HD Gowda had a love-hate relationship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Gowda’s biographer Sugata Srinivasaraju

1. Gowda is remembered as the Kisan leader from the south who ruled the country. Why is there no Kisan politician at the center stage of Indian politics at par with HD Gowda or Chaudhary Charan Singh today?

A: Gowda is remembered as a kisan PM but he was actually much more than a kisan PM. He was an engineer with deep interest and expertise in urban infrastructure, law, and river basin planning. But yes, he came from a farming family and agriculture was his primary passion. To identify with farmers and farming gave him a larger purpose that transcended linguistic, caste and religious identities. It helped him widen his base and imagine mass politics. As PM he tried to forge a political constituency of farming communities across India. He gave his budgets a conscious Kisan slant. He was successful to an extent. The proof of which is the farmers of Punjab named a fine paddy variety after him.

It is true that we do not have leaders who represent Kisan politics anymore at the national stage because as a nation we have transitioned. Agriculture is no longer at the center of our economic thinking. The opening up of our economy in 1991 altered not just our economic worldview but also our political, social and cultural perceptions.

For instance the way we looked at land changed. From being an inheritance that you pawned and passed on from one generation to another, it became real estate which fetched a good price. The emotional connection with land was loosened. The urban space was thought of as a driver of growth and the rural was either put in service of the urban or was seen as a burden.

Also, faith and caste-based identity politics in the 1990s, advances in technology and communication changed the manner in which one constructed mass politics. The way a farmer perceived himself and the world around him changed. For a politician there was no pride or incentive to represent a farmer exclusively because India had stopped ‘living’ in its villages. Gowda will remain in history as the first and last kisan PM. Charan Singh was not confirmed as PM.

2. Is Kisan politics relevant today? Recently concluded poll-results of UP show the one year long historic movement led by the SKM failed miserably in achieving its political goals…In Lakhimpur Kheri, BJP won all 8 seats.

A: Kisan politics is still important, but the outcomes it seeks are different. It now has a very specific professional agenda for reasons we discussed in the previous question. The kisan identity that existed earlier, before the 1990s, was a cultural one. It drove nationalism and nation-building (recall the slogan ‘Jai Jawan-Jai Kisan’). The farmer had a pride of place in the national firmament. He was seen as someone who fed a nation. He was much more than a tiller of the soil and a harvester of grains. He was a keeper of your culture and values. Now, farmers do not provoke or determine passions anymore. In songs, books or cinema, the farmer has vanished.

3. As per the book, Jyoti Basu forced Deve Gowda to take up the top job of the country. Do you think Gowda fulfilled his responsibility for him? His party, JDS later stitched an alliance with the BJP in Karnataka and formed the government.

A: Gowda very much fulfilled the expectations of Jyoti Basu and Harkishen Singh Surjeet in particular, and the Left in general. The fact that the two leaders had great affection and respect for Gowda during and after his prime ministership is evident in their own words and gestures, and I record it in the book. We should remember when Gowda could have easily accepted Vajpayee’s support from him to continue in power, he refused it.

His party later stitching an alliance with BJP later had nothing to do with Gowda. It was his son hijacking the party. I explain the events in the book. Gowda is devastated and faces a near-death situation as a result. His medical records of him speak loudly about his condition of him. However, Gowda manages to recover and re establish control over his party by 2008 but pays a huge cost.

His party sits out of power for ten years in Karnataka. Later too in 2018, and in 2019, he ensures his party and his son do not succumb to the charms of Modi. Gowda has been steadily secular. Even when most of the 13 United Front partner parties (DMK, Telugu Desam etc.) and colleagues went with the Vajpayee-led BJP alliance and later returned to the Congress alliance, Gowda never demonstrated such opportunism.

In fact, tying up with the BJP in Karnataka would have electorally benefited him (like the BJD in Odisha did), but he chose against it and has remained largely a 20 per cent, South Karnataka party. It is not easy to resist such temptations in power politics. His colleagues of him like Ramakrishna Hegde and JH Patel created a vote share for BJP just to spite Gowda.

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