As soon as SS Meenakshisundaram, [HD Deve] Gowda’s principal secretary as chief minister, returned to Bangalore from Washington DC, he got a call from Anugraha, the chief minister’s official residence. He thought it was a farewell dinner by the prime minister-elect for senior officers who had worked with him in the state. But when Sundaram reached Anugraha, he realised that it was Gowda’s wife Chennamma who was waiting to meet him, and there was no other official invited.

Sundaram had never interacted with Gowda’s wife before, and when she spoke, her anxiety was palpable. She had still not come to terms with the fact that her husband was now to rule the nation. She also did not look terribly pleased that he had accepted the job: “He had become chief minister after long years of struggle and was doing a good job. We were happy here. Why did he have to accept this responsibility? I am afraid and the family is afraid too. We don’t know what awaits us in Delhi. We do not know anybody there, nor do we know the language. Whoever I talk to about Delhi scares me about the place. Now that he has made up his mind, my request is that you should go with him,” Meenakshisundaram recalled the conversation.

After the two of them had spent talking for twenty minutes, it was announced that the prime minister-elect had arrived. They shifted to the dining room. Chennamma served food to Sundaram and her husband. Gowda presciently told Sundaram: “Sundaram-avare (‘avare’ is an honorific in the Kannada language), you please join the PMO. Our tenure will not be long. Don’t bring your family. I too will not shift mine. We will go with just one suitcase.”

The events in Delhi that had preceded this conversation for over a fortnight had been edgy and dramatic. AB Vajpayee had been prime minister from mid-May 1996 for thirteen days. He had been called to form a government by President Shankar Dayal Sharma because he was the leader of the largest political party, albeit without a majority, and also because the United Front, a coalition of thirteen parties, had taken time to assemble its majority. It eventually happened with the outside support of the Congress, but after that, it took time to pick its prime ministerial candidate.

When President Sharma invited Vajpayee to form the government, the leaders of the secular coalition were jolted. They went to the President to protest his hurry and betrayal of sorts.

Harkishan Singh Surjeet, who was the general-secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the architect of the United Front government, was furious: “There was a heated argument between the United Front delegation and the President. Comrade Surjeet became very angry. He asked Sharma, ‘Is this why we made you President, to bring an RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP) government to power?’ He refused to accept tea and snacks that were served at the Rashtrapati Bhavan,” Sitaram Yechury, who was present in the delegation, recalled the words and action of his party elder and predecessor as general-secretary.

He also explained why Surjeet made such a statement in the meeting with the President: “Sharma had been elected President with the support of the Left parties. Surjeet had agreed to the elevation of Sharma, who was then vice president, with the condition that KR Narayanan is made the new vice president. Comrade AB Bardhan and I met PV Narasimha Rao with this proposal. I was also later despatched to meet Narayanan, who was the former vice-chancellor of my alma mater, the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Although the presidential polls came before the vice presidential polls, Surjeet strategised in such a way that he insisted that both the names be announced together. If the Left parties had not supported, the Congress would not have had the numbers to make Sharma the president. This was the background to Comrade Surjeet’s anger.”

After Vajpayee was sworn in, there was fear that United Front parties may not stick together with the “secular alternative”, but they surprised everybody, and knocked off cynicism when not a single member of Parliament in their coalition defected. They ensured HD Deve Gowda became the eleventh prime minister of India.

The selection of HD Deve Gowda was even more dramatic compared to scenes witnessed in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Although Gowda was an entrenched player in India’s political system for four decades, he was labelled a “dark horse” because he was a rank outsider to the Delhi-Lutyens establishment. However, within the secular front, the Left parties infused perfect reasoning for his selection.

Arguably, it was one of the finest moments of democratic India when a poor peasant’s son without pedigree, pelf or patronage was given charge of the nation. He was also from the bottom of the varna pyramid – he was a Shudra who had often been trapped in the prejudices and stratagems of upper caste politics (there are multitudes below the Shudras and outside the varna classification of the Indian caste system – the Dalits, who have faced greater discrimination and segregation for centuries. Ironically, even among the Dalits, there is further stratification).

Until then, there had been no prime minister who had been a Shudra other than Chaudhary Charan Singh, who was prime minister for only twenty-three days and had not been confirmed by the Parliament. Although Gowda has never discussed his “Shudrahood” openly, he was arguably India’s first full-fledged prime minister from the bottom rungs of the pernicious Indian caste system.

What the Left parties, who mostly dealt with class issues instead of caste structures, had achieved from the point of view of social justice, was incredible. They had proposed KR Narayanan, as India’s first vice president from the Dalit community (later President), and HD Deve Gowda, a Shudra, as prime minister.

This may not have been a deliberate effort, but Narayanan and Gowda were present at the right time and at the right bend in history, and the Left parties did not circumvent them but instead performed a historic role in recognising them.

The role of the Left parties becomes apparent when one understands how Harkishan Singh Surjeet collaborated with Jyoti Basu, who commanded a veto, besides seniority and stature, in picking a prime minister after his party had rejected his own candidature.

Gowda recalled the turn of events: “The first choice of the coalition partners of the United Front was VP Singh. When I discussed Singh’s name with Jyoti Basu, he was not very excited. He said, ‘You still admire him. Do you recall he had called the 1989 government he headed as a political experiment? Is he serious about politics? Anyway, try convincing him.’ After this, Karunanidhi, Chandrababu Naidu, Murasoli Maran and myself, with a couple of other friends, went to see Singh at his 1, Rajaji Marg residence. We sat in the lawn. Coffee, tea and biscuits were served. Singh came, greeted us and went inside the residence, and did not come out for a long time. We later learnt that he had left by the back entrance to some unknown place. After nearly two hours, his wife came out and told us that he had asked her to communicate that we should not wait and that he would not agree to our proposal to be prime minister. We did not know how to react. We just left the place.”

From there, they came straight back to Basu and Surjeet and told them that there was no option but Jyoti Basu. The longest-serving chief minister of any Indian state should take over. Gowda remembered:

There was not just unanimity for his name, but there was genuine celebration in the coalition that it had come up. Basu happily consented too but said he would like his party to formally ratify his choice. The rest is well-documented history. His party rejected the offer not once but twice. The first time it was rejected, I argued with Surjeet that they should go back to the Central Committee. But the Communists committed a “Himalayan blunder” by not approving Basu for prime minister. They were principled people with whom we could not argue.

Immediately after this, Basu summoned me. Lalu Yadav, the Janata Dal national president, and Surjeet were present when we met. He straight away said, “Mr Gowda, you should take over.” I was shocked. I said, “There are others in my party, sir.” He got a little angry, “Don’t I know your party leaders,” he retorted.

He turned to Lalu Yadav, “Mr Lalu, make an announcement immediately. The press is waiting outside.” Lalu consented with the choice but said that he would like to go and inform his party leaders waiting in Bihar Bhavan. Basu cut him short, “You can inform them on the telephone too,” he said.

Meanwhile, I recovered a bit to plead, “Sir, I have been chief minister for less than two years. My career will end abruptly. The Congress party will not let us run the government for long. I want to be like you, sir. I want to rule Karnataka for many years. Don’t we all know what the Congress did to Charan Singh, VP Singh and Chandra Shekhar. Will they spare me? Please sir, change your mind. I also have no felicity in Hindi and have not travelled the length and breadth of this country. You are our elder, I beg you.”

Excerpted with permission from Furrows in a Field: The Unexplored Life of HD Deve Gowda, Sugata Srinivasaraju, Vintage.