Why the JD(S) is still ruling Karnataka politics
Why is it that the Deve Gowda-founded JD(S) has managed to become the fulcrum of Karnataka politics by wedging itself between Congress and BJP, the two national parties looking to dominate state politics?Karnataka Elections 2018 Updated: May 22, 2018 08:30 IST
The year was 1999. A young HD Kumaraswamy was contesting the Sathanur seat in Kanakapura taluk on the ticket of a new party founded by his father, former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, called the Janata Dal (Secular).
His opponent from the Congress was DK Shivakumar. Fierce words were exchanged in the battle and eventually when the results came, Kumaraswamy was soundly thrashed by Shivakumar by a 15,000-plus margin.
Cut to the present. The same Shivakumar, still in the Congress, undertook multiple measures to ensure that on Wednesday, Kumaraswamy would be sworn in as Karnataka’s 25th chief minister.
What ensures the continued relevance and salience of this regional JD(S) which is often derided as a ‘father-sons’ party for its perceived nepotistic outlook in rewarding its members?
It isn’t as if Karnataka has not seen its share of strong leaders trying to build regional parties. Devraj Urs, a powerful CM who helped Indira Gandhi in her fight to seize control of the Congress, eventually parted ways to start his own Congress (Urs) faction. When it contested the polls, it was a miserable failure.
Sarekoppa Bangarappa, again a potent regional chieftain, floated not one but three different regional parties at various times in his long political innings. All three — Kranti Ranga, Karnataka Congress Party, and Karnataka Vikas Party — did not go anywhere and he had to merge them with the Congress at different junctures.
Politically influential liquor baron Srihari Khoday launched his own Urs Samyuktha Paksha which sank without a trace. Transport mogul and former Member of Parliament Vijay Sankeshwar left the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to launch the Kannada Nadu party. Same result.
BJP’s own mascot in the state BS Yeddyurappa left the party in 2012 for the Karnataka Janatha Paksha. BS Sriramulu, another senior BJP leader, also left around the same time to form the BSR Congress. None of the parties even managed 10 seats. Then why is it that the Deve Gowda-founded JD(S) has managed to become the fulcrum of state politics by wedging itself between two national parties looking to dominate state politics?
For that, it is important to travel back in history.
Ever since the Janata Parivar emerged on the national scene in the 1970s, one of its strongest redoubts was Karnataka. As early as 1983, Karnataka had a Janata government. Indeed, for some time, the government alternated between the Janata Party and the Congress. Such was the strength of the Janata Parivar in Karnataka that Deve Gowda, who was CM of the state, with a mere 17 MPs under his control, became the Prime Minister of India in 1996. After being ousted in just 11 months, Gowda came back to state politics only to realise that his bete noire Ramakrishna Hegde and his disciple JH Patel, the then CM, were trying to take the party and state away from his control.
So true to Janata Parivar’s reputation of dividing to grow and growing to divide, in 1999, the Janata party split, with Hegde, Patel and others joining hands with the likes of George Fernandes to form the Janata Dal (United), while Deve Gowda called his party the Janata Dal (Secular). Gowda, by virtue of having become the PM of India, even if it was serendipitously, had emerged as the tallest leader of the powerful Vokkaliga community in the state. It also helped that the Vokkaligas, the second largest community in the state were concentrated in a few districts in southern Karnataka. Gowda , over the years, had also assiduously built the image of being a farmers leader.
In the first elections it faced as a separate party, the JD(S) won a mere 10 of the 224 assembly seats, 8 seats fewer than its estranged sibling JD(U). However, Gowda quickly realised that adding even a small section of the Muslims who were feeling threatened by the emergence of the BJP in the state, could make him even more powerful. While the JD(U) aligned with the BJP, only to see its vote base shift to the saffron party, Gowda ploughed a lonely furrow. He had a loyal caste base in the Vokkaligas who would vote for his party, irrespective of the candidate, and the addition of Muslims, who accounted for around 12% of the state’s population meant his party was in the game.
Just five years after winning only 10 seats, in 2004 Gowda ensured that his party got 58 seats in a hung assembly. Finally the JD(S) had become a player. If it could not grab power on its own, it had a sufficient base to be the fulcrum around which state politics revolved. It formed a coalition government first with Congress and then Kumaraswamy walked out to become CM with BJP’s help. Gowda senior though, quickly realised that embracing the BJP meant transferring his base without any payback and thus declared that his son had done this without consent, to ensure that Muslim votes would not be lost to the party.
Harish Ramaswamy, a political analyst said: “It is a powerful cocktail of caste, appeal to farmers and minorities, as well as deft political manoeuvring to stay in the race, which has ensured the JD(S) becomes the lynchpin for power in the state, even if it has just 15% of the seats and 18% of the total votes cast.”
A desperate Congress trying to halt the march of the BJP has yielded the CM’s post to Kumaraswamy despite having 78 seats in the assembly to the JD(S)’ 38 (of which one belongs to the BSP and the party will have to re-contest the other when Kumaraswamy, who won from two constituencies, vacates one). For now Deve Gowda and the JD(S) are sitting pretty.