The many lives of a regional party
One cannot rule out the possibility that the JD(S)-BJP alliance is just another marriage that the party has got into in the hope of benefitting from the divorce
The Janata Dal (Secular) joining the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has the appearance of being the last throw of the dice of a party that provided Karnataka’s only prime minister (PM). The JD(S) is expected to contest just four of the state’s 28 parliamentary seats and there are few signs of its leadership bargaining hard for more. The JD(S) is also justifying abandoning its secular tag with former chief minister (CM) HD Kumaraswamy saying the party supported Muslims, but Muslims did not support them. Yet, for those who have followed the JD(S) over the years, there must be some scepticism over the party throwing in the towel so soon.
The ability of the JD(S) to punch far above its weight has been evident throughout the history of the party. Deve Gowda became the PM on the strength of the JD(S) winning 16 parliamentary seats in Karnataka. And to show this was not a fluke his son, Kumaraswamy, became CM twice with just around a third of the MLAs needed for a majority. At the heart of this repeated success is the ability to play the uncertainties of grassroots politics against the certainty of centralised high commands in Delhi.
Back in 1996, I interviewed Deve Gowda after he was elected to head the United Front but before he was sworn in as the PM. I asked him, as one of the rare politicians who had participated in politics from the village level to the highest office in the land, what were the main differences at each level of politics. He answered without any hesitation that there was no difference, he had managed people in his village and would do so in Delhi. The answer consolidated the image of a country bumpkin that he was eager to cultivate.
The comfort high commands in Delhi had in dealing with a politician whom they did not take seriously allowed Deve Gowda considerable leeway. He had repeated success in getting high commands to ignore what their local party units were telling them. He convinced the Congress high command that he was secular, and that a consolidation of secular votes was the best way for them in the 2019 general election. He must have known all the while that the secular-communal divide was not the overriding division in Karnataka politics. Since the late 1980s, decentralisation in Karnataka has led to the emergence of several grassroots politicians who needed to join one or the other national party at election time. As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was on the rise, a collapse of the Congress was all that was needed for the JD(S) to emerge as the main alternative in the state. As the main alternative to the BJP, all the non-BJP local politicians would gravitate towards it.
Local Congress politicians, especially Siddaramaiah who had worked with Deve Gowda for decades, could not have been unaware of this basic conflict of interest. But Deve Gowda’s rapport with the Congress high command overruled all local voices. The Congress formed an alliance with the JD(S) for the 2019 polls. The BJP won 25 seats while the Congress was reduced to a single seat, the same number as the JD(S). In the assembly elections earlier this year, the Congress high command, possibly influenced by its new president, Mallikarjun Kharge, heard Siddaramaiah, broke the alliance with the JD(S), and romped home.
Against this backdrop, the moves of the JD(S) in its alliance with the BJP must be seen in the context of the relationship between the high command and the Karnataka unit of the ruling party in Delhi. The BJP seems to be going through a process of aggressive centralised consolidation around its ideology. In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, they have gone so far down this road that their larger ally, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), has walked out of the NDA. In Karnataka, the assembly elections made it clear that aggressive ideological consolidation came at a high price. It was in its interests to ally with a party that was seen to be on its last legs, so that when the JD(S) did collapse, the BJP would be the major beneficiary.
The JD(S), with its ear to the ground, would be aware that the process of consolidation around the BJP’s ideology would not be smooth. The Hindu institutions that supported the BJP in the state would not necessarily be happy to be ruled either by the PM’s office or by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. This may have contributed to some Lingayat mathas breaking away from the BJP in the assembly elections. And there are signs that the BJP may be alienating other Hindu institutions as well.
Among the more influential religious institutions that used to support the BJP is the temple at Dharmasthala. The institution being owned by Jains despite having Hindu priests and traditions suits the broader idea of Hindutva. Its influence has also extended far beyond the religious domain through its Shree Kshetra Dharmasthala Rural Development Programme (SKDRDP). This programme is designed to leave a substantial impact on the economies of villages and has been found in villages far beyond the religious influence of the temple. Hindutva cadres have now turned against the temple in what is popularly believed to be an attempt to displace the current head of the institution.
The JD(S) would love to fish in these troubled waters. It would expect that the Congress, with its strong Backward Caste, Scheduled Caste, and minority image, would not always be the preferred destination for the dominant castes that are unhappy with the BJP. The JD(S) as a party of at least one dominant caste – the Vokkaligas – and barely disguised disdain for the Scheduled Castes would be an option dominant castes would consider.
Even as the JD(S) is recovering from a disastrous assembly election, we cannot rule out the possibility that its alliance with the BJP is just another marriage that the party has got into in the hope of benefitting from the divorce.
Narendar Pani is professor and dean, School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. The views expressed are personal