Power and fear: The turbulent story of Prajwal Revanna

Poised to inherit the legacy of former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, his grandson Prajwal Revanna is absconding after being accused of sexually assaulting and filming dozens of women. TNM takes a look at Prajwal’s political career, early days in the party, to becoming Deve Gowda’s favourite, and then the inaccessible “arrogant” MP who became a rape accused.
Prajwal Revanna has been accused of sexually assaulting four women
Prajwal Revanna has been accused of sexually assaulting four women
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This story is part of our series, "Prajwal Revanna Tapes: The Aftermath." Three TNM journalists are in Hassan district, meeting survivors and others affected, to explore the profound societal impact of the sexual abuse videos. Read the first story here and the second story here. Click here to contribute to the reporting fund.

The Special Investigation Team (SIT) tasked with probing Hassan MP and NDA candidate Prajwal Revanna has faced significant challenges. Aside from political and public pressure and a setback in court (Prajwal's father, HD Revanna, secured bail in a related kidnap case), the police have had the grim task of reviewing around 3,000 videos involving women. So far, about 50 women have been identified, and the SIT is working to establish the identities of around 25 more. The SIT has asked many of the women if they would like to file complaints against Prajwal Revanna and join the four women who have already accused him of rape. Despite these efforts, officials believe that only one or two more women may come forward. This reluctance highlights the pervasive fear among the people of Hassan, not only of Revanna but also of Prajwal, seen as the heir apparent of the Janata Dal (Secular) party.

Outrage and regret

Despite the national outrage it generated, on ground zero, the sexual assault allegations have barely made a dent in the Gowda scion’s prospects of winning claimed party workers. The video leak seemed to evoke surprise, outrage as well as loyalty in varying measures among JD (S) workers who spoke to TNM.

From the nearly 3,000 leaked videos that started circulating on April 22, several women were instantly recognised as frontline party workers and wives of party leaders. Some of them had campaigned with them right up to the day the videos started going viral. At the centre of it all was Prajwal, accused of filming these women without their consent and sexually abusing them. Party workers knew "Prajwal anna" as someone who mostly interacted with men regarding party work. If women workers approached him with requests, he would direct them to his mother, "Bhavani akka." 

The videos had started to alter the conversation around the general elections in the country by the time a few local news channels caught up with him early in the morning of the voting day on April 26. Prajwal was visibly tense even though they coddled him with innocuous questions: ‘What time will you vote, how is the response to campaigning, when will your father vote, how is the alliance with BJP’. He responded tersely to the softball interviews and left quickly. No one asked him about the videos which had been circulating in Hassan for four days.

A day before on April 25, a Kannada news channel Power TV started a live programme in which the anchors launched into the MP. They began an interview of two women in their studio, who said they had been sexually assaulted and harassed by Prajwal. At the bottom of the screen were blurred videos and images of women running in a loop even as voting continued briskly in Hassan. The programme ran for several hours and by the end of the day, the entire state was talking about it. The State Women’s Commission on April 25 shot off a letter to Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, without mentioning Prajwal’s name, and asked for a probe into the videos, based on a complaint they received from a women’s organisation. 

Prajwal quietly left the country from Bengaluru airport on the night of April 26. His destination was said to be Frankfurt, Germany. On April 28, the Karnataka government announced the formation of a Special Investigation Team not only to probe the videos but also to trace those who were responsible for circulating the videos. By then, the women who were recognised in the videos had to switch off their phones, leave their homes overnight or isolate themselves in the face of social ostracisation. Some even attempted suicide. Four women came forward to file complaints with the police.

The heir apparent

Prajwal’s father, HD Revanna, is a six-time MLA from Holenarasipura in Hassan district. His mother Bhavani is a former Zilla Panchayat member and actively handles party affairs in Hassan district. His grandfather is JD(S) supremo Deve Gowda, a former Prime Minister. His uncle is HD Kumaraswamy, a two-time chief minister of Karnataka, and his aunt Anita is a former MLA. His elder brother, Suraj is Hassan MLC. Prajwal himself is seeking re-election for a second term. 

The video leak came at a time when Prajwal was on the verge of inheriting the empire built over half a century. Prajwal emerged as the heir apparent to the Gowda dynasty after his cousin and HD Kumaraswamy’s son, Nikhil, failed to make a mark in politics. With successive defeats in 2019 and 2023, Nikhil’s fate was sealed, leaving the field open for Prajwal.

Nikhil Kumaraswamy (left) and Prajwal Revanna
Nikhil Kumaraswamy (left) and Prajwal RevannaFB/Prajwal Revanna

Prajwal’s elder brother Suraj too is not known to be politically ambitious. While said to be on good terms with party workers and accessible to everyone, as a senior party worker in Hassan put it, “Suraj was only concerned with four hoblis (a cluster of villages for administrative purposes) before and has now extended it to six hoblis. He forgets that he has to look at the entire Hassan district.” 

The succession battle between Deve Gowda’s two sons – Kumaraswamy and Revanna – has often left the patriarch and party embarrassed. There was a time when Prajwal scathingly referred to Kumaraswamy’s leadership of the party as “suitcase politics.” 

But that was in 2017. By 2024 things had shifted so dramatically that Kumaraswamy publicly endorsed him at a campaign saying, “Consider him as my own son.”

This massive transition in the party came right from the top with Deve Gowda indicating his preference for Prajwal by lavishing praise on him. This sent a message that he trusted Prajwal to take the party forward and marked him out as the crown prince. For the party leaders, workers and in areas where JD(S) holds sway, this is a powerful position to be in. 

His grandfather’s praise for him at public functions in Hassan made him a popular and influential figure in the district. One leader said that Deve Gowda’s endorsement added a spring to Prajwal’s step. He started making it a point to stamp his authority by making a public show of his influence in the region. 

JD(S) supremo Deve Gowda campaigning for Prajwal
JD(S) supremo Deve Gowda campaigning for PrajwalFB/Prajwal Revanna

“Although we knew that he got work done through his father, he would make calls in front of us. For example, in a village near Banavara, a few villagers came to him with complaints that they had no road or electricity in parts of their village. They told him that his parents had refused to help them because they had not supported their party. But Prajwal made the calls to the officers to get their work done,” the leader said. 

‘Arrogant young man’ 

Most JD(S) cadres and leaders TNM spoke to in Hassan were hard-pressed to explain his rise in the party. Though most would initially describe him as a man who got things done, further conversations would often reveal that their actual views about him were far from flattering.

As a Parliamentarian, Prajwal did not inspire much confidence in the local leaders, a taluk panchayat leader said. “He used to wake up at 9.30 am every day and by the time he came out to meet people, it would be 10.30-11 am. Who does that? Revanna, on the other hand, would start meeting people at 6.30 am.” 

Once, Prajwal bragged that all the MLAs in the district answered to him because he was an MP, claimed one disgruntled party leader. “He thought I was an idiot (just because I am a taluk panchayat member). He did not understand how governance worked and did not bother to understand it either.” 

An MP chairs certain meetings at the district level which all MLAs of the parliamentary constituency and the district administration officials are to attend. But in Hassan, it was his father Revanna, who ran the district like his own feudal fiefdom even though he was but one MLA in the constituency, who called the shots. “He watched his father conduct these meetings and thought he too had the same clout, but no one took him as seriously as they did Revanna,” the leader said.

The anger that laced his tone when he described how hard they campaigned for Prajwal changed to regret as he predicted Prajwal would win with a margin of 15,000 to 25,000 votes. “No one watches Power TV here (the Kannada channel that broke the news) and many voted for him. In Hassan town, we might have lost around 5,000 votes because of it. Had that programme aired a day earlier, no one would have voted for him.” 

In retrospect, party workers felt that at least some members of the Gowda family knew about the sexual assaults and the videos. The haste with which the family announced Prajwal’s candidature is now a subject of speculation. The talk among party workers is that he was hurriedly nominated because the family feared his candidature would be challenged by party workers if the videos were leaked. Deve Gowda’s decision to not contest is also being seen in hindsight as an attempt by the family to distance themselves from Prajwal.

Party workers and journalists alike say that Prajwal was not seen much in Hassan at the MP quarters and spent most of his time at the farm in Paduvalahippe near Holenarasipura or at his Bengaluru residence in Basavanagudi. But everyone agreed that in the last six months of his tenure as MP, he started visiting all Gram Panchayats. But these were not exactly grievance meetings, they were more like review meetings.

“In the last few months, he has visited practically every GP and met local leaders. Around 10-15 people have died in elephant deaths in Hassan district, which is a huge problem. But in 5 years, he’s never visited anyone, even when two people died in the same attack. But just months before the election, he went and visited someone at 11 pm in the hospital,” a TV journalist based in Hassan said.

Party workers said he met people only through a small circle of aides and no one was allowed ready access to his MP quarters in Hassan. The older leaders avoided him as they did not like to be summoned at his whim. Others tried to convince him to visit the DC office or receive complaints from the public once or twice a week, but he did not respond. Complaints about his disrespectful attitude towards seniors were heard several times. He would not talk to journalists and if they tried to talk to him, he would say he knew their bosses would talk only to them.

The ghost of the videos 

Those who had interacted with him at events and party meetings mentioned that they had never seen him misbehaving or talking to women in a suggestive manner. When did he approach these women, especially party leaders, workers and young women, who were easily identified by many people? 

“We knew of one woman (party worker) who was seeing Prajwal around two years ago. Then Bhavani found out about it and she scolded the woman to stay away from him and told her not to come back to the party. We have not seen her for two years. But this, I don’t understand. How could he do this?” a part-time JD(S) worker said, fuming that she did not want to be associated with the party anymore.  

She said that during the last couple of months of campaigning, there was talk among the women about BJP leader Devaraje Gowda possessing videos of Prajwal with women and speculation that they would be released. “At that point, it was speculative talk. But later we understood it was real. We never saw him misbehave when we met him. We later established that when some of these party workers and leaders asked him for help, he would tell his PA to contact them separately. They would be taken to his house in a car. Once he got what he wanted, he would blackmail them. This is why none of us knew about this. Who would confide about such things?” 

Prajwal with his parents Bhavani and HD Revanna
Prajwal with his parents Bhavani and HD RevannaFB/Prajwal Revanna

The party worker and her friends in the party did not watch the videos but they were told by their male colleagues about 10 women. “Some women are wives of party leaders who never leave their homes. How is it possible that they went to him? Their husbands must have sent them. Some are first-line leaders. He has not even spared a college student who had gone to ask for help about securing a hostel room. She is so young. What would she know about all this?” she raged.

Deve Gowda and his family wear Vokkaliga pride on their sleeves and the JD(S) is built on the back of this powerful land-owning caste. Gowda enjoys a demigod status within the community which revels in his political achievements in state and national politics. This status now stands threatened by the fact a majority of the women exploited by Prajwal are from the Vokkaliga community. Some were simply part-time workers and sympathisers who turned up for events, meetings and campaigning.

Although the JD(S) initially reacted with shock, vowing that "the guilty will be punished," their stance soon turned more defiant. Kumaraswamy has alternated between questioning the leaks and labelling the situation a conspiracy. Many party leaders we spoke to believe the JD(S) will weather the crisis, emphasising the need to avoid appearing completely submissive. Meanwhile, their ally, the BJP, has issued general statements about justice but is careful not to destabilise the alliance. With its ambitious goal of securing over 400 seats in the Lok Sabha and aiming to wrest control from the Congress in the next state election, the BJP recognises its reliance on the JD(S).

In his parents’ footsteps

India’s 11th Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda hails from Haradanahalli, a village in Holenarasipura taluk in Hassan district. Deve Gowda won his first elections in 1962 and went on to become Chief Minister and later the Prime Minister. He formed the JD(S) in 1999, the culmination of years of efforts to build a third front dominated by Vokkaligas, which he achieved when he united the two major Vokkaliga factions, the Mullu Gowdas (to which he belongs) and Dasa Gowdas in Hassan district. Together, the two Vokkaliga sub-sects made Deve Gowda the tallest Vokkaliga leader, a status he still enjoys. Deve Gowda turned his gaze to national politics and left Hassan to his second son, Revanna. 

A 1997 article in India Today mentions that Revanna, then a first-time MLA and minister, had made himself comfortable in Anugraha – the CM’s residence in Bengaluru –and wielded so much power that Union Ministers who visited the state called upon him without fail. In Hassan, his domination came to be near total. He took control of the local governance bodies first, then the District Central Cooperative (DCC) Bank which is the nodal authority to disburse funds to farmers, and dairy cooperatives, where he garnered support by ensuring timely payments to dairy farmers and irrigation projects. This control is strong even to this day.

An IAS officer who was posted in Hassan said that every district usually has two or three power centres with political figures trying to exert their domination over schemes, fund release, development and irrigation projects etc. “Even in a district like Mandya, where the JD(S) is very strong, no single group dominates. But in Hassan, Revanna’s control is absolute. Not even Kharge (Mallikarjun) has this kind of control over Kalaburagi,” he said. Such power could not be held without control over government employees and postings. Transfers decided at the district level by the Deputy Commissioner or the Superintendent of Police, were inevitably decided by Revanna. In effect, there was a ‘Revanna Administrative Service’ that carried out the work. 

Many people in Hassan who spoke to TNM said that Revanna made it a point to display his power so that people knew that they were at his mercy. A retired teacher said that in the 1990s, his father, who was then in the accounts department, was made an offer he couldn’t refuse. Revanna asked if he wanted to go to the new department, and the man replied in the affirmative as he had no option to decline. 

“Revanna agreed to the transfer. But on the day my father reported to the new office, he found out there were no orders to induct him. He didn’t know what to do. He did not get a posting for six months. Later, someone told him that he had made a mistake. That he should have told Revanna that he was hungry for the post, indicating that my father should have paid something,” the teacher said.

Asked how he felt about the allegations against Prajwal, he said, “Now, we can experience some freedom. I feel terrible that this is what it took for their power to loosen, but the way everything was concentrated in their hands was terrible.”

This domination has been easing only in the last five years. In the 2018 Assembly elections, BJP’s Preetham Gowda defeated JD(S)’s HS Prakash. In 2023, Revanna won over Shreyas Patel of Congress with a slim margin of 3,152 votes in Holenarasipura.

And yet Revanna’s popularity endures within the party. His feudal attitude chafes, but he gets things done, party insiders said. Described as ‘matte finish’ by a police officer who worked in Hassan district, Revanna is brusque. And you cannot sit in front of him unless he asks you to. 

People who have worked closely with him said that prefers talking to people in the singular or using casually intimidating ways that come naturally to him.

Revanna had worked towards a lot of development projects efficiently, but he also received plenty of kickbacks, the officer alleged. “There are many people who went from zero income to paying income tax as they benefited from the arrangement,” the officer added. Karthik, Revanna family’s ex-driver, who is said to have taken the videos from Prajwal’s phone, is locally known to be one such proxy for Revanna.

In a clearly patriarchal set-up, Prajwal’s mother Bhavani never bothered to hide her political ambitions. She has eyed the Assembly ticket several times but has been thwarted by Kumaraswamy. Spurred by Anita Kumarswamy’s win from Madhugiri in 2008, Bhavani continued to insist on contesting. In 2013, her determination to contest resulted in a spat in the Deve Gowda household with Revanna endorsing her bid to contest. 

Deve Gowda had promised his old friend and loyalist HK Javare Gowda, a ticket from Hassan, but it was not to be. The protracted fight resulted in another person KS Lingesh getting the Hassan ticket. Once called a ‘blind follower of Deve Gowda’, Javare Gowda parted ways with JD(S) and joined the Congress. He said, “The original Deve Gowda, who gave his word and kept it, no longer exists. Revanna’s influence started when Deve Gowda became CM. Revanna was the final word on all matters. Deve Gowda should not have let his children interfere while making decisions. Look what has happened now. What is the impact of this on society?”

Revanna’s clout stemmed from his ability to bring in money for the party through contractors, transfers or licences. When he crossed the line or needed to be reined in, “nobody dared to tell him about it,” a local party leader said. “Earlier, leaders like Patel Shivaram and Javare Gowda would be blunt and say things to Deve Gowda’s face. Now there is no one to speak like that. If there were, it might not have come to this.”

With inputs from Pooja Prasanna, Anisha Sheth and Shivani Kava

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