Deve Gowda begins to rebuild JD(S) with a Dalit president, padayatras
The ghost of 1989 loomed large as former prime minister HD Deve Gowda began his speech to party candidates, who had lost in the recent urban local body polls, at a hall in the Palace Grounds here.
Another leader, YSV Datta, too, had invoked 1989 at the event. “Then as now Deve Gowda was isolated and had a few allies with him. And yet, just five years later he became the chief minister,” thundered Dutta, at the convention held on June 21.
The parallels, at least in Deve Gowda’s telling, were hard to miss. “I had few people with me. We had been ousted from power in that election, but I refused to give in then and if people think that I will sit at home now, they are sadly mistaken because I am going to devote all my time now to rebuilding my party here,” he said.
The reason Deve Gowda harked back to the past was the crushing defeat his Janata Dal (Secular) faced in the recent Lok Sabha, where it won just one of the seven seats it contested – Deve Gowda, too, could not manage a victory in the Tumakuru seat – and recorded its lowest ever vote share in the state of 9.67%.
After the results, the party has appeared to be in a crisis as the polls reiterated the reality that Karnataka continued to buck the trend in the southern region and was fast turning into a bi-polar contest between the two national parties — the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress.
Since then, Deve Gowda has insisted that he will embark on a mission to revive his party in the state and make it a dominant force, akin to the regional parties in neighbouring states. To boost its credentials, one of the party’s senior most leaders confirmed, it would name HK Kumaraswamy, a Dalit MLA from Hassan district, as the party’s state president to replace the outgoing AH Vishwanath, who resigned in June.
This decision was taken as the party was unable to accommodate a Dalit from within its ranks as a minister in the coalition government with the Congress.
Second, under the leadership of Datta, the JD(S) is set to launch three padayatras that will cover the entirety of the state and try and reestablish the party as a viable third force outside the Old Mysuru region to which the party has so far been limited.
The trails for the padayatras will be between two rivers to symbolise the unity of the state through its water, a pet theme of Deve Gowda’s since his time as irrigation minister in the state in the 1980s.
“In the first leg we will conduct a padayatra from the Cauvery to the Tungabhadra rivers, i.e. is from Nanjangud in Chamarajanagar district of southern Karnataka to Harihar town in Davanagere district in central Karnataka,” said Dutta.
However, many challenges remain before Gowda in his rejuvenation campaign. A senior leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that there was no point in naming a state president from outside the family because there was little support they received.
“There are very few powers that Vishwanath enjoyed in his year as state president,” one senior leader said. Another said, “If they name someone a state president they should at least include such a person in discussions about candidates to be fielded in elections, instead these decisions were taken at meetings between Deve Gowda and his sons Revanna and Kumaraswamy”.
One reason for this problem has been that many senior leaders who were once close to Deve Gowda have moved to other parties, either through desertions or after having been removed from the party. Deve Gowda’s grandson Nikhil was defeated in Mandya thanks in part to the efforts of some such leaders in that district, who had moved to the Congress just last year.
The closer the party has become associated with the family, the smaller has become its presence across the state. For instance, 31 of its 37 MLAs in the state hail from the southern Old Mysuru region.
One senior leader from the northern Mumbai-Karnataka region said that the chances of the party’s revival in the northern regions were remote at best and non-existent at worst. The leader pointed to the composition of the Cabinet berths allotted to the JD(S). Of the 11 ministers, including the chief minister, there are seven Vokkaligas, two Lingayats, one Kuruba and one Dalit.
“Nobody needs to teach Deve Gowda about the symbolic value of Cabinet posts, and yet if you are not even pretending to project a façade of inclusiveness then there is little chance that leaders will gravitate towards your party,” the northern Karnataka leader said.
However, there was unanimity among the leaders HT spoke to that the biggest challenge for Deve Gowda was reining in his family members. Over the past two decades, Deve Gowda has divided his legacy in favour of his sons Revanna and Kumaraswamy. While Revanna became Deve Gowda’s heir in Hassan and contests from his old constituency of Holenarsipur, Kumaraswamy became the party’s choice for state leadership.
This has led to increased tensions with both families attempting to assert control of the party. After Deve Gowda announced he would vacate his Hassan seat in favour of Prajwal Revanna, Nikhil Kumaraswamy was projected as the candidate for the Mandya seat.
One senior leader said only those who could abide by this second-class status could stay in the JD(S). “Every time somebody tries to change this status quo they find that their path is blocked and the family reasserts itself,” the leader said.
Such was the backlash after Deve Gowda and his two grandsons were named candidates in the Lok Sabha poll candidates that even staunch party workers expressed their ire. To rectify this, Datta said, “It will be better if Prajwal and Nikhil keep a low profile for a while”.
Political analyst Narendar Pani, who is faculty at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, said these problems were not so easy to resolve. “The question really is if Deve Gowda is willing to move beyond the family and how much power the family is willing to share with others,” he said.
Even HK Kumaraswamy’s choice did not promise much, Pani said. “Firstly, he is an MLA from Hassan district so his choice doesn’t help the JD(S) expand regionally. Secondly, I do not think the younger generation of Dalit leaders will follow someone like HK Kumaraswamy because they are more aggressive and assertive than Kumaraswamy and might not be willing to go along with these age-old coalitions with dominant caste groups,” he said.
“The only significant opportunity the JD(S) might be presented in the near future is if [former chief minister and BJP state president] BS Yeddyurappa is eased out of the party or quits. In either case that would affect the BJP and might open the doors for the JD(S) to reassert itself in northern Karnataka,” Pani said.
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