could think of to stall it, including a slew of public interest litigations.
Curiously, the memorandum of understanding to build this road was signed in 1995 during Deve Gowdas tenure as Karnataka’s chief minister. Kheny then was Deve Gowda’s poster boy for Karnataka’s infrastructure development.
But such about turns in his personal relationships have been a recurring feature of Deve Gowda’s career. Deve Gowda was the one who laid the foundations of the IT policy that has transformed Bangalore — yet Infosys mentor, N. R. Narayana Murthy is now one of his pet hate figures.
Earlier there was the late J. H. Patel, whom he anointed as chief minister when he shifted to Delhi as prime minister in May 1996, but whom he rapidly turned against, and tried his best to thereafter undermine.
Above all, there was Siddaramaiah, a Deve Gowda protégé for decades, whom he lobbied hard to make chief minister when the Congress-JD(S) government was formed, immediately after the last assembly polls. (But the Congress wanted its own candidate and eventually had its way, with Dharam Singh taking over.)
The relationship turned bitter within a year thereafter, with Deve Gowda suspecting Siddaramaiah of getting too close to the Congress and plotting against him.
Such capriciousness, say his friends, stems from Deve Gowda’s feeling that he has been repeatedly done in, not by his foes, but by those who should have been his friends.
He believes he could have been chief minister as early as 1978, but that S. Nijalingappa and Ramakrishna Hegde, senior party colleagues, sabotaged the Assembly election campaign, enabling the Emergency tainted Devraj Urs of the Congress to win a second term.
After the 1983 elections, which his Janata Party this time won, he was once again in the running for CM, but Ramakrishna Hegde outmanoeuvred him to grab the position. Thus when the Janata Dal won in 1994, Deve Gowda took no chances. His supporters stormed the spot where the legislature party leader was being elected and almost beat up the central observers, forcing them to enable Deve Gowda realise his cherished dream at last.
Despite the wild swings in his career, for a person born into a poor, three-acre-owning family in Haradanahalli village of Hassan district of Karnataka, who tended sheep after school and studied by candlelight, Deve Gowda has achieved much. The main reason, his friends and foes both agree, is that, for all his prickly, suspicious ways, he is a prodigious worker, with a 24 x 7 involvement with politics.
The late J.H. Patel is credited with the observation: “Deve Gowda should realise that after 7 pm, there are better things to do than think of politics.” To his credit, even at 74, Deve Gowda has not. His private life remains an open and exceedingly dull book — early, arranged marriage, six children, brood of grandchildren, no bad habits.