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In Karnataka, Deve Gowda asks a powerful question: ‘Is a regional party needed or not?’

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The exhortation should matter for poll commentary as well, which is often little more than a discussion of the manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres, the jibes and counter-jibes of different parties.

In late February, during the Mahamastabhishekha, the grand ceremony held every 12 years to mark the anointment of the statue of Gomateshwara, the Jain monk, former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda climbed over 600 steps to offer prayers to the statue on top of the Vindhyagiri hill.

A grander testimony to the determination of the 86-year-old national president of the Janata Dal (Secular) is probably hard to find.

With the national media’s attention focused entirely on the movements of the Congress and the BJP in the run-up to the Karnataka assembly polls next month, the efforts of the JD (S) have got little attention. Stray comments about the latter’s role as “kingmaker” or “spoil sport” can, of course, be heard. But they miss out on the distinct relevance of this election for a party that has been out of power for a decade.

The JD (S) announced its candidates for 126 constituencies in mid-February, giving itself lead time for campaign work. Referring to criticism that several members of the Gowda family might be fielded this time, the party has clarified that only H.D. Kumaraswamy and his brother, H.D. Revanna, will contest the elections.

Kumaraswamy’s wife Anitha, a former MLA, and Revanna’s son Prajwal will, therefore, not be offered tickets.

Launched early in November, the JD (S) campaign rallies in rural Karnataka led by Kumaraswamy have focused on the various problems of farmers. Farm loan waivers and providing drinking water in the dry plains are among his chief promises. The party’s agenda for urban areas will become clear after the campaigns begin in cities and towns. As with the other major parties, its election manifesto is yet to be released.

In a likely attempt to cast off its image as a Vokkaliga party, the JD (S) tied up with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) at the massive Vikasa Parva rally in Bengaluru in mid-February. Mayawati and JD (S) leaders from various backward castes and Dalit communities find the same prominence in the party’s posters and newspaper ads. The additional couple of thousand votes that the tie-up with the BSP might fetch in various constituencies will be significant, especially where the contest is close.

In the 2013 assembly elections, the JD(S) had lost by 2,000 votes or less in about a half a dozen constituencies. And, for its part, the BSP, which will field candidates in 20 constituencies, can count on winning one or two.

The subsequent poll deal with the National Congress Party (NCP), which would have helped in a few parts of North Karnataka that have a large Maratha presence, fell through after NCP leader Sharad Pawar campaigned on behalf of Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES) candidates in Belgaum. His support to the MES, a party that aims to merge parts of Belgaum with Maharashtra, made the NCP a liability for the JD(S).

Although a JD (S) MLC, Basavaraj Horatti, has been at the forefront of the Lingayat campaign for separate religion status, the party has shown little interest in claiming credit for his efforts. Indeed, Gowda and Kumaraswamy have asked that the Lingayats and Veerashaivas ought not to be separated. Since the Lingayats have not been showing support to the JD (S), the party might not wish to alienate the Veerashaiva mutts and voters, who wield electoral influence in about a dozen constituencies.

Seven JD (S) MLAs joined the Congress recently. The party did not make any effort to retain these legislators, who had been threatening to leave the party for over a year. Two days ago, another MLA quit to join the BJP. The number of JD (S) MLAs has slipped to 32 in a house of 224.

The question on everyone’s mind is: What might the JD (S) do in the event of a hung assembly?

A pre-election discussion on seat-sharing between the JD (S) and the Congress is not in sight. In the old Mysore region, which accounts for 65 of the 224 assembly seats, the Congress and the JD (S) are in direct contest, ruling out the seat-sharing option. The latter’s tacit support, which let the Congress defeat the BJP in two crucial assembly bypolls last year, and their continuing coalition in the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, had stirred expectations of a pre-election understanding between the two.

Not only did this prove premature when the Congress refused to transfer its residual votes to the JD(S)’s Rajya Sabha nominee recently, Rahul Gandhi’s recent remark that the JD (S) was the B-team of the BJP clarifies that his party is no mood to think of a coalition scenario just yet.

Keen on consolidating a Muslim support base in the state, the Congress appears to have not thought through the implications of dismissing the secular credentials of the JD (S). Especially because Sonia Gandhi had invited JD (S), along with 20 other parties, to a discussion three weeks ago on the possibility of a national secular coalition ahead of the 2019 elections.

After Rahul’s remark, Kumaraswamy hit back with ambiguity: “I warn chief minister Siddaramaiah and the Congress that if I stand beside the BJP and cough, the Congress party will be vanquished in Karnataka politics.”

Losing restraint could prove costly for a party for whom the support of Muslims is crucial not merely in the old Mysore region, but in Hyderabad-Karnataka and central Karnataka regions, where it has found eight of its MLAs.

Despite forming a government with the BJP in 2006, the secular image of the JD (S) has survived due to two reasons. One, the possibility that Kumaraswamy’s decision to form a government with the BJP was made without his father’s knowledge or consent. Second, the JD(S) did not allow the BJP its turn at running the coalition government in 2007. If it forms a coalition with the BJP again this year, in the event of a hung assembly, it won’t be able call itself a “secular” party any longer.

Gowda recently exhorted his supporters at the ‘Vikasa Parva’ rally: “The question in front of us at this moment: Is a regional party needed or not?”

Deve Gowda’s exhortation should matter for election commentary as well, which is often little more than a discussion of the manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres, the jibes and counter-jibes of different parties. Do regional parties offer safeguards to a federal polity? Can we afford to let go of a multi-party system? Engaging questions such as these might open up new angles for grasping the evolving political scenarios.

The author is a Professor of Sociology at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru.

Views are personal.

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  1. We do need regional parties, but not family parties, made of only father, son, grandson, daughter-in-law…

  2. Regional parties are invaluable in a federal polity. In states like Tamil Nadu and Bengal, they have made the national parties irrelevant. However, the JD(S), especially if it ties up with the BSP, is a spoiler, working to a slightly devious agenda.

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