Despite facing a shrinking vote base, questions over its standing on the political spectrum, and criticism for being largely a family-run outfit, the Janata Dal (Secular), headed by ex-Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, could not be written off as a political force in Karnataka.
With the 2023 Karnataka Assembly elections in sight, the JD(S) has set a target to win 123 seats in the 224-member Assembly. It might be an ambitious goal, but the party could turn out to be a “kingmaker” even if it bags 20-40 seats – just like it did when the 2004 and 2018 Assembly polls delivered fractured mandates.
In West Bengal, a single woman, Mamata Banerjee, fought to save the state’s self-respect. In Karnataka, can a person who has been the chief minister on two occasions not save its prestige. Let’s see this time. I will go to the polls with the self-respect of Kannadigas in focus. I will highlight all the wrongs done to my people,” senior JD(S) leader and Deve Gowda’s son HD Kumaraswamy recently said while outlining their plans for galvanising the party for the 2023 polls.
As part of these plans, in its first major move since the appointment of former Congress leader CM Ibrahim as the party’s state president last month, the JD(S) is going to hold a public meeting near Bengaluru on May 13 to mark the end of Its “Janata Jaladhare” campaign that it had launched to highlight Karnataka’s water rights. The campaign has involved the collection of water from 51 river sources from across the state, which will be mixed in a cauldron amid some traditional rituals at the May 13 rally. “This event will signal the start of the party’s efforts to win 123 seats in the polls,” Kumaraswamy said.
The JD(S)’s key poll strategy is to project itself as a protector of the land, water resources, language and cultural rights of the Karnataka people while portraying the national parties – the ruling BJP and the principal Opposition Congress – as “hurdles” ” to the assertion of their local identities and rights.
Since the party’s remarkable performance in the 1994 polls, when the undivided Janata Dal won 115 seats and Deve Gowda became the CM, the JD(S) — which came into existence in the wake of the Janata Parivar’s break-ups – has managed to win only a maximum of 58 seats, in the 2004 polls, so far. However, despite a sharp dip in its electoral fortunes over the years, the JD(S) has continued to remain a major player in state politics even if it manages to win only around 40 seats.
A hung verdict in the 2018 polls, when the JD(S) won 38 seats as against the Congress’s 78 and the BJP’s 104, led to the JD(S) reprising the kingmaker’s role that it had also played after the 2004 polls when it had got 58 seats as compared to the Congress’s 65 and the BJP’s 79. In the 2013 polls, the JD(S) had won 40 seats but the BJP’s internal divisions helped the Congress clinch a majority.
Many are now of the view that the 2023 polls will throw up a hung verdict again with no clear majority for any single party, which, in turn, might again see the JD(S) emerge in its kingmaker’s role.
“Ours is a regional party and we are trying our best to survive. There has been a coalition with the BJP on one occasion and there has been a coalition with the Congress on another occasion. We have the experience of both sides. We want to fight independently in the next elections and take up important issues facing the state of Karnataka,” Deve Gowda had recently said.
Perceived as being close to the BJP dispensation in the state and at the Center since the collapse of its coalition government with the Congress in 2019, the JD(S) has now been attempting to project itself as being equidistant from both the national parties.
Kumaraswamy has, in recent weeks, gone after the Basavaraj Bommai-led BJP government for its “silence” over attacks by right-wing Hindutva groups on Muslim traders and businesses. The move to attack the BJP over its alleged anti-minority stance, when the Congress has decided to remain silent, and Ibrahim’s appointment as the state party chief are part of the JD(S)’s bids to regain its standing among Muslims.
Despite being considered to be “wishy-washy” on various political issues, the JD(S) still has a significant support base among the state’s farmers on account of policies like farm loan waivers initiated by Kumaraswamy during his CM tenure in 2018-2019. The party is especially formidable in parts of south Karnataka, where Deve Gowda is still seen as the patriarch of the influential Vokkaliga community.
“I want to categorically make it clear that we are not going to ally with anybody. We are going to strengthen the JD(S) in Karnataka to take up the issues facing the state. We are going to see that the base of our regional party is not eroded and we are going to fight elections on our own party programs and policies,” Deve Gowda said recently.
Going after the Congress, Kumaraswamy said that the former was “saying all secular forces should unite and send out a message but who will listen to the Congress, which has lost across the country”.
The JD(S) is hoping to attract leaders from the Congress and the BJP into its fold in the run-up to the coming polls, although it also faces the danger of losing many leaders. “There will be a lot things happening, just wait and watch,” Ibrahim said while hinting at the possibility of former JDS leaders like Roshan Baig and H Vishwanath returning to the party.
The JD(S), however, itself suffered the defection of a Lingayat leader Basavaraj Horatti this week, with its several senior leaders reported to be keen to exit the party.
“The JD(S) strategy is to emerge in a position of relevance by anticipating a hung verdict. The party has lost too much ground in north Karnataka to win power on its own,” a government functionary said.
Kumaraswamy however claims that his party will not be stuck at 30-40 seats in 2023. “What happened in 1994 will be repeated in 2023. In 1994, after the Babri Masjid was demolished, the harmony in the state was disrupted and now they ( BJP) have started the same kind of things and as a consequence we will get a clear majority in 2023,” he said.