JD(S): A party in hibernation that’s relevant only during polls in Karnataka
The upcoming elections in Karnataka have seen the JD(S) in full flow, right from picking up discards, identifying new entrants, and making constituency-level deals. The only difference is that this time they are up against Siddarammaiah who comes from the same JD(S) traditionUpdated: May 03, 2018 12:02 IST
The Janata Dal(Secular) in Karnataka has an incredible habit of turning up just at election time and still be taken seriously. In the years between elections they are rarely heard. There may be the occasional flutter when JD(S) president HD Deve Gowda chooses to play a leadership role in the Cauvery dispute, but typically they give the impression of a party in hibernation. Yet at election time no one quite rules out the possibility of HD Kumaraswamy dealing his way to chief ministership.
On the face of it, this is largely because of the Deve Gowda family projecting itself as the sole spokespersons of the Vokkaligas, one of the dominant castes in Karnataka. And there is little doubt that in the popular imagination, the JDS is the party this community is most closely associated with. However, in hard political numbers, this is hardly sufficient to explain the political mileage the JD(S) gains at election time. The Vokkaligas account for just around 12% of Karnataka’s population and it is not as if other parties do not have important leaders from this community. DK Shiva Kumar of the Congress, for one, sees himself as a chief minister in waiting.
The resilience of the JD(S) has more to do with the imbalance that has emerged between the politics of the grassroots and that of national political parties.
Rural Karnataka is going through a very substantial transformation. In several parts of the state, particularly in coastal and southern Karnataka, people are leaving agriculture in very large numbers. These voters may have in the past supported the irrigation- and agriculture-based politics of the national parties, but they now have other concerns. They are more sensitive to issues like transportation that would help them access jobs in cities, or education that would help their children find non-agricultural jobs.
Not surprisingly, there are new politicians emerging who are providing greater attention to these issues. It is very difficult for these new politicians to gain the attention of the highly-centralised national parties. The channels of communication between the grassroots and the centralised leadership in the national parties are usually choked with established leaders who are very averse to competition from the new entrants into rural politics.
It is here that the weaknesses of the JD(S) are turned into strengths. Its hibernation over the five years between assembly elections results in the party being reduced to one dominated by a single family. Such a party has no place for second-line leaders who could grow to challenge the family. This weakness ensures it does not have candidates at election time. Thus, they are more than happy to welcome credible new candidates into the party fold when elections come around. And since Gowda has always prided himself on having his ear to the ground, he usually does quite well in spotting both the leaders who have lost their local support as well as promising new entrants.
Invariably the centralised national parties do their bit to help the JD(S). In addition to not being able to spot new talent, they also have a penchant for discarding the wrong local politicians. By positioning itself to capture all the political talent that is being cast its way, the JD(S) manages to grow in strength in the weeks before the election. The party can then put all its usually limited resources to play in the last days leading up to the polls. Gowda is on record arguing that elections are always decided in the last two or three days before polling.
Even as adopting prematurely discarded candidates and some promising ones helps the JD(S) punch well above its pre-election weight, it is usually not enough to generate a majority for the party. Much then depends on neither of the national parties gaining a majority on their own. To this end, the JD(S) is not averse to making supposedly secret constituency-level deals with one or the other national party. In constituencies where it does not believe it has a chance, it is open to putting up candidates who can eat into the votes of the party that is closest to getting a majority.
The upcoming elections in Karnataka have seen the JD(S) in full flow, right from picking up discards, identifying new entrants, and making constituency-level deals. The only difference is that this time they are up against Siddarammaiah, who comes from the same JD(S) tradition.
Narendar Pani is professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru
The views expressed are personal