How Gowda going to Delhi as PM helped BJP come to power in Karnataka

HD Deve Gowda’s transcendence as prime minister 25 years ago and the break in the Janata Dal following Hegde’s expulsion turned out to be an unexpected opportunity for the BJP

H D Deve Gowda. - The Federal
HD Deve Gowda became prime minister 25 years ago | Photo: PTI

Karnataka is waking up to the fact that it has been 25 years,  a silver jubilee of sorts,  since one of its own, HD Deve Gowda, “bent it like Beckham” to emerge as India’s prime minister. What Gowda did or did not do at the helm of power is one thing. But, if there’s anyone who should be beholden to him, it must be the Bharatiya Janata Party.

For, it was Gowda’s migration from Bengaluru to Delhi that eventually led to the empowering of the BJP in Karnataka, enabling it to establish itself in the state.

Of course, no one at the time – on June 1, 1996 – would have foreseen the tumultuous events in Karnataka that would quickly follow Gowda’s promotion from being the satrap of a state to the prime leader of the nation.

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Hours after news reached Bengaluru that Gowda was chosen by the United Front as its prime ministerial candidate, his colleague and long-time rival within the Janata Dal, Ramakrishna Hegde, seemed shocked.

Often referred to by the media as a “prime minister in waiting” in the late 1980s, Hegde was visibly  unable to stomach the news. He met reporters and spewed sarcasm on Gowda and his ability to function out of Delhi. Hegde expressed doubts over his knowledge of Hindi, among other personal cribs.

A livid Gowda, once he had cleared the trust vote in Parliament, expelled Hegde from the Janata Dal. It triggered a crack in Karnataka’s Janata Dal – on one side was the pro-Gowda faction and on the other a pro-Hegde faction, which included the newly-named chief minister, JH Patel.

Both Hegde and Gowda may have behaved like two feuding rivals within the party, but they did not have the foresight to envision that their petty squabble had sowed the seed for the marginalisation of the Janata Dal in Karnataka to the benefit of the BJP.

In 1996, when Gowda became prime minister, the Janata Dal and the Congress were the two main parties in Karnataka. The BJP was struggling to make a mark.  Though the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition had won it electoral dividends, that was not enough to come to power. In the 1994 assembly elections, the BJP was a distant second with 40 seats after the victor,  Janata Dal, while the Congress had crashed to 34 seats.

But, in terms of vote share, the BJP was third with 16.99 per cent. The Congress vote share was 26.95 per cent while the Janata Dal was at 33.54 per cent.

In the earlier 1989 election, the Congress had secured a record 178 of the 224 seats with a vote share of 43.76 per cent. The Janata Dal came second with 24 seats but with a vote share of 27.08 per cent. The BJP won a mere four seats with a vote share of 4.14 per cent.

What this essentially meant was that, until 1996,  votes were getting mutually transferred from the Congress to the Janata Dal and vice versa. But the BJP was not in the reckoning.

Gowda’s transcendence as prime minister and the break in the Janata Dal following Hegde’s expulsion turned out to be an unexpected opportunity for the BJP.  Hegde, smarting under the humiliation of expulsion,  formed the Janata Dal (United) – a rather ironical nomenclature for a party that had split.

Seeking revenge against Gowda, in the 1999 assembly election, he aligned with the BJP. This, in effect, turned out to be the takeoff point for the saffron party.

Hegde, who traditionally had a massive following among the Lingayats in north Karnataka, willy-nilly transferred votes to the BJP as his alliance partner. But, there was no return gift for Hegde, as BJP at the time did not have a large enough vote base of its own. In the process, the JD(U) did abysmally at the polls and the Congress returned to power under SM Krishna. Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) too performed badly. But, the BJP came closer to power, by vote share.

The Congress won 132 seats, a comfortable majority, with a vote share of  40.84 per cent (almost regaining its traditional dominant position). What is interesting is the BJP’s vote share, which went up to 20.69 per cent, though seatwise, it secured only 44.  The divided Janata Dal came in third and fourth places – the Gowda faction getting 10 seats (10.42 per cent vote share) and the Hegde faction marginally better with 18 seats (13.53 per cent).

Clearly, Hegde’s expulsion and the division of the Janata Dal were working in the BJP’s favour.

The 2004 election was, in a sense, the turning point when the electorate returned a textbook case of hung verdict. This meant the BJP had emerged as the third force following the re-prioritisation of political preferences among Karnataka’s electorate. The result was a fractured outcome. The death of Hegde in January of that year probably hastened the vote transfer from his JD(U) to the BJP.

The BJP, for the first time, became the single largest party in Karnataka with 79 seats (vote share 28.33 per cent), the Congress second with 65 seats (35.27 per cent), the JD(S) making a comeback with 58 seats (20.77 per cent) and the JD(U) a vastly diminished five seats (2.06 per cent vote share).

Effectively, along with Hegde, his JD(U) too had reached its electoral sunset with its leader’s vote share mainly shifting to the BJP – the big beneficiary.

Finally, helped by Gowda’s JD(S), the BJP tasted power for the first time in 2006 in an alliance that saw its leader BS Yediyurappa sworn in as deputy chief minister under HD Kumaraswamy as chief minister.

The BJP, since then, has gone from strength to strength – becoming the single largest party and within handshake distance of a simple majority in 2008, and again in the 2018 elections when it agonizingly fell short of a majority. The BJP won 104 seats (36.35 per cent vote share), Congress 80 seats (38.14 per cent) and the JD(S) 37 seats (18.3 per cent)

But this time, with a more aggressive central leadership under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his associate and ex-party president Amit Shah, the party broke the Congress-JD(S) coalition under questionable circumstances to occupy the seat of power in July 2019.

Overall,  the latest vote share indicates that today the BJP has captured the vote base of the erstwhile united JD. The Congress is more or less where it is, holding on to its vote share at around 40 per cent.

In a full-page first person advertorial on Thursday in the local papers on the occasion of Gowda’s ‘silver jubilee’,  his son and former Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy, in a hard-to-believe claim, says his father had nothing to do with Hegde’s expulsion.

Instead, he blames the then JD national president Lalu Prasad Yadav and senior party colleague SR Bommai for wanting Hegde out for their own reasons.  This despite the fact that, as Kumaraswamy himself concedes, “Lalu told the press that he had expelled Hegde for having publicly criticised Deve Gowda.”

Former speaker of the state assembly and a once-important JD politician, KR Ramesh Kumar, who is now with the Congress, however, has an interesting take on the issue. In an article in Deccan Herald, while taking great pride in a humble farmer from Karnataka becoming prime minister, he says had Hegde been more appreciative of Gowda “perhaps history would have taken a different turn”. Or, if for any reason,  Gowda had stayed back in Karnataka “political history would have been entirely different”.

Kumar’s views are understandable as he belonged to the Janata Dal at a time when the party seemed unassailable in Karnataka, when few in the state could have visualised a situation where the party would be struggling to survive.

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