With elections to the Karnataka Assembly fast approaching, most are looking either at the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to form the next government. What about the Janata Dal (Secular) (JD(S))? For a party that emerged as the original alternative to the Congress, today the JD(S) is no longer in the reckoning. If there is anyone or anything to blame, much of it must be apportioned to the party’s own leadership.
For the JD(S) to return to relevance, it must hope that neither the Congress nor the BJP wins a majority. In which case, JD(S) chief HD Kumaraswamy can become kingmaker. Some consolation but still no comparison to independently forming a government.
But, how did a party which, in the 80s and the 90s, was the principal alternative to the Congress in Karnataka get pushed out of the competition? The euphoric days of 1983, when the Janata Party (the precursor to the Janata Dal), came to power at the head of a coalition cannot be easily forgotten. For the first time the Janata Party-led coalition had managed to dethrone the Congress, this being no mean achievement. The Congress in that period was so confident that some of its leaders would boast that the party would win in a constituency even if a donkey was chosen as a candidate.
Having chosen Ramakrishna Hegde as a compromise candidate to quell any possible dissent by HD Deve Gowda or SR Bommai, the party entrenched itself in the state’s polity. Hegde, after a couple of years, announced mid-term elections. In 1985, the Janata Party came to power on its own.
A combination of caste politics and personal feud among Gowda, Hegde and Bommai wrecked the party and it lost elections in 1989, without completing a full term. The party had however, by then, consolidated its hold over the electorate. While Deve Gowda attracted a strong support base in South Karnataka among those belonging to the Vokkaliga caste, Bommai and Hegde had the support of the Lingayat caste in North Karnataka.
In addition, the anti-incumbency suffered by the Congress meant that the Other Backward Classes, Dalits and minorities too had shifted to the Janata Party, now in the form of the Janata Dal. Gowda and Hegde realised they would be able to win only if they re-united, and they did. That support base held good in the 1994 Assembly elections and the party returned to power.
Two years later, unexpectedly, Gowda was chosen as the prime ministerial candidate by the United Front in Delhi. If this was good for Gowda personally, it proved to be the party’s undoing. Hegde, who at one time, was projected by the media as a prime ministerial candidate could not digest the news. He reacted sarcastically to Gowda’s elevation. Within hours, Gowda expelled him from the Dal. If there was one move that could be held responsible for the party’s relative insignificance in Karnataka politics today, it was this decision.
Gowda’s impulsive decision reopened the Hegde-Gowda faultline within the party. Hegde’s faction was the Janata Dal (United) and Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular).
Hegde made the first move that benefited the BJP enormously. He aligned with the party in the 1999 Assembly elections. By doing this, he willy-nilly transferred his votes in North Karnataka to the BJP and that is how the party managed to gain its strength in that part of the state. The JD (U) eventually all but withered away in the state.
The effect of this was seen in the 2004 Assembly elections, when no party was able to get a majority. The JD(S) aligned with the Congress to form a government with HD Kumaraswamy as deputy chief minister. The JD(S) then made a strategic mistake by aligning with the BJP in 2006 and then betraying it. Kumaraswamy probably couldn’t resist the temptation of becoming chief minister in alliance with the BJP. Without a second thought, the JD(S) ditched its original partner, the Congress. Worse, when it was time for BJP chief BS Yeddyurappa to take over from Kumaraswamy (as per their agreement) for the rest of the term, the JD(S) chief withdrew support to his partner within hours of handing over chief ministership.
The ensuing sympathy for the BJP was a major factor in its victory in the 2008 elections.
Since then, the JD(S) has never recovered lost ground. Not just that, the traditional supporters of the party shifted support to the BJP and the Congress. The JD(S) has managed to hold on to some support in Central and South Karnataka. Elsewhere, the party hardly matters.
Within the JD(S), confusion reigns over the future. The patriarch Deve Gowda finds his progeny having their own ideas about the party, and he is unable to effectively intervene. The moves by Kumaraswamy in 2006 and 2008 when he let down both the Congress and the BJP have severely dented his credibility. At least eight JD(S) legislators defied the party’s whip in the 2017 Rajya Sabha elections raising questions over the control of the leadership.
To make matters worse, the gen-next in Gowda’s family including the sons of Kumaraswamy and his older brother HD Revanna have their own aspirations which don’t exactly match up to the expectations of the elders in the family. All this makes the forthcoming elections seriously challenging for the JD(S).
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Bangalore)