SMALL regional political parties and formations have emerged and disappeared in Karnataka in the last 30 years of the State's political history, and these include the Karnataka Kranti Ranga started by the former Chief Minister Devaraj Urs; the Karnataka Congress Party and the Karnataka Vikas Party, both started by yet another former Chief Minister, S. Bangarappa; and most recently, the Kannada Nadu party, started by Vijay Sankeswar, the media magnate and former Member of Parliament who resigned from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). None of these made an enduring impact, primarily because all of them were tied to the limited political aspirations of the individuals who started them.
The fundamental reason, however, for the inability of purely regional political entities to grow in Karnataka is that the Janata Parivar parties have over the years occupied the space that regional parties hold in many other States. The Janata Party, which emerged after the Emergency (1975-77) as an alternative to the Congress (I), had a strong base in Karnataka from its very inception. After all, a large number of national-level political leaders who later formed the core of the Janata Party were lodged in the Bangalore Central Jail during the Emergency period. The vision that guided a centrist political formation like the Janata Party (and its subsequent avatars) was not only to provide an alternative to the "national" parties, such as the Congress(I) and later the BJP, but also to represent the specific regional aspirations of its support base in the State. Ramakrishna Hegde, who gave the Janata phenomenon its early ideological moorings, was a strong votary of the federal principle that, as the first non-Congress(I) Chief Minister of the State, he attempted to enshrine through the panchayati raj institutions, and through the demand for a larger share for the State in the Central revenues. As a leader of the Janata Party, Hegde was for several years one of the most effective "regional" spokespersons for the State. Although the Janata Party, and the many sub-parties that it spawned in subsequent years, was a national party in that it had a presence in several other States, it was in Karnataka that it found its most enduring base. Its continuing relevance to the politics of the State well after the demise of the Janata Parivar in other regions is primarily because of its espousal of regional aspirations and its rural support base.
The Janata Dal (Secular), the end product of a long phase of atomisation of the Janata movement, is today the major regional force in the State, poised yet again to play an important role in the post-election dispensation. The JD(S) in Karnataka, under the leadership of former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, is perhaps the last bastion of the Janata Dal which once had a national presence. "I would call the JD(S) a regional force not a regional party," said P.G.R. Sindhia, a senior leader of the JD(S) who is contesting from the Sathanur Assembly constituency. "Regional parties will play a pivotal role in national politics. They will decide the next government and they will continue to exist as long as the so-called national parties do not respond to regional aspirations," he said. Sindhia describes the "chemistry" or the social base of the JD(S) as a class/caste overlap between the "small and middle peasantry, and the backward classes in the rural areas, particularly Vokkaligas". While this remains the social base of the JD(S), its electoral base is wider, he argues, and draws upon the traditional anti-Congress(I), anti-BJP constituency that the Janata movement has built in the State since the 1980s.
If Ramakrishna Hegde was the architect of the Janata phenomenon in its early phase, that is, up to the late 1980s, it is Deve Gowda, a political leader of a different mould, who consolidated and extended the base of the party particularly from the mid-1990s. Hegde was a Congressman who became disillusioned with the limitations of an authoritarian, Delhi-centric party that was becoming increasingly insensitive to the need to broaden democratic processes. His break with the Congress(I) came with the Emergency. The Janata Party in Karnataka came to power on an anti-Congress(I) wave. During its tenure in office in the State from 1983 to 1989, it introduced legislation such as that of the Panchayati Raj Act, which increased its popular appeal and helped it to consolidate its support base.
Nevertheless, it was Deve Gowda - by the mid-1990s a leader of equal stature as Hegde in the party - who built the Janata Dal in the next phase, giving the party a firm footing in rural Karnataka, particularly in the Old Mysore districts of southern Karnataka. He was instrumental in extending its social base amongst the peasantry, not just as a "Vokkaliga' party as it is often called but as a party that sought to represent all backward castes. In an interview to Frontline in 1996, when the Janata Dal won 16 out of the 28 Lok Sabha seats, and just prior to his elevation to prime ministership, Deve Gowda spelt out the reasons for his party's victory. He attributed it to a strategy quietly implemented by his government. "Our main strength is that we have widened the social base of the Janata Dal," he said. "In local body elections we for the first time gave 27 per cent reservation to backward castes: these groups helped us win these elections. We have erased the stigma of being a party of Vokkaligas and Lingayats."
Power equations within the party, particularly between Hegde and Deve Gowda, changed as a consequence of the shifting social base of the Janata Dal. Hegde and Deve Gowda had always shared a frosty relationship, which existed prior to and after the formation of the Janata Dal in Bangalore in 1988. Deve Gowda split the party in 1989 following differences with Hegde. He joined the Samajwadi Janata Party. The split resulted in the party's rout in the 1989 and the 1991 elections. Although he rejoined the Janata Dal, Deve Gowda's differences with Hegde persisted. In spite of their mutual animosities, Hegde, Deve Gowda and S.R. Bommai campaigned together for the 1994 State Assembly elections. Their efforts paid handsomely with the Janata Dal returning to power winning 115 seats in the 224-seat Assembly.
The Janata phenomenon has traversed a tortuous course - one that has been beset by splits, faction-fighting, expulsions and resignations. The expulsion of Hegde in June 1996 from the Janata Dal, believed to have been effected at the behest of Deve Gowda who was Prime Minister at the time, split the party vertically. Although Hegde's supporters in the Janata Dal Ministry headed by J.H. Patel did not join him formally, there was a considerable groundswell of support and sympathy for him in the Janata Dal. He started a new party, the Lok Shakti, which allied with the BJP in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. It was primarily Hegde's support that gave the alliance 16 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats, whereas the Janata Dal won only three seats. Dramatic political realignments preceded the 1999 elections held simultaneously to the Lok Sabha and the State Assembly. The Janata Dal split yet again, and a faction led by Chief Minister J.H. Patel lent support to the BJP; the Lok Shakti, the Samata Party and the Sharad Yadav faction of the Janata Dal merged as the Janata Dal (U); and the Janata Dal (Secular) led by Deve Gowda was born. In the 1999 elections, the JD(S) won only eight Assembly seats and the JD(U) 19. In the Lok Sabha elections, the JD(S) drew a blank whereas the JD(U) won three seats.
The run-up to the 2004 elections has seen further changes within the Janata Parivar. A group of JD(U) leaders who wished to break politically with the BJP and come out of the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre, led by S.R. Bommai and the late C. Byre Gowda, formed the All India Progressive Janata Dal (AIPJD) in 2003. Efforts were also made by these leaders - unsuccessfully though - for a merger with the JD(S). Unable to contest on its own and weakened organisationally after the death of Hegde, the JD(U) once again approached the BJP for an electoral alliance, a proposition that the State unit of the BJP refused. However, through the intervention and efforts of Defence Minister George Fernandes, an alliance was finally thrust on a reluctant BJP.
The JD(S) has been quietly consolidating its strength, particularly in the Old Mysore region where it has emerged as the principal Opposition party and is building its platform on the anti-incumbency sentiment. Although it has not announced a chief ministerial candidate in its election campaign, it is projecting Siddaramiah, a former Deputy Chief Minister and a backward class leader. In the event of a close finish amongst the JD(S), the Congress(I) and the BJP in the Assembly elections, the JD(S) is once again poised to play a key role in deciding the government. In such an eventuality the support of some of the smaller regional parties like the Kannada Nadu party and the Janata Party under the leadership of Vijay Mallya, along with the support of independents (who in the 1999 Assembly elections numbered 19), will also assume importance.