By P.T. Bopanna
My ‘finest hour’ as a professional journalist came when H.D. Deve Gowda (in picture) became the prime minister of India in 1996.
Around that time, I was working as a Principal Correspondent with The Times of India at Bengaluru. One day I received a phone call from a professional colleague and friend, who told me that the Editor of The Pioneer newspaper (New Delhi), Chandan Mitra, was in town and was interviewing journalists. I replied that I would not mind meeting Chandan.
We met at the Oberoi where the Editor usually stayed during his visits to Bengaluru. Later in the day I got a call from Chandan, he was appointing me as the Special Correspondent for Bengaluru, and wanted to see me immediately.
Chandan’s brief was very clear. “The new prime minister Deve Gowda is hardly known in Delhi. Readers would like to know more about their prime minister.”
I checked with my friend K.S. Dakshina Murthy who had recommended my name to Chandan whether there would be any editorial interference in my work. ‘Dakshin’ as he is known among friends, assured me that Chandan was a great editor to work with and would back his reporters even if something went wrong. Dakshin had worked with Chandan and knew about his style of functioning.
One of the first major stories I worked on was how a petrol bunk was allotted to Deve Gowda’s daughter-in-law Anitha Kumaraswamy, by Union minister Satish Sharma under his discretionary quota. This was in 1994, at a time when Gowda was the chief minister of Karnataka.
Nowadays the petrol bunk which is located at Padmanabha Nagar is a major landmark in south Bengaluru, and is known by all as ‘Deve Gowda Petrol Bunk’. But way back in the mid 1990s, the ownership of the bunk was not so well known.
While doing the story in 1996, I visited the petrol bunk and found the name ‘Nikhil’ emblazoned on the uniforms of the bunk attendants. On enquiry I was told that it is the name of Deve Gowda’s grandson Nikhil. It may be recalled that Nikhil had contested unsuccessfully early this year from Mandya Lok Sabha constituency.
I also worked on another story of how the kin of Deve Gowda had started a petrol bunk at Kengeri on the busy Bengaluru-Mysuru highway by encroaching on land earmarked for a Muslim burial ground.
Reports involving the two controversial petrol bunks appeared on October 4, 1996, with my byline (my name) on the front page of The Pioneer. It was a great moment for me as my report had made headlines and created quite a buzz in the national capital.
I discovered during my initial days with The Pioneer, that I could ring up the editor Chandan Mitra at any time. Unlike many other newspapers where I had worked earlier, the Editor was easily accessible.
Another series of reports on how the name of Deve Gowda was linked to the ‘mother of all yagnas’ in his home state of Karnataka created a lot of reader interest. My reports highlighted Gowda’s penchant for astrology.
I noted how a gold medal winning buffalo was being taken around in Belthangady near Mangaluru as part of the yagna. This was the buffalo that had won a premier Kambala race in that region. (The ‘Kambala’ is a race of buffalo-farmer teams held in the slushy water-logged paddy fields of Dakshina Kannada district.)
Over 1,200 specially trained priests were to be deployed for the yagna at the Durga Parameshwari temple in the Western Ghats of Dakshina Kannada district, and bulldozers were used to clear the forest in front of the temple.
Though prime minister Gowda was planning to participate in the yagna, he called off his visit following the mysterious death of the man who was the caretaker of the prize-winning buffalo.
The yagna was being held on the advice of Sri Balagopala Jois, who had correctly predicted that Gowda would occupy the highest post in the country, but would face a turbulent period from December 1996 onwards.
I covered the Ayutha Chandika Yagna for which 120 pits were dug and an estimated 20 tonnes of jackfruit tree bark was used. Nearly two lakh people turned up to witness the yagna, said to be the first of its kind in the last century. In the final rites, over 120 silk sarees were consigned to the flames in 120 homa kundas (sacrificial fire pits).
Since I had reported that the yagna was being held on behalf of Deve Gowda, I had to prove the fact with evidence. Gowda’s then confidante B.L. Shankar, the Chikmagalur MP was present at the yagna.
As I was looking for evidence to link Gowda with the yagna, I ran into the priests who were conducting the homas. I was informed by the priests that they were from the Sanskrit College at Gokarna and that they had been briefed four months ago about the yagna, the reason given to them was that it was being performed for the good health and safety of the prime minister. They were told to learn the Chandi Saptashathi Parayana to be recited during the yagna.
The next day, Pioneer carried an anchor story on the front page which read: ‘Gowda may differ, but priests say yagna is for him’.
With several investigative reports involving Gowda, some of the Gowda-baiters started approaching me to pass on information about him. Around that time, I visited the house of Prof. K. Venakatagiri Gowda, a former BJP Member of Parliament. Though Venkatagiri Gowda was a product of the London School of Economics, he had no hesitation in using gutter language to denigrate prime minister Gowda. Apparently the two fell out over Vokkaliga Sangha politics.
Prof. Venakatagiri Gowda told me that he had completed a book on the prime minister and shared with me excerpts from the book titled ‘The King of Corruption and the Unmaking of India’.
The Pioneer carried my ‘scoop’ and it triggered a political storm in Karnataka. Many publications followed up with their own coverage of the issue, which had been sparked off by my report. The Gowda camp filed defamation suits against a few publications and even ordered a COD (now CID) investigation against a prominent journalist.
Though I was the one responsible for the political storm, I was spared from the court cases and investigations.
I have no clue why I was spared from the court cases. My hunch is that Gowda thought that I was not part of the ‘Hegde brigade’. Gowda had a long-standing feud with former chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde. There was a perception in the Gowda camp that he was being targeted by a set of journalists who backed Hegde because the latter was a Brahmin.
In my defence, I have to state that though I am hard-hitting in my reports,
I carry no malice while reporting. I work as an independent journalist and feel that I do not owe anything to anybody, except to my readers to whom I am responsible.
During my 13-year-long stay at The Pioneer, I received much support from Chandan Mitra. I regularly wrote Op-Ed page articles for the paper and contributed for the Sunday section.
After Chandan joined active politics, I gradually withdrew from mainstream journalism. All good things have to come to an end.