Reassessing Deve Gowda

An objective evaluation of his performance as Prime Minister is long overdue

May 31, 2018 12:02 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:41 pm IST

After the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) forged a surprise post-poll coalition in Karnataka , it is being suggested that Haradanahalli Doddegowda Deve Gowda, better known these days as the father of Karnataka’s new Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy, could help build an anti-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition ahead of the next parliamentary election.

These suggestions come 22 years after he was sworn in as the Prime Minister. The assessment of his prime ministership in the contemporary ‘national’ press was not positive. He was seen as an accidental Prime Minister, who slept through public functions. In the ‘national’ imagination, he remained a ‘regional’ leader, that too of a particular caste. Is this because his tenure was short-lived? Just 325 days, from June 1, 1996 to April 21, 1997. But this is unexceptional. He is among the six Prime Ministers who stepped down within a year.

Ten months, ten days

After a four-decades-long career in Karnataka politics, which saw him emerge as a founder-leader of the Janata Party and as Chief Minister eventually, Mr. Gowda became Prime Minister in 1996 amidst uncertainty over the continuation of nascent economic reforms. The political situation in Punjab, Nagaland and Jammu and Kashmir was also quite delicate.

In July, a month after assuming office, he visited the Kashmir Valley, the first Prime Minister to do so in nine years. He also visited Jammu and Ladakh. He engaged a cross-section of constituencies and held Assembly elections in September, bringing to an end the more than six years of Governor’s rule. Funds for a whole range of critical projects in the State were sanctioned in the next annual budget. His government also held crucial Assembly elections in Punjab in February 1997.


In October 1996, he toured through the Northeast and engaged various groups in the region. He announced a package of ₹6,100 crore, which was a significant commitment amidst the structural reforms, and sanctioned among other projects the strategically important Bogibeel bridge over the Brahmaputra.

Mr. Gowda’s most memorable initiative in the Northeast related to Nagaland. On February 3, 1997, he met with the leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah faction (NSCN-IM) in Zurich. He continued the dialogue that P.V. Narasimha Rao had started in Paris two years earlier. On March 4, 1997, he shared the details of the meeting and the future course of action in Parliament. The NSCN-IM announced a ceasefire on July 25, 1997. Mr. Gowda had stepped down by then, but only after providing a firm foundation to the peace process. Despite odds, the ceasefire agreement has held until this day.

His government also enacted the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, that provides the framework for local self-governance in tribal areas outside the Northeast. Among other things, the Act mandates the permission from communities before the acquisition of land or grant of mining leases.

On the foreign policy front, the government resisted international pressure to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and domestic pressure to go nuclear. Other highlights include the first ever visits of Chinese and Israeli presidents to India and a flexible approach toward Pakistan. The best known foreign policy initiative though related to Bangladesh. On December 12, 1996, he signed a water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh. His government had earlier ratified the Mahakali Treaty with Nepal.

A Deve Gowda doctrine?

Mr. Gowda’s policy for peace, security and development in the Northeast stood on four legs — dialogue with stakeholders without preconditions; good relations with Bangladesh; infrastructure development; and economic development. Likewise his Jammu and Kashmir policy included the resumption of the democratic process, infrastructure development, economic development, dialogue with groups that stayed away from elections and an openness to engage in dialogue with Pakistan.

Mr. Gowda’s approach recognised the importance of big infrastructural projects to lessen the physical and, consequently, emotional and economic isolation of India’s landlocked geographical periphery populated by minorities. However, it did not overlook the need for smaller developmental initiatives of immediate socio-economic significance.

In recognition of the international nature of the insurgencies in peripheral States, the approach stressed better relations with neighbours. Dialogue with all stakeholders and strengthening of the democratic process were, however, at the core of Mr. Gowda’s approach. He took personal initiative both in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir to signal that his government understood the political nature of the underlying problems.

Alas, he has no doctrine named after him!

The method

A willingness to take risks by offering concessions before asking for returns and a commitment to engage diverse opinions helped Mr. Gowda handle complex problems. Two examples are in order. He agreed to meet with NSCN-IM leaders outside India. To resolve the decades-old dispute over water-sharing with Bangladesh he engaged West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu at home, and with Dhaka he did not insist on linking water-sharing to other issues including obtaining overland access to the Northeast through Bangladesh. The government tried to approach the latter issue within a multilateral framework that also involved Bhutan and Nepal.

Mr. Gowda did not mechanically follow Rao’s policies or relegate their nurturing to the bureaucracy. He entrusted the Congress leader and former Union Minister of State for Internal Security, Rajesh Pilot, with the delicate task of engaging the NSCN-IM. This was not without risks given the unstable balance of power between different factions within the Congress, whose support was crucial for his United Front government’s survival.

Mr. Gowda benefited from the experience of Cabinet colleagues such as I.K. Gujral who had a good grasp of the foreign policy dimensions of, say, the Kashmir problem. Nevertheless, it bears emphasising that his government rolled out a larger body of interconnected policies that made sense together rather than in isolation. Putting the whole together would not have been possible without the Prime Minister’s leadership.

Indeed, a “somnolent” mofussil neta from Hassan taking so much personal interest and initiative in the electorally insignificant northern periphery from day one amidst the daily games of survival and not making any serious mistake cannot be explained unless he had a larger vision. It did matter, of course, that most of his coalition partners held moderate views on insurgencies, neighbourhood affairs and the nuclear issue.

The absence of Mr. Gowda from the pantheon of national leadership is, therefore, puzzling. His southern origin is incidental. Rao enjoys an exalted position in the pantheon. Three things appear relevant. First, Mr. Gowda does not speak a chaste English or Hindi. Second, he spent most of his career within his home State, not in New Delhi. Third, he does not belong to an upper caste. Incidentally, these hold good for several other “regional” leaders as well.

In addition to steering the country through tremendous political and economic uncertainties, the Gowda government also attended to several “mundane” issues such as reforming the Public Distribution System. So, irrespective of the role Mr. Gowda might play in any coalition in 2019, an objective evaluation of his performance as Prime Minister is long overdue.

Vikas Kumar teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru


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