“At this age, I don’t have to become PM again, or CM... And I’m not here to make my son the chief minister... I will continue my struggle for the farmers, the poor and the downtrodden... Those who work against the party won’t be tolerated.”
So spoke Janata Dal (Secular) leader HD Deve Gowda on Thursday evening, in what seemed like a last-ditch attempt to save his party from disintegration.
For a man who has been in politics for 55 years, and who was the chief minister of Karnataka and the prime minister of India, Gowda is in a political mess. The Janata Dal(S), the party that he had built and nurtured for 17 years with diligence, is slowly but steadily falling apart.
At a party event on Thursday, a few thousand people heard Gowda. The venue was in Mandya, the south Karnataka district in the heartland of his Vokkaliga community. This was Gowda’s way of 'going to people'.
And this was the second desperate attempt Gowda was making to rescue his party from destruction, after eight of his 40 MLAs cross-voted for the Congress in the 11 June Rajya Sabha election.
Some 10 days ago, he had another go: Gowda tried to snatch some Congress rebels, who were furious with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah following the 19 June reshuffle. But none of them jumped to Gowda’s party, and Siddaramaiah has, at least for now, smothered the rebellion by offering them all kinds of sops.
Frustrated, Gowda is now doing the only thing he can: “going to people” and explaining himself. But this may be coming a bit late.
Despite the brave face that he puts on, Gowda, 83, is a sad man today. His influence in the Vokkaliga community is no longer what it was. According to old estimates, Vokkaligas form about 12 percent of Karnataka’s population. But according to a controversial caste census undertaken by Siddaramaiah, they are no more than 8.16 percent. Whatever their number is, some of the JD(S) rebels and some Congress leaders run their own Vokkaliga fiefdoms.
Gowda has indeed suffered a fall in politics, and his advancing age doesn’t help him rise like a phoenix.
The engineer-turned-politician was one of the key leaders of the original Janata Party, which was formed in 1977, and which took the avatar of Janata Dal in 1988. Later, Janata Dal split into a dozen outfits — Gowda himself floating Janata Dal (Secular) in 1999.
But today, Gowda is nowhere near being a Nitish Kumar of Janata Dal (United), a fragment of Janata Dal. And he is not a Naveen Patnaik of Biju Janata Dal, another fragment. Nor is he even a Ram Vilas Paswan, who heads another piece of Janata Dal, called Lok Janshakti Party.
The closest that the JD(S) is to power now is in Kerala, where it has a minister in the Pinarayi Vijayan government. The party is part of the CPM-led Left Democratic Front in Kerala, the only state other than Karnataka where it has some presence.
This pathetic situation is surely not what Gowda had expected — not after what he had done to Ramakrishna Hegde, who was Janata Party’s chief minister between 1983 and 1988. Gowda was a minister in the Hegde government.
The suave and scotch-drinking Hegde, who fooled the media with his talk about “value-based politics”, was unable to match the political acumen of Gowda, whose staple food is ragi mudde and who describes himself as mannina maga (Kannada for ‘son of the soil’).
Gowda’s career hit the high spot when he led the Janata Dal to victory in 1994 and became the chief minister and, in 1996, became the prime minister of the United Front in unforeseen circumstances.
But it was also the beginning of his end.
Though Gowda’s self-effacing oratory with a rustic sense of humour — he often thumps his thighs while speaking — impresses rural folk, his politics are more feudal than democratic. Even as he rose to the top, his two sons, HD Revanna and HD Kumaraswamy, began to wield as much power as he did, leading to allegations that he had turned the party into a family enterprise.
The worst came after the 2004 election that produced a hung assembly. JD(S) formed a coalition government with the Congress, with Dharam Singh as the Congress chief minister. It was then that the ugliest kind of politics came into play.
Gowda’s second son Kumaraswamy rebelled, and with the BJP’s support, replaced Dharam Singh. Land and nepotism scams became the order of the day and there was no evidence of a government at work. And when it was time for Kumaraswamy to resign and give the chief minister’s post to the BJP, he refused to budge. He relented only after the BJP’s withdrawal of support and a spell of President’s rule. All this gave the Gowda family image a severe beating and led to a five-year BJP rule from 2008.
The 2013 election saw the return of the Congress with Siddaramaiah, Gowda’s one-time ally who had switched parties, at the helm.
Where does Gowda stand now?
Gowda’s two sons continue to pull the party in two different directions. Kumaraswamy, the president of the JD(S) state unit, spends more time in toning up his body in a gym at home, and on producing Kannada films. Instead of attending an important party meeting that Gowda called recently, Kumaraswamy dashed off to Bulgaria for the shooting of a film starring his son. JD(S) rebels say that Kumaraswamy is inaccessible and, when accessible, arrogant.
For now, Siddaramaiah is on a high, having ensured the victory of an additional party candidate with help from JD(S) rebels, and having put down the rebellion in the Congress.
And the BJP, led by former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa, is in an even happier mood, sure that Karnataka will go saffron once again in the assembly elections two years away.
In what is likely to be a two-horse race for power, JD(S) may end up being a pony watching from sidelines.