Friday, November 2, 2007

Interview with H.D.Deve Gowda: Karnataka crisis

‘I am true to a secular philosophy’

in Bangalore

Interview with H.D. Deve Gowda, former Prime Minister and national president of the Janata Dal (Secular).


Deve Gowda during a press conference at his residence in New Delhi after the BJP withdrew its support to the Karnataka government

A CENTRAL figure in the ongoing political change in Karnataka is former Prime Minister and national president of the Janata Dal (Secular) H.D. Deve Gowda, the hardy perennial of regional politics in India. Except for a brief period in February 2006 (“the saddest day of my life”), when his writ was ignored by his son, former Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy, and a group of legislators who walked out of an alliance with the Congress to join hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), breaking thereby a defining secular principle of this centrist party, Deve Gowda has been the oarsman of his party and its final arbiter. In the unstable post-2004 phase of coalition politics the State has witnessed, Deve Gowda’s influence has gone beyond that of his party.

Deve Gowda vehemently denies having betrayed his cherished principle of secularism for the sake of getting his son into the Chief Minister’s chair. He says that although the tie-up with the BJP was a blow to the party’s secular principles, in hindsight, this move “saved” his party from being broken by the Congress. He claims that the Congress had set in motion a plan to buy over his party legislators and that this directly led to the decision by Kumaraswamy to accept a BJP offer to share power.

During the 20 months of coalition rule, Deve Gowda watched and waited as he built his armoury against the BJP. When the time came for a change in the leadership of the coalition from the J.D.(S) to the BJP this October, he took command of party strategy once again and confronted the BJP leaders with a virtual charge-sheet of deviations from the coalition dharma. He demanded answers and assurances for these and when he did not get them, he refused to hand over power.

In this interview, he describes a meeting he had with Yashwant Sinha, BJP general-secretary in charge of Karnataka affairs, during the recent crisis and the issues placed before him.

Deve Gowda defends his commitment to secularism, pointing to his pro-minority policies as Chief Minister of Karnataka in 1994-1996, as Prime Minister for 10 months in 1996, and even after that in his avatar as ex-Prime Minister. He is clear that elections are a must in the current situation in the State and is opposed to any fresh tie-up either with the BJP or the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). He also seeks an understanding with his traditional friends on the Left, who parted company with him after his party allied with the BJP. Excerpts:

Your secular credentials took a severe beating when the J.D.(S) and the BJP went into alliance 20 months ago. How do you defend that decision, and what were the reasons for the break-up of the alliance?

When the new government was formed in 2006 in Karnataka without the consent of the national leaders or the president of the J.D.(S), it was one of the saddest days of my political career, and I remember telling The Hindu on that day that I would not endorse this alliance even if I were on my deathbed.

My political actions show my total commitment to the poor, the voiceless and the minorities. I became Chief Minister on December 11, 1994, and held office for a period of 18 months. On January 26, 1995, the Republic Day function was observed. Every year there used to be a clash in Hubli involving the communal fascist forces of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-Vishwa Hindu Parishad headed by the same former Deputy Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa. The Congress leaders allowed this type of atmosphere to prevail in Hubli for their own benefit. My first task was to defuse this. The VHP-RSS-BJP leaders said that Muslims have no respect for the national flag. (In fact, the RSS does not hoist the national flag even today at its headquarters.) I ensured that the Muslim leaders hoisted the flag there, and there has not been an iota of trouble in Hubli on this account till today.

The second thing I did was to review the administration, particularly the Department of Personnel and Administrative Reforms [DPAR] to see which communities were not sufficiently represented in government jobs and education on account of the reservation policy. I found that even in the police, not even 0.2 per cent of constables were Muslims, leave alone the officers. They were also underrepresented in education, the medical field, in engineering, and so on.

When I became Chief Minister, I created a separate compartment of 4 per cent reservation for Muslims. Even the Mandal Commission had not done this. We now have more than 800 Muslim doctors who have passed out through this reservation category. About 10,000 Muslims students have got the benefit of engineering and technical education.

In addition, I created the Minorities Finance Development Corporation, providing it nearly Rs.50 crore. All this was done in one year and six months. There was not a single communal clash in the State during my period.

I never expected to enter national politics in my life. But when I became Prime Minister, I discussed the Karnataka reservation model with the Union Cabinet. Every party in the 13-party coalition opposed it. Karnataka is not India, my Cabinet colleagues said. If you take this decision, the BJP will grow. Even the grants-in-aid to madrassas that I tried to introduce was opposed. However, in my short span of ten and a half months there were no communal clashes in the country.

When I took over, no Prime Minister had visited Jammu and Kashmir in the previous ten years. When I fixed the programme, the security wing prevailed on me not to go. I said that I would be ashamed to call myself Prime Minister if I could not visit J&K, an integral part of India. I made five visits to the State.

After I demitted office, 19 churches were demolished in Gujarat. Graham Staines and his two sons were burnt alive. In Madhya Pradesh nuns were raped. On this issue [former Prime Minister A.B.] Vajpayee did one day’s “prayaschith satyagraha”. I went to all the 19 places where churches were demolished. When I asked the officials why they could not stop the violence when there was no enmity between the two communities, they told me that they did not have any instructions from the “higher-ups” to stop the violence. After this trip I made a direct charge against the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government and said it should go on this count.

When I was Prime Minister, I dismissed the BJP government under Article 356 in Gujarat. This drama enacted in Karnataka against Article 356 is for horse-trading and to break the J.D.(S).

Why then did you go in for an alliance with the BJP in 2006?

The beginning of all this can be traced to the J.D.(S) split in 1999 when J.H. Patel was the Chief Minister. Before going to the polls, all our leaders met and a resolution that we will maintain equidistance from both the Congress and the BJP was tabled by M.P. Prakash, seconded by the late C. Byre Gowda and adopted unanimously. Patel, in fact said, “the Congress is a curse, the BJP is a cancer.” That very evening Ramakrishna Hegde arrived from Delhi with George Fernandes. They met and after a three-hour conversation with them, J.H. Patel said he would go with the BJP. We in the J.D.(S) –Pramila and Madhu Dandavate, Surendra Mohan, myself and others – decided to fight both the BJP and the Congress.

In the 1999 elections I was defeated and my party did very badly. We had only 10 MLAs. The Congress got about 160 seats or so, the J.D. (United) 21 and the BJP 33 or 34. Chief Minister S.M. Krishna wanted to destroy the J.D.(S) and took away six MLAs, leaving only four with our party. The Congress has never wanted the J.D.(S) to be a political force in Karnataka. But we fought the panchayat elections of 2002 and there, too, our performance was not encouraging at all.

In the 2004 elections nobody in the country expected the JD(S) to get even two seats. But we won 59 seats. My first inclination was to go for polls again instead of a coalition, but some MLAs pleaded their financial inability to do so.

The question of an alliance with the BJP was ruled out. When Sonia Gandhi was elected leader of the Congress party, she called me for discussions on Karnataka. I, in fact, took a copy of The Hindu with me. The editorial that day said that the Congress should unconditionally support a J.D.(S) government and should not aspire to form the government as its strength had come down from 168 to 63.

I told Mrs. Gandhi that one of the major reasons for the Congress debacle was because it failed to defend secularism. Her Law Minister D.B. Chandre Gowda and Chief Minister S.M. Krishna allowed the Bajrang Dal to sit inside the cave in Bababudangiri and do yagnas and homas with the full cooperation of the State government. I told her that.

Five rounds of discussions took place between us. I tried to persuade her to agree to Siddaramaiah, a backward class leader as Chief Minister, something we could collectively share the credit for. That was refused. Beggars are not choosers. I was forced to accept the decision thrust on me. But at the same time, I told Mrs. Gandhi, in the presence of Central and State leaders, that the Maharashtra pattern must be implemented in letter and spirit in portfolio distribution. I trusted her verbal assurances.

[Former Chief Minister] Dharam Singh, however, kept 23 portfolios with him for six months. J.D.(S) MLAs who were eager to become Ministers were getting frustrated. We told the Congress that if they did not distribute portfolios we would withdraw support. They then distributed 21 portfolios, but entirely according to their choice and totally against the Maharashtra pattern. Anyway, the final blow came after the zilla panchayat and taluk panchayat elections in 2005.

Siddaramaiah had started the AHINDA [federation of minorities, backward classes and Dalits] movement, a platform shared by Congress leaders who were against me. Then the All India Progressive Janata Dal [AIPJD] was formed. I ignored all their attacks and campaigned hard for my party in the elections. From the J.D.(S), 268 zilla panchayat members were elected. The BJP with 79 MLAs were able to get 58 seats, not even 10 per cent of the vote. I told Dharam Singh that the Congress and the JD(S) should form a coalition in the nine zilla panchayats where the verdict was split. They went to Delhi where their high command told them to ally with Siddaramaiah in four zilla panchayats and with us in five.

It was then that I asked our MLAs to ready themselves for polls.

I was away in Delhi between January 13 and 18, 2006, attending the hearings in the Supreme Court on the Bangalore Mysore Infrastructure Corridor [BMIC] case.

In my absence there was a plot by the Congress to snatch away 28 of our MLAs with promises of money and ministerial positions. The basic idea was to destroy our party.

The BJP was also in a bad shape because of the fight between Ananth Kumar and Yediyurappa. M. Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar approached Kumaraswamy for an alliance and he cooperated, I must be frank. His contention was that it would save the party. Ultimately the party was saved, otherwise it would have got shattered.

When I learnt of this, I fell down unconscious. I had a nervous breakdown because of the stress and tension. On February 22, I was virtually on my deathbed in Manipal Hospital. When Kumaraswamy heard this he came to see me and touched my feet, offering to resign. I told him that when he feels the damage of what he has done he would realise his folly.

But you accepted the situation.

If 40 MLAs and 28 district presidents had gone to the Election Commission, the recognition to the party headed by me would have been cancelled. They would have been recognised as a regional party. We did not want that to happen, as it would have been disastrous for us. So our national executive decided to keep them under suspension and follow the process of expulsion.

What went wrong once the government was formed?

When the Supreme Court gave an adverse judgment to the State on the BMIC project, former Supreme Court judge Rama Jois suggested that we annul the contract through a Bill. The BJP Ministers boycotted the Cabinet meeting in protest for six hours. For the sake of one contractor they were willing to sacrifice the interests of poor farmers and an expense of Rs.30,000 crore to the State. That was when they began showing their true colours. Then came the charge made by their MLA and supported by the party that Kumaraswamy had made Rs.150 crore in a mining scandal.

What about the Mangalore riots? The minorities, according to independent investigations, had lost their faith in the police. This was when the Home portfolio was with the J.D.(S)

Within 24 hours of the riots, the situation was under control, and even today the two persons responsible for the killing of Muslims in Mangalore are in Bellary jail and have been denied bail. This was even accepted by [former Minister] Roshan Baig on the floor of the House.

So when you look back, was this alliance a mistake?

On one side, the evil designs of the Congress to destroy the party had to be thwarted. On the other, the secular credentials had to be retained by Kumaraswamy. He has struggled between the two. On Datta Peetha issue, for example, it was for the first time that the BJP State president was arrested by a State government. And when [Tamil Nadu Chief Minister] M. Karunanidhi’s daughter’s house was attacked and two persons were burnt in a bus, Bajrang Dal men were taken into custody and they remain there.

There is a lot of speculation about regrouping of MLAs who do not want elections. Will this happen?

All this about Kumaraswamy breaking his promise is nonsense.

Yashwant Sinha came to Bangalore and wanted a one-on-one discussion with me. Our meeting went on till 1-30 a.m. I posed several questions to him. First, why did not the national leadership of the BJP take a position against the BMIC?

Two, why did not the national leadership condemn the killing of two Muslims in Mangalore during the riots? Three, when a charge of bribery of Rs.150 crore was made against the Chief Minister, and a BJP MLA filed a [public interest litigation] PIL in the Supreme Court, why did the national leadership keep quiet? When Karunanidhi’s daughter’s house was attacked and two innocents burnt alive, what did the national leaders have to say? When the Chief Minister himself was accused by a fellow minister of abetment in a murder case, why did not the national leadership or Yediyurappa dismiss him? No answer.

Without convincing answers for these issues, power cannot be transferred, I said. In Kashmir, power transfer took three months. The issue cannot be forced through the media. It has to be thrashed out in the presence of Central and State leaders.

Sinha finally asked me if I would join the NDA and support L.K. Advani’s candidature for Prime Minister. I told him I would neither join the NDA nor the UPA.

I promised to go on October 4 to Delhi to thrash the issue out. But Sinha stayed here for three days. On October 2, all the Ministers sent their resignations to the Chief Minister, and dictated that he should hand in his resignation by six in the evening.

The action taken by Kumaraswamy will be judged by the people in the elections. The question now of compromising on secularism is ruled out in my life.

Finally, was it on deviations from the secular principle that the alliance broke?

That was just one of many things. If we cannot protect farmers, the common man, what is the goal?

You may hold firm on secularism. What about your MLAs?

Hatred of one religious group towards another continues in India on account of the international political situation also. If India is not going to be more careful, the mere slogan of secularism will not bring peace and harmony in society, even if hundreds of Sachar Committees are appointed.

Many MLAs still want to avoid elections. Will you support a new formation that stakes a claim to government?

I pleaded for the dissolution of the Assembly because I said that otherwise it will give rise to horse-trading. I want elections. My son has already said he will go to the people’s court.

So a new alliance…

Nothing doing. I may suffer in politics but my philosophy cannot be sacrificed even at the cost of my political career.

What sort of role do you envisage for yourself in the next two years?

I don’t find any major difference between the NDA and the UPA either in economic or foreign policy. Only the Left parties are putting up a tough fight but at the same time they too do not want to go for polls for fear that the BJP may come back. I must be plain. In a situation like this I do not want to enter national politics. I want to revive my party in Karnataka from the little strength I have got, which has been proven in the recent local bodies elections. I want to strengthen my party in the State.

Will you seek to revive ties with the Left?

My relationship with the Left became strained because of the BJP alliance. I must be grateful to [Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary] Prakash Karat. He told Mrs. Gandhi to her face that she was responsible for humiliating Deve Gowda.

If they think that I am true to a secular political philosophy, despite the confusion created by the evil designs of others, if that doubt is removed and if they want to have an understanding, it is welcome. It is up to them to decide.

They are big players. My party is small. So it is left to them.


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