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February 2, 1998


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The Rediff Election Interview/H D Deve Gowda

'We are prepared to sit in the Opposition'

Sitaram Kesri might have called him nikamma, but former prime minister H D Deve Gowda is still a much sought after man. The likes of Mark Tully still make a beeline for his 5 Safdarjung Lane bungalow for an audience with the humble farmer. Despite all criticism of having been a sleepy prime minister, Deve Gowda is the only United Front leader to criss-cross the country campaigning for his party.

A busy man, Deve Gowda gave an interview to R R Nair after imposing a wait of five hours, during which conversation he revealed his inclination to sit in the Opposition rather than taking Congress support to form a government.

You are the United Front chairman, by virtue of which you ought to be the automatic choice for the prime ministership from the Front. But why is it not so?

I have already made it clear that the leader of the United Front will be elected by the new members of the Lok Sabha in a democratic manner. There is no question of projecting any individual as the leader.

But your opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has a prime ministerial candidate in Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

This is nothing new, the BJP has been projecting Vajpayee for several years. Why should people think that the BJP is projecting Vajpayee for the first time now?

In case of a hung Parliament once again, will the UF take the Congress's help to form a government?

We are now struggling hard to come to power on our own. That is why today we have released a common programme and a joint declaration of the United Front. No political party has taken such a major decision. The BJP is not fighting the election on its own. It is a coalition of 10 partners, like the AIADMK, TDP-LP, the Samata party, the Akali Dal, the Shiv Sena, the Haryana Vikas party, they have also got the Biju Janata Dal. Is this not a coalition?

Similarly the Congress also has allies like the RJD in Bihar, the RJP in Gujarat and other parties. It means that today every political party has realised that the era of one-party rule is over. So each coalition or front is fighting to come to power with the required working majority. The BJP is also trying to do so with their friends. That is why we have gone a step forward with a common programme placed before the electorate.

If need be, will you take the Congress's support?

That is not an issue. You are posing a hypothetical question, which doesn't arise at this stage. We are even prepared to sit in the Opposition. What is there, we are not born to rule. We may sit in the Opposition.

How do you justify the the UF clinging to power with Congress support even after it withdrew support to your government?

No, they themselves suggested it. It is not that the UF requested its support. They said, change the leader, we cannot go in for elections. It was Sitaram Kesri's proposal again, we can't go for elections within 10 months, please help us by changing the leader. The proposal was made by the Congress.

Why did the UF oblige the Congress? Was it hunger for power?

The only thing was that, going in for polls within 10 months of the previous round was a problem for the members. That is why when the Congress made this demand the UF also thought that going in for polls in 10 months would be a little costly. That is why they agreed to the demand. And I co-operated.

At his election rallies Vajpayee says Kesri withdrew support because you had initiated an investigation into corruption charges against several Congress leaders. Is this true?

I had not initiated any investigation against any Congress leader or any other leaders. All these investigations were started prior to my becoming the prime minister. One set of investigations started through public interest litigations. On the basis of these litigations the courts were monitoring the progress of the probes. And the other set of investigations were ordered by the previous prime minister himself. I have not taken any decision so far as starting fresh investigation against anybody, whether Congress or the Janata Dal or any other political leader, is concerned.

What was Kesri's reason to withdraw support to your government?

He said Gowdaji wants to split my party, that was one of his allegations. The other allegation was about the cases I had reportedly registered. But I did not register any cases. I made it very clear on the floor of the House.

Is it true Kesri had a personal grouse against you?

I don't know.

What about the Dr Tanwar case, in which Sitaram Kesri is reportedly one of the accused?

No, I do not know. That was also on a special leave petition. And the court is monitoring it. It was not a case registered during my tenure. It is three years old.

Is it true that the UF partners stabbed you in the back?

Never. Why should I say so? Kesri withdrew support when he wanted a change of leadership. Why should I think in terms of anybody betraying me? No. By no means was that the case.

Was there a north-south divide that led to your downfall?

No. I am sorry, I don't want to create such parochial feelings

You are the only UF leader criss-crossing the country campaigning for the Front. Why?

As a former prime minister and the steering committee chairman, whatever little I can do for the UF I will do.

What was your most memorable moment as prime minister?

The most memorable moment was what little service I have done to my country in a short span of 10 months.

The Janata Dal had 44 members last time. After Laloo's desertion the party has been decimated. Don't you think the party is in a poor shape now?

The JD's performance may actually be better this time than what it was in 1996. That is my assessment.

What prompted the ministerial defections to Ramakrishna Hegde's Lok Shakti in Karnataka?

There is no defection. It is dual loyalty.

How will the JD fare in Karnataka?

The JD's performance would be better than what it was in 1996. Take it from me.

Do you feel Ramakrishna Hegde has done considerable damage to the party in Karnataka?

It is for the people to judge the behaviour of every leader including Ramakrishna Hegde and Deve Gowda. It is for the people to decide.

Do you feel the media has been antagonistic to you?

I don't want to make general remarks. I don't want to make sweeping remarks about the media. In my country the media can play its own role. Freedom of press is there. It is for them to take their own views about the leaders. I don't want to comment on it.

The media had painted you as a sleepy prime minister?

Why only that, they painted so many pictures of me. So many pictures! What can I do about that?

Like, what other pictures?

An incompetent prime minister who does not know the language; does not know what this great nation is all about. So many things they have written about me. What can I do?

Were you hurt by Kesri's remark, describing you as nikamma?

I have seen several ups and downs in my life. I have seen several detractors in my life. Why should I bother about that? In my 40 years in politics I have passed through such events and I don't want to take these things seriously. I will take things philosophically.

What do you think about Mulayam Singh's attitude towards the JD, particularly in UP? He seems to want to finish off the JD there.

The only thing I want to say is that nobody can finish off anyone else. No political party can finish off another political party. Neither will we finish off anyone nor will the others finish us off. It is all a wrong notion. In fighting for the better prospects of his party, nobody can find fault with him. I don't want to make any remarks.

Naturally he wants better prospects for his party. If it is going to help him why should I discredit him?

What do you feel about the Samajwadi Party's proclamation that it is the only secular alternative?

That doesn't mean that the other remaining 12 parties in the UF are not secular.

What do you think of the Sonia factor?

I am not going to react to that. Soniaji's entry into active politics has stopped the exodus of Congressmen to the BJP.

Being only the second south Indian prime minister you have so much in common with Narasimha Rao. And your special relationship with him was evident in your last speech in Parliament as prime minister. Were there any reasons for it?

Nothing. when I became prime minister he was the president of his party and the leader of its parliamentary party. So if I meet him it should not be given undue importance. Normally the party president, that too the leader of the parliamentary party which supports the government, would meet the prime minister. Why should anyone give a tainted colour to it? It puzzles me.

What do you think about Rao not being given a ticket in the election?

It is for that political party to answer this question.

Do you hope to come back as prime minister?

I told you, it is for the UF's elected members to take a decision. Not me. And whatever they decide democratically would be binding on all of us.

In such a scenario what would be the most important issue you would be taking up? Your unfinished agenda.

Let us work collectively to finish some of the unfinished work of the UF. Suppose if we are voted to power we will definitely continue those works. More than that, we will also launch a new programme for the welfare of the common man. And those areas which have been neglected in the last 50 years would be given weightage.

The Rediff Election Interview

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