When former Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (Secular) mentions the BJP and the Congress – he often clubs them together and refers to them as “the national parties”.
The Trinamool Congress, the NCP, and the CPI may be dealing with the loss of their “national party” status (AAP has gained the tag), but Mr Kumaraswamy’s party has always been firmly regional. It is not just a regional party, but a regional party whose strength is largely confined to one region of Karnataka.
The Janata Dal was formed in 1988 and it split into the Janata Dal (United) and the JD(S) in 1999.
Not too many years ago in Karnataka, the Janata Dal was able to form a government. It even sent a Prime Minister to Delhi, with HD Deve Gowda unexpectedly catapulted to that post. When Mr Deve Gowda moved to Delhi, he handed over the reins of Karnataka to JH Patel, who completed the full term for the party.
But all that was before the rise of that national party called the BJP.
After 1999, the party did manage to take power and Deve Gowda’s son HD Kumaraswamy was Chief Minister twice – but only as part of a coalition with the ‘national parties’.
Despite the usual line about “forming the government on our own” ahead of state elections in May, it would seem to be a rather unlikely outcome of voting.
To start with, the area of strength for the JD(S) remains the southern part of the state. It is seen as the party of the Vokkaligas, the caste to which its first family belongs. The party’s presence in the Lingayat-dominated northern and central areas is negligible compared to the BJP. It is not as if the JD(S) is guaranteed the Vokkaliga vote either. No section of the population votes completely as a single bloc, and the Congress has considerable appeal in the southern Old Mysuru region of the state too. One of the potential chief ministerial faces of the Congress is state chief DK Shivakumar, who is a Vokkaliga.
Then there has been friction within the Deve Gowda family over the ticket for the Hassan seat. HD Revanna wanted the ticket for his wife Bhavani, while his younger brother, HD Kumaraswamy, was adamant that this will not happen. Ultimately, Kumaraswamy prevailed but these public differences could affect the perception of the party – what does it mean for unity when even the family does not always see eye-to-eye?
The image of the JD(S) as a family-run party is borne out by its actions. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Deve Gowda gave up his safe seat of Hassan for his grandson Prajwal. Gowda himself contested from Tumakuru and lost. Kumaraswamy’s son Nikhil contested against Sumalatha Ambareesh, an independent candidate in Mandya. Nikhil also lost.
But while the odds are against the JD(S) sweeping to power with a majority in the 224-member Karnataka assembly, this by no means indicates that the party is not a significant player.
In the 2018 election, the JD(S) came in third, with a seat tally of 37, well behind the Congress (80) and the BJP (105).
Despite these numbers, it was the JD(S) that was given the post of Chief Minister as part of its deal with the Congress for an alliance to keep the BJP out of power. Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy was once again a kingmaker who became the king.
In 2023, there is every possibility that the BJP will once again fail to win a clear majority on its own. The Congress – while also making confident claims of forming the government – could also fall short. This is where the JD(S) could once again score.
Both the national parties have good reason to be mistrustful of Kumaraswamy. In 2004, with no party getting a clear majority in the Karnataka election, the Congress and the JD(S) came together to form a coalition government. In 2006, he broke his coalition with the Congress and joined hands with the BJP. This, despite his father Deve Gowda’s stated objection to that move. The arrangement with the BJP was meant to be one for sharing the Chief Minister’s post, with Kumaraswamy taking the first turn. But when it came to handing over the reins to the BJP’s BS Yediyurappa, Kumaraswamy failed to keep his part of the bargain and held on to the chair, triggering political chaos. He quit his post and the state was placed under President’s rule. He later decided to back Yediyurappa after all. Yediyurappa was sworn in as Chief Minister, but Kumaraswamy withdrew his support just days later. Yediyurappa had to resign after just a week as the BJP’s first-ever Chief Minister in south India.
Though Kumaraswamy didn’t prove to be the most reliable of partners, the Congress decided to give the JD(S) another shot in 2018. Kumaraswamy says he has been approached by BJP leaders too. It certainly isn’t a case of once bitten, twice shy. In the event of a hung assembly in Karnataka in May, the BJP and the Congress may well have to swallow their pride once again and look towards the JD(S).
(Maya Sharma is a senior television journalist and writer based in Bengaluru.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.