Bengaluru: With another round of elections in Karnataka, questions are once again being raised on the Janata Dal (Secular)’s survivability in the state.
Bypolls to two assembly segments — Maski and Basavakalyan — and the Lok Sabha seat of Belagavi are to be held on 17 April, but the JD(S) has decided to contest only at Maski.
The party’s reasoning is that the elections are being held in the Lingayat-dominated North Karnataka, where it has traditionally performed poorly.
But the JD(S), led by former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda and his son, former Karnataka CM H.D. Kumaraswamy, has been steadily ceding ground even in its fiefdom of South Karnataka.
The party draws its strength from the Vokkaligas, a dominant community that comprises 15 per cent of Karnataka’s population and is spread across the southern parts of the state, also known as the Old Mysore region.
But since 2019, the JD(S)’s support base among the Vokkaligas has been eroding.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the JD(S) lost several of its pocketboroughs in the region. Deve Gowda himself lost his Tumkur seat, while grandson Nikhil Gowda lost from Mandya. The only saving grace was that the senior Gowda’s other grandson, Prajwal Revanna, won the Hassan seat.
The JD(S) had then been in alliance with the Congress, and the two parties together managed to win just two of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in the state.
The dismal showing was followed by the BJP’s ‘Operation Lotus’, which saw it topple the then Congress-JD(S) government in the state by effecting defections in the ruling alliance. Three of the 17 defectors were from the JD(S).
In the bypolls held in December 2019, the JD(S) lost in its once-strongholds of K.R. Pete, Chikkaballapura, Mahalakshmi Layout, Hunsur, Sira and R.R. Nagar.
Political experts say that given its dismal run of electoral form, it makes little sense for the party to stay out of the current round of elections.
“Any party would try and contest elections to ensure that they reclaim seats. Instead, Kumaraswamy has said that they want to concentrate on the 2023 assembly elections,” political analyst Sandeep Shastri said. “What does it show? You build a party from the grassroots by retaining your seats and building on them.”
Shastri added that the JD(S) was definitely facing an existential crisis and needed to go beyond the Gowda family.
“For the JD(S), at the end of the day, the chief interest seems to be to protect the family,” Shastri added. “They have somersaulted and poll-vaulted just to stay in power. They are protecting the party to protect the family.”
Critics also say that the JD(S) has “no principles” these days. “The party may exist for a few more years as Deve Gowda still has some amount of following,” said BJP leader and former JD(S) state president H. Viswanath. “But the JD(S) has now become an adjustable party that doesn’t have any policy or principle. They will go with anybody.”
“The party leaders are desperate and though they may try every possible way, including forming coalitions with the BJP or Congress, whichever is in power, they have now lost their own identity,” said a senior leader who recently quit the JD(S).
For now, however, the JD(S) remains defiant, asserting that bypolls matter little.
“General elections are fought on different issues and bypolls are very specific with the ruling party generally having the advantage,” Kumaraswamy told ThePrint. “But we know that our votebank is intact. We have identified 100-plus seats in which we can regain the trust of people and win. People have not lost trust in us.”
BJP gaining ground
The JD(S) losing ground has left the Vokkaliga votes up for grabs in Karnataka, with both the BJP and the Congress eyeing the electorally influential community.
The BJP swept the 2019 parliamentary polls in the Old Mysore region, and then made gains in the bypolls in the area.
The party has particularly increased its vote-share in JD(S) strongholds. Take, for example, the Sira seat in Tumkur district that saw bypolls in 2019.
The JD(S) vote-share in the constituency plummeted from 41 per cent in the 2018 assembly elections to 20 per cent in 2019. The BJP gained from a 9.4 per cent vote-share in 2018 to about 41 per cent.
This despite the fact that the entire Gowda clan, including Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy, had campaigned in Sira.
The BJP has also worked on the Vokkaliga factor. Eight ministers of the current Yediyurappa government are Vokkaligas — K.C. Narayana Gowda, K. Gopalaiah, S.T. Somashekar, Dr K. Sudhakar, R. Ashok, C.N. Ashwath Narayan, C.P. Yogeshwar and MTB Nagaraj.
Former minister C.T. Ravi, a Vokkaliga leader, was recently promoted as the BJP national general secretary.
In the budget this year, the Yediyurappa government also announced that it would set up a Vokkaliga Development Corporation and earmarked Rs 500 crore for the initiative.
“This decision has been welcomed by the Vokkaligas and why wouldn’t they shift their support to the BJP if they are given such benefits,” asked a BJP leader from the community.
“The Vokkaligas are not the property of the JD(S). People from the community will vote for the party that brings in development,” said the BJP’s C.T. Ravi.
BJP spokesperson Capt. Ganesh Karnik believes that as long as Deve Gowda is at the helm, Vokkaliga votes will not shift to other parties so quickly.
“Kumaraswamy does not have the same hold or sway like his father,” he said. “The JD(S)’s power is waning and votes may split with the Congress getting the support of the older generation and the younger generation, who find Modi very appealing, will shift their allegiance to the BJP.”
As for the Karnataka Congress, the party has promoted D.K. Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga, to helm its affairs in the state.
Shivakumar has cemented his position as a dominant Vokkaliga leader in the state pushing to the sidelines the father-son duo of the JD(S).
A senior Congress leader said Shivakumar is as powerful a Vokkaliga leader as the Gowdas and will be able to bring in JD(S) leaders upset by the Gowda family politics.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)