Were it not for the red carpets and laptop-toting audience, the inauguration of ‘IT in 2005’ ' Bangalore’s showcase infotech event ' on Wednesday would have seemed like a farmers’ rally. The chief guest, H.D. Deve Gowda, set the mood for the occasion. “I’m not jealous of the IT industry. I’m only bothered about the people who give away their land for industrial development,” he said in his 40-minute inaugural speech.
The audience of global software professionals probably thought he was reading the wrong speech. They didn’t know the tirade at the podium was a new twist in the public spat between the man once known as the humble farmer and Infosys chairman N.R. Narayana Murthy.
Murthy-bashing has been on Gowda’s agenda this month. First, he called the Infosys chief’s rural-urban partnership plan old wine in a new bottle. He objected to the allotment of 845 acres of agricultural land on Bangalore’s outskirts to Infosys. The final straw came last week when he called Narayana Murthy a no-good chairman of the Bangalore International Airport Ltd (BIAL), a consortium set up to build India’s first greenfield airport.
Murthy, who prides himself on his squeaky-clean reputation, retaliated by resigning from the BIAL and boarding the next flight to the US.
For Deve Gowda, public spats are a part of political life. And currently, the Janata Dal (Secular) leader ' often seen as Karnataka’s de facto chief minister ' is in the thick of political drama. For behind the attack on Bangalore’s IT industry, he is fighting a duel with his political b'te noire, Maharashtra governor S.M. Krishna, a Vokkaliga like him. “This is pure vote bank politics,” says D.B. Chandre Gowda, who was law minister in Krishna’s cabinet.
It is argued that since Krishna has always supported Murthy, the IT leader came under Gowda fire. “Murthy is known to be backed by Krishna. That’s why he was targetted,” Chandre Gowda insists. What’s clear is that it’s a war for space in state politics, with Krishna and Deve Gowda dominating two ends of the spectrum. Krishna is portrayed as the voice of the urban elite, Deve Gowda as the spokeperson for rural Karnataka.
But Deve Gowda, IT industry sources stress, is not anti-IT. “He helped the industry in its teething stages,” says R.K. Misra, vice-president, Flextronics, the Bangalore-based IT firm. Deve Gowda’s party, too, seeks to stress that his campaign is not against IT. “What he is fighting against is the land mafia’s efforts at grabbing agricultural land,” says JD (S) spokesperson Y.S.V. Datta. “Only a fraction of the land will be used for IT offices ' the rest of it will be for residential colonies and a seven-star hotel,” he says.
Farmers’ land is at stake and for Deve Gowda, the rural lobby is all-important. Political watchers call this canny politics. “Gowda’s roots may be with rural India, but he is a political pragmatist,” says G. Puttaswamy Gowda, a minister in Krishna’s cabinet and fellow politician from Gowda’s hometown Hassan. This was demonstrated when a farmer lobby attacked Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in Bangalore. Deve Gowda, then chief minister, promptly arrested the farmer leaders and provided police protection to KFC.
But the civil engineer from Hassan ' who used to help his father grow cereals on their three-acre plot of dry land ' claims to be a man of limited political ambitions. He reportedly laughed when told of his nomination as Prime Minister of India ' a post he won by default in 1997 and held for 10 months.
Karnataka ' especially its rural heartland ' is what moves Deve Gowda. And the politician devotes his time building links with the people. “Anyone can walk into his house and meet him,” says Ashok Kheny, managing director, Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises Limited ' the promoters of BMIP. Crowds start gathering outside his two-storey house in a Bangalore suburb from early morning ' sometimes leaving him with no time for his mandatory morning puja. “Holding durbars is Gowda’s style of governance,” says Puttaswamy Gowda.
But Puttaswamy Gowda doesn’t quite believe in Deve Gowda’s image of a simple-living man. The Krishna camper ' who calls the JD (S) “Deve Gowda and Sons” in jest ' stresses that his family has flourished in politics. “He owns 500 acres of land around Bangalore and promoted two of his four sons in politics,” says Puttaswamy Gowda.
But for Deve Gowda, more important still is that Krishna has been talking about relinquishing the governor’s seat. Deve Gowda has to safeguard his territory ' and for that, if he has to take pot shots at Murthy, so be it.