When former prime minister HD Deve Gowda led a faction of the erstwhile Janata Dal and formed the Janata Dal (Secular) in 1999, he declared that his party would forever maintain an equidistance from both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The term ‘equidistance’ was chanted like a mantra by everyone who mattered in the JD(S) in those days. And indeed many mattered in the party then, including former chief minister Siddaramaiah. In the strange twists and turns that politics in this southern state witnessed since then, the JD(S) dumped the principle of equidistance.
It hobnobbed and shared power with both the Congress and the BJP, which made a senior journalist describe the party as the ‘third bedfellow’ in the harem of Karnataka politics. Not just that – wittingly or unwittingly – it was the JD(S) which virtually shaped the fortunes of both the BJP and the Congress in the years that followed.
The JD(S) Love for Party-Hoppers
The contradictions that characterise the two decades of JD(S) politics goes much beyond giving a go-by to the equidistance rule. The party, which calls itself secular, owes its existence primarily to the unstinted support it enjoys from a single caste group – the Vokkaligas. Deve Gowda is to the Vokkaligas what BS Yeddyurappa became to the Lingayats much later.
None of the Vokkaliga leaders in the Congress or the BJP could shake Deve Gowda’s place in the caste-group’s collective consciousness as their supreme political representative.
The JD(S) claims to be a party of farmers. Its symbol of a woman carrying hay on her head aptly captures this claim. However, its electoral performance so far has amply established that farmers outside its catchment region hardly identify themselves with this party.
Essentially, it is a party of the Vokkaligas and by the Vokkaligas. It has a sprinkle of elected representatives from other communities too, but most of them are those who crossed over to it having failed to get nominated from the Congress or the BJP to fight elections.
As the JD(S) always looks out for candidates to contest outside its strongholds, it welcomes these ‘party-hoppers’ with open arms. Some of them leave the party after the elections. Some stay for longer. As this process repeats itself in every election, the party comes to (full) life only during the elections.
The Grand Old Man of JD(S)
When the JD(S) was formed, it had many stalwarts of the erstwhile Janata Dal. But with the rise of Gowda’s sons – Kumaraswamy and his elder brother HD Revanna – into prominence, almost all of them left it to join either the Congress or the BJP. The party still maintains a national structure with Deve Gowda as its national president, Kumaraswamy as state president, and scores of other national and state-level office bearers.
In reality, however, it is a political venture built, owned, and operated entirely by the Deve Gowda family, with its strongholds confined to three to five districts of southern Karnataka, and drawing its sustenance from a single caste. The third generation of the family, grandsons of Deve Gowda, is already active in the party.
In the first election that it contested in 1999, JD(S) won only 10 seats. Just when everyone started dismissing it as ‘insignificant’, it sprung a surprise by winning 59 seats in the 2004 election. Strangely, this was the election in which a popular Vokkaliga chief minister from the Congress, SM Krishna, made a strong bid for a second term in office, riding on the claims of good governance.
Sensing the prospect of Krishna’s emergence as an alternative leader of Vokkaligas, Deve Gowda mounted a scathing attack on Krishna’s alleged urban-centric policies and punctured holes in his “good governance” claims. Gowda’s efforts yielded results. No party got a majority in that election.
The Congress, led by Krishna, came second after the BJP. The JD(S) became the kingmaker and entered into an alliance with the Congress to form the first-ever coalition government in Karnataka.
Friendship and Betrayal
When this government, headed at the time by Congress chief minister Dharam Singh, completed 20 months, the JD(S) faced a family coup. Keeping his father in the dark, Kumaraswamy led a group of JD(S) MLAs to withdraw support to the Dharam Singh government. The Kumaraswamy faction entered into a new alliance with the BJP, which was waiting in the wings, nursing the grouse that it could not form the government despite having been the single largest party.
Kumaraswamy became the chief minister and Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat, the deputy chief minister. This was the first instance of the BJP tasting power in the south of the Vindhyas.
Deve Gowda had initially sulked over his son joining hands with the BJP, sacrificing the secular credentials of the party. But later, Deve Gowda accepted his son’s justification that he had to do this to save the party from the Congress’ designs to destroy it by poaching its MLAs.
Under the alliance, the JD(S) was to give the chief minister’s post to Yeddyurappa after 20 months. However, when it was time to pass the baton, Kumaraswamy, under pressure from Deve Gowda, refused to honour the agreement, leading to the imposition of the President’s Rule.
A significant offshoot of this betrayal story was that it intensified the traditional political rivalry between the Vokkaligas and Lingayats further and established Yeddyurappa as an unchallenged leader of the community.
The BJP made JD(S) betrayal a major issue in the elections that followed in 2008, and came to power with 110 seats. The JD(S)’s performance plummeted to just 28 seats. The BJP formed the first-ever government on its own in southern India. The JD(S) was thus responsible for the BJP coming to power in Karnataka, first by extending a hand of friendship, and then by handing it a powerful election issue of betrayal.
The JD(S) also contributed to the revival of the Congress, which was rudderless after SM Krishna moved to the sidelines having failed to get re-elected in 2004. In the Congress-JD(S) coalition government led by Dharam Singh, the JD(S) made Siddaramaiah the deputy chief minister. Siddaramaiah was unhappy that Deve Gowda did not bargain enough with the Congress to make him the chief minister.
This discontent grew into a rift between Siddaramaiah and Deve Gowda. Siddaramaiah felt that he was not getting his due in the Vokkaliga-dominated party. He started organising a series of conventions of minorities, OBCs, and SC/STs in a bid to build a constituency of his own.
This was the beginning of his now-famous ‘Ahinda politics.’
A miffed Gowda got Siddaramaiah removed from the deputy chief minister’s post, which eventually led to his exit from the JD(S) to join the Congress. A slew of JD(S) leaders close to Siddaramaiah followed suit.
When Kumaraswamy joined hands with the BJP, another senior leader, MP Prakash, a respected Veerashaiva-Lingayat leader, quit the JD(S) and joined the Congress. In the process, as the JD(S) leadership was reduced to Deve Gowda and his family members, the Congress got strengthened with a steady influx of leaders from the JD(S).
This group of turncoats, led by Siddaramaiah, virtually controlled the party until Siddaramaiah stepped down earlier this month. Among the original Congressmen, hardly anyone was a recognisable leader except for DK Shivakumar who could not challenge ex-JD(S) faction in the party as he had his own legal battles to fight to protect his wealth.
Now, the JD(S) has joined hands with the Congress once again in the latter’s hour of crisis. Unlike the last Congress-JD(S) coalition, this time the JD(S), with just 38 seats has got the chief minister’s position, and the Congress with more than twice the number of JD(S)’s seats is forced to play second fiddle. The influence of the ex-JD(S) faction within the Congress has now faded and the original Congress group has taken centre-stage.
Although its performance has hardly ever crossed a quarter of the strength of the Legislative Assembly, the JD(S) has remained a powerful player in Karnataka politics. This is the party which really knows the power of the few.
(Narayana A is an associate professor with the school of policy and governance, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He writes on issues of politics and governance in both Kannada and English. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)