Why HD Deve Gowda and VP Singh must be read today

Seema Chishti
It was in the summer of 1989 that scholar Francis Fukuyama announced the ‘End of History’. The suggestion was that there was now just one idea that would rule on the world stage. It was a catchy phrase that grabbed attention quickly. India these days often conveys an ‘End of History’ feeling about it, with the dominance of the cult of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that is enabled by advertisements, hoardings, friendly newspaper headlines, social media saturation and TV news’ unquestioning carpet bombing of one man and one way of doing things.
The recent biographies of two ex-Prime Ministers go a long way in disrupting this monotone of ‘one Nation, one man’. Reading about VP Singh and HD Deve Gowda casts new light on the two former Prime Ministers, who played a significant role in the politics of modern India but never got the recognition they deserved perhaps because they disrupted so much of the status quo.
Both leaders deserved more recognition
VP Singh, former Congressman from Daiya and Manda in Uttar Pradesh, who donated his land on Vinoba Bhave’s exhortation of bhoodan, and opened the floodgates on Mandal, went on to overturn all assumptions of how an Uttar Pradesh Thakur politician must behave. He effected the biggest empowerment of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in north India after independence.
HD Deve Gowda was India’s first OBC Prime Minister. He was also the first from outside the ‘English’ or ‘Hindi’ way of doing things.
Both leaders certainly deserved books detailing their lives, work and context much earlier in their life. The biographies have come not a day too soon.
VP Singh: Why the former PM couldn’t become a political star
Based on a 900-pages-long unpublished interview with VP Singh by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, among other sources, journalist Debashish Mukerji delves deep into Singh’s insecurities as a child and as a young person, of someone who felt that he would have been better off as a scientist or a painter.
VP Singh’s moral dilemmas when he had to take a call on supporting the Emergency, and later, when he had to run a Government riding with both the Left and the Right, are worth reading in detail about. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had already declared at Palanpur in 1989 that it was goodbye to Gandhian socialism and now it was about the centrality of religion in politics.
The trailblazing politics of the two
Confronted with sceptics within his Government who thought that it was just a symbolic announcement as he unveiled his plans for implementing the Mandal report, Singh stuck to his guns. He took on the anger of the upper-caste, middle-class urbanites, his once-adoring mass base, who turned their backs on him overnight. He was determined to go the whole hog, and as the book highlights, he entrusted serious bureaucrats to ensure that social justice did not remain just an empty slogan and was instead turned into concrete Government policy and was robustly defended in Courts.
How VP Singh stirred a hornet’s nest with the Mandal Commission
Thousands of miles away from VP Singh’s world, in Holenarsipur in Karnataka, HD Deve Gowda, with his roots in rural India, locked into the nitty-gritty of tough local politics, was the first homecoming for Mandal, even if it was not very apparent then.
He was the first OBC Prime Minister, thrown up by circumstance, but also a creature who represented the many facets of India that had so far not found full representation in the corridors of Delhi.
His ascent marked a distinct chapter in India’s Prime Ministerial history. Gowda’s as many as four trips to Kashmir during his brief stint as Prime Minister, the formation of a unified command there and making Kashmir about the people of the State, left an imprint. He then mooted an important peace process in the North East.
The 'Social Coalition' that is India
Both Prime Ministers, whose lives are recounted in these books, are similar in some ways that are immediately obvious, and others not so much. They both were products of – and then leaders of – diverse coalitions. In VP Singh’s memorable phrase, this should have been a norm and not the exception, as they mirrored the “social coalition” that India is. They were both ex-Congressman, who drew deeply from a long stint in politics and the freedom struggle, with a vivid memory of what had laid India’s foundations.
HD Deve Gowda did more than bring the wholesomeness of ragi to Delhi; VP Singh had the guts to stir the caste morass and allow a process to kickstart, one which is still bubbling. India’s OBC groups, after seeing the cracks in the door then, now want the door fully opened. That India in 2021 finds even a caste census a hard pill to swallow is a tribute to how far Singh went.
If VP Singh ended up thrusting the OBC question into the foreground, then Gowda followed up with his own and his coalition’s understanding, extending comradeship to pull in the many peripheries that make the Centre a union.
A less obvious similarity between the two Prime Ministers is their approach to the nuclear test question detailed in both books. They handled pressure from technocrats to test nukes and firmly turned down the pressure ‘to test’ as they saw it detrimental to the larger developmental and neighbourhood goals they were pursuing.
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Gowda and Singh’s concerns are surprisingly the very concerns that remain central challenges for India to date. The way Gowda and Singh would be bound by coalition dharma would involve a way of doing things that is radically different from how things are done today, whether it was about the nature of policies or how laws were made.
Far from just 'Placeholders'
There was a backdoor in VP Singh’s house that connects the two biographies intimately. Gowda’ biographer, journalist Sugata Srinivasaraju, writes that when senior Left leaders, struggling with a paucity of Prime Ministerial candidates for the newly formed United Front, went to see VP Singh first, he left the conversation abruptly and did not get back until the waiting leaders were told by his wife that he was had left the house. It is believed that Singh, in order to avoid the ‘Prime Minister’ question in 1996, had driven off and was circling Ring Road in his ambassador car, waiting for the persuaders to leave.
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Gowda, too, sceptical about being picked as the Prime Minister, vacillated till the end. He was anxious about leaving the Chief Minister’s job in Karnataka abruptly, after just two years.
So, for all students of Political Science, History or just India, reading on these two ex-Prime Ministers is worthwhile, as it is about giving them their due as leaders in a very turbulent post-1989 phase.
Far from ‘placeholders’ – as they are sometimes sought to be portrayed – their role as initiators of policies that were eventually impossible to push back by their successors is a story in its own right. They were leaders and actors in events and causes that are still very much in play.
All those contemplating the ‘End of History’ in the Indian context must remember that in 2018, Fukuyama’s new book on identity politics had him postponing his ‘End of History’. Fukuyama has also been known to point out to the question mark he had put to his ‘End of History?’ paper in 1989.
(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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Courtesy The Quint