JD(S): The third wheel of Karnataka politics comes off

Political pundits and even JD (S) party workers feel Karnataka's entrenched third wheel has derailed and is in a state of long-term decline. Many are pessimistic about its return to power, what has gone wrong for the party?

The decline of JD(S), Deve Gowda, HDK
The family model of running JD(S) has failed completely for the political party

On May 11, two days before election results for the new Karnataka assembly were announced, JD(S) leader HD Kumaraswamy (HDK) said he was willing to form a government with either BJP or Congress if they agreed to his ‘conditions’. He implied that he wanted the chief minister’s post and then a free hand to rule.

Seven out of 10 exit polls had predicted a hung assembly and a coalition government looked imminent.

“We all thought Congress and BJP would fall below 100 seats and JD(S) with its expected 40 MLAs would call the shots as usual,” says Anand C, a JD(S) party worker, in Hassan, the party’s home district. “But, the Congress came like a flood and swept us aside,” he adds.

The results derailed JD(S), the entrenched third wheel of Karnataka politics. It crashed to 19 seats from 37 in 2018, while Congress swept the state with 135 seats. In the eight districts in southern Karnataka, the Vokkaliga heartland and JD(S) bastion, it had won 29 seats. The JD(S) tally in the region fell from 29 seats in 2018 to 18.

Punching above weight

Vokkaligas and Lingayats, the two dominant castes in the state, have wielded power beyond their numbers. Vokkaligas, about 11 per cent of the population, have an advantage in turning their numbers into seats, as they are concentrated in a few districts, which return 55 MLAs.

To get a majority in Karnataka, it is crucial for parties to do well in the Vokkaliga heartland. As the Vokkaliga vote eluded BJP, it could never form a government with full majority, despite making impressive gains in the other regions.

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Though Congress and JD(S) have long contested for the Vokkaliga vote, JD(S) gained an upperhand in the 2013 and 2018 elections. As the Lingayats flocked to BJP under BSY, their political rivals Vokkaligas rallied behind JD(S), the party run by the community patriarch, Deve Gowda.

In the 2018 election, JD(S) not only won 29 seats in the Vokkaliga districts but also won them with one of the highest margins in the state. The situation has upended now with its vote share falling to 28.8 per cent, and Congress and BJP share rising to 39.4 per cent and 21.4 per cent in southern Karnataka. The three parties, JD(S), Congress and BJP had respectively won 37.4 per cent, 33.8 per cent and 18.2 per cent of the votes in 2018.

The decline of JD (S) is a landmark event as Karnataka may move towards a two-party system if the party fails to make a comeback.

Frustration over family politics

Vokkaligas have been critical of Deve Gowda and HDK for letting their family members corner key party and electoral positions. Two of Deve Gowda’s sons are MLAs, a grandson is an MP and another is an MLC. A third grandson lost a Lok Sabha election in 2019 and an assembly seat in this election, where his mother was a sitting MLA.

In this election, the family disagreed over the candidate for the Hassan constituency. HDK wanted to give the ticket to a party worker, while his elder brother Revanna’s wife wanted it for herself. The open feud between the two factions played out for days souring the public perception towards the family. “It was a reminder that JD(S) represented the family more than its voters. The incident became a talking point and upset even their supporters, who decided to punish the family,” says a professor in Mysore university.

Revanna, who had won his bastion Holenarsipura with a lead of 43,832 votes in 2018, scraped through this time with just 2,758 votes against a 31-year-old opponent. HDK’s son, Nikhil, contested from another family bastion at Ramanagara and lost it by over 11,000 votes.

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Congress wave

A retired senior tax officer in Hassan says there was a strong anti-incumbency mood against BJP in Vokkaliga districts as well. “The welfare guarantees promised by the Congress worked. There was a massive shift in the votes of poor families towards Congress from both JD (S) and BJP,” he says.

The rise of DK Shivakumar (DKS) in Congress, a Vokkaliga himself, further drew the community votes. DKS had struggled to grow beyond a few constituencies close to his home Kanakapura for decades. His image of a brash, upstart politician and the presence of heavyweights elsewhere had limited his influence.

But, his elevation as state Congress president brought him new attention from the community. “Congress has a tradition of appointing state chiefs as chief ministers. So many voted to put him on the hot seat,” says Anand, JD (S) party worker.

Loss of Dalit and Muslim votes

JD(S) was also deserted by Dalit and Muslim voters, who consolidated behind the Congress.

Several prominent Dalit leaders came together and mobilised against BJP fearing that it was seeking to undermine the Constitution. The saffron party’s attempt to enforce a shrill Hindutva agenda targeting Muslims put the minority community on a high state of alert. Both of these numerically strong communities embraced the Congress seeing it as a lesser of the two evils and the JD(S), which would usually get a share of their votes, became collateral damage.

JD(S), which has been winning up to a quarter of seats in the 36 reserved constituencies for Dalits, drew a blank this time. None of its Muslim candidates won and the loss of the Muslim vote was behind HDK’s son’s defeat in Ramanagara. Dalit and Muslim leaders say they have lost trust in JD(S) due to its lack of ideology and willingness to join hands with the BJP for power.

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A perfect storm

After the results were announced, Deve Gowda’s grandson Prajwal Revanna, who is an MP, said the party would make a comeback. He pointed out that the party had collapsed to 10 seats in 1999 after a split but had bounced back to claim 58 seats in 2004.

But many pundits and even party workers are pessimistic of its chances of returning to power. They say JD(S) is in a state of long-term decline and overcoming problems, which have become entrenched over the years, will be tough.

Though JD(S) has occasionally held the key to power, its decline started nearly two decades ago. In the 2004 election, it had prominent leaders from different communities, like Siddaramaiah (Kuruba), Govind Karjol (Dalit), RV Deshpande (Brahmin), CM Udasi and Basavaraj Bommai (Lingayat), Krishna Byre Gowda (Vokkaliga) and Zameer Ahmed Khan (Muslim). With the exit of these leaders, JD (S) became a party of Vokkaligas and further devolved into a family party, which was wary of even other popular leaders from the community.

Its chances of a comeback depends on not just how it overcomes its problems but also on how the other two parties fare in the Vokkaliga districts.

D K Shivakumar’s challenge

The Congress has been an old warhorse in southern Karnataka. Though JD(S) became dominant in recent years, the Congress organisation and leadership lay dormant waiting for a chance to spring back. The Congress under DKS is a formidable rival to JD(S), which in effect is a sub-regional party, which can never form a government on its own.

If DKS consolidates his power in Congress, the pan-Karnataka party offers Vokkaligas a better chance of gaining power. DKS campaigned in the Vokkaliga districts urging people ‘to vote for power that had come to their doorstep’. “We knew that DKS would pull Vokkaliga votes in different constituencies. But we did not expect him to open the floodgates,” says Anand.

DKS is softening his image and is now seen as the tallest leader of the community. “Vokkaligas do not have any other option right now. He is the only one who can empower them in the state,” says the Mysore professor.

Indicating the mood of the community, the head of the Adichunchangri Matha, Nirmalananda Swami, came out in support of DKS. During the post-election tense power struggle in the Congress, he urged the high command to make DKS the next chief minister.

When BJP tried to promote two fictional Vokkaliga characters, Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda, who allegedly killed Tipu Sultan, the Swami stepped in decisively to oppose the communal campaign saying it was portraying the community in poor light. Though the Swami is seen as being close to the Sangh parivar, his intervention forced BJP to drop the communal campaign and helped the Congress dodge a tricky situation.

But to get the top post, DKS has to wait for Siddarmiah’s retirement patiently, reach out to other communities and importantly resolve the legal cases against him.

BJP’s cup half full

To break into southern Karnataka, BJP promoted Vokkaliga leaders, launched campaigns against Muslims and brought in Prime Minister Modi to hold road shows extensively. Its efforts have yielded a mixed result and landed the party in a cup-half-full-or-empty scenario. Its vote share climbed from 18.2 per cent to 21.4 per cent in southern Karnataka, but specifically in the eight Vokkaliga districts, its seat tally has dipped from 8 in 2018 to 6.

Party insiders say BJP’s prospects are rising in the region. A spokesperson, Mohan Vishwa, pointed out in a newspaper article that the BJP had pulled in impressive votes in many constituencies such as Mandya (30,000), Maddur (28,000), Shrirangapattana (42,000), Malavalli (25,000), HD Kote (48,000), T Narasipura (20,000), Magadi (20,000) and Devanahalli (34,000).

Anand says BJP’s impressive gains in select constituencies reflected the strength of its individual candidates than of the party. Many independent candidates have also fetched similar votes, he points out. For instance, in Arakalagudu, which was won by JD(S), contesting as an independent K T Krishne Gowda won over 55,000 votes and came way ahead of BJP and Congress.

BJP’s gains were also matched by steep losses in select constituencies. Narayana Gowda, a sitting BJP Minister, came third in K R Pete getting 38,151 votes. He had earlier defected from JD(S) to BJP and won the 2019 by-election winning 66,094 votes.

In the 2018 election, BJP candidates came runner up in 15 constituencies in the region. The number has dipped to 8 now. In fact, in the Vokkaliga constituencies, BJP scored less seats in this election than in 2008 when it had won 9 seats.

The Mysore professor says the bump in BJP vote share is probably a fall out of the intense factional fight between JD(S) and Congress supporters in the villages. “Many JD(S) supporters are staunchly anti-Congress. If they are unhappy with JD (S), they would rather vote for BJP than Congress,” he says.

BJP’s ideological push is yet to make a large impact. “There are a few mostly urban voters responding to the issues of Hindutva and nationalism. But they are just a small percentage,” says.

Reinventing JD(S)

The biggest obstacle to JD (S) comes from within. Under HDK the party has lost its statewide appeal and become confined to a few Vokkaliga districts. “HDK lacks vision to grow the party in other regions. He is happy getting 40 seats and waiting for a hung assembly,” says the professor.

In northern Karnataka’s Dharwad district, 4 out of 7 JD(S) candidates won less than 1,000 votes. The combined vote of all the 7 JD (S) candidates was just 15,638.

In the Vokkaliga districts, there are very few leaders of stature outside the family as JD(S) has a poor record of retaining talent. Any leader, who becomes popular, eventually leaves the party and tries his luck elsewhere.

A party like JD(S) without a strong ideology or cadre would struggle to survive without power. Finding resources to face the coming local body and Lok sabha elections will be a challenge.

The family model of running JD(S) has failed. HDK and Revanna carved out spheres of influence and stuck to that, Revanna stayed put in Hassan district and HDK worked elsewhere. Once they retire, would the next generation find a way to co-exist? “The answer is a one hundred per cent no,” says Anand.n