HD Deve Gowda's empty threat of midterm polls scares Karnataka parties, but that's what the state needs now
Deve Gowda is a hard-boiled politician knows when to throw a tantrum and when to throw a red herring.
When Gowda spoke of the inevitability of midterm polls to the Karnataka Assembly on Friday, he was throwing a red herring.
The working of this coalition is the stuff political comedies are made of. It’s everything what an alliance shouldn’t be.
Gowda’s threat had its desired result. One Congress leader after another talked of the coalition government surviving its full term.
A hard-boiled politician knows when to throw a tantrum and when to throw a red herring. Former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, whose Janata Dal (Secular) runs the government in Karnataka in alliance with Congress, is more than the average hard-boiled politician.
When Gowda spoke of the inevitability of midterm polls to the Karnataka Assembly on Friday, he was throwing a red herring. He wasn’t just trying to distract the Congress, his party’s hostile partner. He was trying to scare the Congress. What he meant was: stop making threats to pull out of the coalition or face a midterm election. A second Assembly election in a year — third election in all if you count the recent Lok Sabha polls as well — is a nightmare for all parties, including Gowda’s own. It could pinch the pockets of most candidates of JD(S) and Congress at this juncture and might see the BJP walk away with victory.
Gowda knows this only too well. The 87-year-old leader, who became an accidental Prime Minister of India in 1996 with just 16 Lok Sabha members in Karnataka and survived in the top job for 11 months, knows politics better than the back of his hand. He knows political sociology (read 'caste arithmetic') and political psychology ( read 'tantrums and red herrings') better than most.
His political sociology largely consists of mopping up as many votes from his upper caste Vokkaligas who dominate the southern half of Karnataka. This hasn’t always worked. In the 2018 Assembly election, the JD(S) won only 37 of the 224 seats. But just the way Gowda had taken the prime minister's job, his son HD Kumaraswamy became an accidental chief minister with the Congress (80 MLAs) propping him up.
The coalition was a brainwave of Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who went for it for two reasons. The immediate reason was to keep BJP (105 MLAs) out of power. He also wanted it to be a glorious trailblazer for a nationwide mahagathbandhan to fight BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. But like most things he embarks on, Rahul abandoned the coalition to live its life or die its death — the latter is what might happen soon.
The working of this coalition is the stuff political comedies are made of. It’s everything what an alliance shouldn’t be. Its chief problems are that JD(S) and Congress fight for the same voter base in southern Karnataka, that Rahul has gifted the chief minister’s post to the former, which has fewer members and that senior Congress leader and former chief minister Siddaramaiah can’t see eye to eye with Kumaraswamy and his father Gowda. Add to all this the incessant bickering in public over ministerial berths not only between the two parties but also within each party.
This made Kumaraswamy feel as if his chief minister’s chair was stuck with cactus thorns, though he switched to the comfort of a five-star hotel for doing his official work. Over the past year, Kumaraswamy wept in public, said he had been reduced to being a “clerk”, said he was drinking “poison” like Lord Shiva and threatened to quit.
The alliance, which has been inching slowly towards the brink of a precipice, is now hanging in mid-air, waiting to drop into the abyss any time.
When political sociology doesn’t work, political psychology might. The talk of a midterm poll is coming from the Gowda family is a psyop. And it isn’t for the first time. Two weeks ago, Kumaraswamy’s son Nikhil spoke of it. In a video that made rounds on social media, Nikhil was heard telling JD(S) workers: “... We don’t know when it (election) comes — next year, after two years or three years. JD(S) leaders should be ready.”
Kumaraswamy said his son had been quoted “out of context”. And this was quickly dismissed as the frustrated outburst of a loser. Nikhil lost the recent Lok Sabha election from Mandya, a long-time family fief.
But Gowda’s threat was immediately taken seriously. He said: “There is no doubt that this (midterm poll) will happen. I had been assured support (by the Congress) for a full five years. But seeing the current political developments, I wonder if Congress leaders are interested in continuing with the coalition government. No one knows how long the coalition government will survive.”
In a bizarre U-turn barely a couple of hours after saying this, he denied having said it, claiming he had been referring to local body elections. Nobody took this denial seriously. Gowda’s comments on midterm polls must be seen as a not-so-subtle retort to what seemed like a threat from the Congress a couple of days earlier to end the alliance.
Siddaramaiah had apparently told Rahul that the alliance was doing more harm than good to the Congress and that the party would have won up to eight Lok Sabha seats instead of just one if it had contested the election independently. Nothing was made official, but the Siddaramaiah camp claimed later that though Rahul had at last recognised the futility of the alliance, he was in no mood to end it anytime soon.
Gowda’s threat had its desired result. One Congress leader after another talked of the coalition government surviving its full term, exposing their innate fear over a snap election and losing it to the BJP. Though JD(S) itself is far from confident of winning, Gowda delivered the message loud and clear about the consequences of toppling his son’s government.
State BJP president BS Yeddyurappa said if the coalition couldn’t run the government, his party with 105 MLAs could. This bravado neatly camouflages BJP’s own fears over a mid-term election despite winning 25 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in the recent election largely because of “Modi wave”. The party is aware that a different set of factors might be at play in a fresh Assembly election.
When the government is too busy saving itself, governance is what suffers most and it has. And what every party is wary of is exactly what the people of the state probably need right now: a midterm poll. That won’t guarantee them a government that works, but that gives them a chance to get one.
Author tweets @sprasadindia
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