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Karnataka Assembly Election 2018: Congress, BJP have enough reasons to be wary of old warhorse HD Deve Gowda

Bengaluru’s Mount Carmel College, where the likes of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Deepika Padukone and Anushka Sharma once studied, is known for its smart and ambitious students. And when the students of the women’s college conducted an mock election for a city Assembly constituency last month, the result came as a surprise: The Janata Dal (Secular) candidate won.

JD(S) chief HD Deve Gowda. AFP

JD(S) chief HD Deve Gowda. AFP

It’s, of course, too far-fetched to base any serious projections for the 12 May Assembly elections in Karnataka on this exercise by students. But it can be safely argued that, at least to some extent, it is indicative of people’s disgust with both the current Congress government (2013-18) and the BJP rule (2008-13) that preceded it.

And the JD(S), led by former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, which made and broke unholy alliances first with Congress and then with BJP between 2004 and 2008, isn’t exactly smelling of roses. But the lacklustre governments of the BJP and the Congress are more recent in public memory.

For the record, the JD(S) has been making tall claims that the party will form the next government. Privately, however, they only hope that its performance will either come close to or surpass slightly its impressive tally of the 2004 election which produced a hung Assembly and an opportunity for the party to turn king-maker.

Year of assembly election Cong BJP JD(S)
1999 132






2004 65






2008 80






2013 122






In an atmosphere vitiated by blatant appeasement of castes by the Congress, coupled with its anti-Hindu image despite the temple-run by its leaders, the exact contours of the communal polarisation on the ground are not yet clear. For JD(S), however, this situation is not without some hope.

The gimmick of the Congress to pamper Lingayats by granting them a separate minority religion could make the rival upper caste of Vokkaligas, to which Gowda belongs, insecure. They could rally behind the JD(S) more than before—and to some extent behind even the BJP—leading to unpredictable results in southern Karnataka where the community is strong.

Besides, with right candidates and partnerships, Gowda can steal from the Congress some votes of even Dalits and Muslims.

In a three-cornered fight in the first-past-the-post system, what looks like a minor, third party can make the result stand on its head by snatching a few thousand or even a few hundred votes from one of the two mainline parties or both.

Gowda’s silence speaks volumes

But will JD(S) support the Congress or the BJP if the election once again throws up a hung Assembly like it did in 2004? Nobody knows. And if Gowda knows, he isn’t telling.

Gowda is not an easy politician to fathom even for senior journalists. It’s tough to even read between the lines of what he says. That’s because his lines are often incomplete, even in off-the-record chats. When faced with awkward questions, he tends to speak in sentence fragments.

Some fiction writers use broken sentences as a literary device to embellish writing, but in political conversations, these could make a journalist’s head spin like an airport carousel. And what makes it worse is that Gowda not only abruptly ends sentences but even punctuates them with either a doleful sigh or a bright smile or a dark frown or sometimes a slap on his thigh.

When Gowda does all this, you know that he has something up his sleeve. All we know right now is that any question on post-poll alliances in case of a hung Assembly will depend on whether Gowda’s party, in the first place, will get a good number of seats. And that’s what he wants—and hopes—to get.

Karnataka’s own Amit Shah?

The BJP may boast of a modern-day Chanakya in its president Amit Shah, but Gowda is no less astute in his macro election strategies. Starting with the victory of the united Janata Party in 1983, which saw Karnataka’s first non-Congress government, Gowda showed his election-fighting savvy several times after that.  The 1994 Assembly poll was another good example. That was when he led the Janata Dal to victory and became the chief minister.

Gowda’s career nationally reached a high point in 1996 when he unexpectedly became the prime minister. But that was also when his image began to take a beating in Karnataka as he turned his party into a family fief by letting his sons ride roughshod in his absence.

Yet Gowda won 58 seats in the 2004 election and went in for coalition governments with the Congress and the BJP one after another with the sole aim of seeing his third son HD Kumaraswamy power. In 2008, Gowda paid the price for this opportunism and his feudal politics. That year saw BJP return to power with its own majority, but that party’s five-year rule was messy with three chief ministers beginning with BS Yeddyurappa, massive corruption and moral policing. In the 2013 election, the performance of both the JD(S) and BJP plummeted to 40 seats each and the Congress romped home with success under Siddaramaiah.

A grand alliance?

Having languished on the sidelines for 10 years, Gowda now sees an opportunity for his party to rise again. With Kumaraswamy, 58, having undergone a heart surgery, Gowda has taken full charge of managing the election. Now 85, he sees this probably as his last election before bequeathing his feudal legacy to Kumaraswamy.

Leaving nothing to chance, Gowda is even thinking of piecing together a Mahagathbandhan of his own along with Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP),  Samajwadi Party (SP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and the Left. None of these parties is strong in Karnataka but, as part of an alliance, they could wreak some havoc in constituencies where their niche voters are in substantial numbers.

The JD(S) is in the final stage of clinching a deal with the BSP, but there are uncertainties over similar arrangements with others. While the NCP is trying to align with Maharashtra Ekikarana Samitha, which fights for the inclusion of Karnataka’s Belagavi in Maharashtra, thus making it impossible for any deal with the JD(S), there are doubts within the Gowda camp over whether it should join hands with a communal party like AIMIM. And refusing to learn any lessons from the past, especially from the recent Tripura debacle, the CPI and the CPM are insisting on seats of their own choice instead of agreeing to what is offered.

This grand alliance may not finally materialise, but Gowda’s efforts to put it together are enough indication to show how serious he is about making a difference in next month’s election.

On their part, both the BJP and the Congress claim that the JD(S) makes no difference to them. This outward nonchalance only stresses their underlying nervousness and confusion over whose votes the JD(S) will take. This became doubly evident from what Shah and Siddaramaiah said. Shah said anyone voting for the JD(S) would be indirectly supporting the Congress. And Siddaramaiah said anyone voting for the JD(S) would only be backing the BJP.

At least for now, Gowda is smiling.

The author tweets @sprasadindia

Updated Date: Apr 03, 2018 18:03 PM

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