Gowda political family
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Neither father nor son able to serve a full term
BENGALURU: On June 1, 1996, HD Deve Gowda became the Prime Minister of India – the second person from a south Indian state to do so. It was an incredible turn of events. Psephologists and politics watchers looking at India’s 1996 elections would not even have considered the grandfatherly South Indian in the reckoning for the nation’s top post. The BJP was the single largest party with 161 seats. The Congress had, despite PV Narasimha Rao’s revolutionary term, lost 92 seats, and had a final tally of 140. There were other leaders – hungry, ambitious, and beloved of north-India centric political media: VP Singh, Harkishen Surjeet, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav – even Jyoti Basu, longtime chief minister of West Bengal had a higher profile.
In the end, it was the panche-wearing, chappal-clad Kannadiga with a shaliya over his shoulder who took oath. People may argue that he was the one politician that his competitors felt least threatened by, but it was also a skillful bit of political manoeuvring which made Gowda acceptable to so many power-hungry people with such diametrically opposite views and priorities. Gowda’s premiership lasted eleven months.
Like father, like son
Today, the Karnataka government is in turmoil. The 2018 election saw the BJP the single largest party, with 104 seats, and the Congress a distant second with 80 seats. The person who became the chief minister was HD Kumaraswamy – Deve Gowda’s son, whose JD(S) won just 37 seats. Thirteen months later, it looks like the government will fall. To say that history repeats itself is to use a well-worn cliche – but what is it about the Gowda family that seems them gain power – but be unable to hold on to it for a full term?
A common criticism of politicians abroad is that they put party over country. In India, that could well read “family over party” – whether it’s the DMK in Tamil Nadu or the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra or the Congress itself, nationwide. And the Gowdas fall well within this group.
There have been several criticisms of Gowda – but no one can deny the Gowda patriarch’s energy. On International Yoga Day, images of Gowda performing asanas with the skill of verve of an old master led to social media being flooded with wondering and congratulatory messages – including the tagline “Bend it like Gowda”. Last year, the octogenarian climbed the 700 steps at Shravanabelagola, seeking the blessings of Gomteshwara, a feat that much younger people might find tough going.
And his son has not been far behind – his tireless touring of rural – and primarily Vokkaliga Karnataka – followed a punishing schedule on the road.
But the energy is not enough, claim critics. The survival of the JD(S) – either at government – or as a party – depends on having a vision beyond family.
In 2005, Gowda’s party expelled their highest profile representative in the 2004 Congress government led by Dharam Singh – Siddaramaiah. At that time, The JD(S) had considerable sway in South Karnataka. Gowda brought in the Vokkaliga votes, Siddaramaiah brought in votes from Kuruba community, as their most prominent leader. And MP Prakash was a vote-getter among the Lingayat community.
But Siddaramaiah, Gowda felt, had crossed a line when he started attending AHINDA (the Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits) meetings. There were also reports that Siddaramaiah had supported non-party AHINDA candidates in the Zilla Parishad elections held earlier. Whether these reports were true or not, Gowda seized the chance and expelled his former acolyte from the party – creating lasting resentment between the two – so much so that Siddaramaiah took flak for removing a portrait of Gowda from his office while he was Chief Minister, almost a decade later.
Gowda replaced Siddaramaiah with MP Prakash, who took up the deputy CM’s mantle after the former’s expulsion. Party workers saw the writing on the wall. Loyalty to the first family of the JD(S) was the paramount virtue. No one suffered any consequences when a large group of MLAs defied Gowda’s writ in 2006 to follow his son Kumaraswamy into a new government with support the BJP. Gowda expelled Kumaraswamy from the party, but welcomed the new Chief MInister back shortly afterwards – while MP Prakash shared Siddaramaiah’s fate, and was expelled for anti-party activities.
Gowda strengthened his family’s hold on the party – but at the cost of the support of the Kuruba and Lingayat communities in their strongholds.
Gowda claims his entry into electoral politics was accidental. He says that he was content as a government contractor – but was challenged into contesting by a fellow contractor in 1962 from Holenarsipura in Hassan district. He initially started as a Congressman but charted out his own path to become part of the Janata Parivar, which underwent several transformations over the years.
Today the Gowda empire includes its third generation with his grandson, actor, Nikhil unsuccessfully contesting the Mandya Lok Sabha seat. Nikhil now heads the youth wing of the JD(S). The party has become a family holding and lost the potential of being an alternative choice to the Congress, as its base does not extend beyond the Vokkaliga belts from Bengaluru Rural, Mysuru, Mandya, Hassan and Tumakuru.
And unless the Gowda does some serious soul searching – and decides to stand for something more than just family, they face not just the loss of power, but political irrelevance.
Despite being able to capitalise on tiny windows of opportunity to capture power, neither Deve Gowda nor Kumaraswamy have been able to serve out a full term in top positions – at state or central levels.