Far from finished

Print edition : February 10, 2006

Karnataka BJP MLAs at Mahabalipuram on January 21. - R. RAGHU

The Janata Dal (Secular) has suffered a setback in the past, but the party still has a strong base in rural Karnataka.

IT may be a tad too early to write the political obituary of the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka. True, JD(S) working president H.D. Kumaraswamy's decision to take 42 of its 58 Members of the Legislative Assembly to the Bharatiya Janata Party's doorstep and seek the saffron party's support to form the government has eroded the party's secular credentials, credentials that were painstakingly nurtured by its national president and former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda. Several JD(S) legislators opine that secularism may be relevant in academic discussions, but not in the rural areas from where the party draws most of its strength. Moreover, it is not true to assume that an instance of dalliance with the BJP would alienate voters, they feel.

Equally true, the marriage of convenience, which has enabled the BJP to take a shot at running a government in a South Indian State for the first time, has challenged Deve Gowda's pre-eminence in the JD(S) and his authority to shape it the way he chooses. But the exclusion of Deve Gowda from the plans made by the Kumaraswamy faction has provided him with an easy escape route. Deve Gowda can now declare his innocence and the situation would even allow him to continue proclaiming his antipathy to communal parties and their policies. The JD(S), which was formed when a section of legislators of the Janata Dal (United) left to join the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the Centre in 1998, though under pressure, is far from finished.

There is also speculation that the party, which surpassed its own expectations in the 2004 Assembly elections, by winning 58 seats (when even its national president predicted under a third of that) might be decimated by the two national parties - the BJP and the Congress - making Karnataka a two-party State. Adding credence to this theory is the fact that the former Deputy Chief Minister and expelled JD(S) leader Siddaramaiah, who along with eight legislators revived the All India Progressive Janata Dal (AIPJD), has hinted that he might be willing to join hands or even merge his group with the Congress.

According to political pundits, although Deve Gowda did nurse personal ambitions to return to the national political stage and hope to leverage the party's presence in the coalition government in the State to achieve this, the JD(S) was never meant to be a national party. Instead, it wanted to be seen as an influential regional player, which draws its support from the dominant communities in Karnataka - the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats - besides endearing itself to the minorities, backward classes and Dalits, the very sections that constitute the Congress' vote base.

Not surprisingly, there is a body of thought among JD(S) legislators and leaders that it is more detrimental to the party to align with the Congress than with the BJP, since their real political enemy is the Congress. Says B. Sathyanarayana, JD(S) legislator and Minister of State for Rural Water Supply: "Our opponent in the elections has always been the Congress, not the BJP. It was only because of our supreme leader Deve Gowda and his desire to go with a `secular' party that we chose the Congress after the 2004 elections threw up a hung Assembly."

Also, the BJP's failure to establish itself across the State has helped the JD(S) retain its position as an influential regional party. The BJP's influence is restricted to certain pockets of the State: most notably the coastal and urban areas. The party is yet to make a mark in the plains, in northern Karnataka or in the Old Mysore area, barring Shimoga district and parts of Chikamagalur district. The perception is that should the BJP make inroads into the rural areas, the presence of a regional party like the JD(S) will be made marginal: the process could be hastened now by the State's third political force, which has remained for nearly three decades in the form of one of the various Janata factions. This, according to Basavaraj Horrati, Minister for Science and Technology and Small Savings, is the reason why the various factions should come together under one umbrella.

And for this to happen, Deve Gowda's powerful presence is certainly required. More so since most political parties in India are leader-based parties. The eclipse of the leader's charm and hold, or death generally results in the party's fortunes also taking a dip. JD(S) legislators, even those who have aligned with Kumaraswamy, are sure that once the din and acrimony over the present political situation dies down, there is bound to be a rapprochement between the father and the son.

Anything other than this would mean a quantum leap in the strengths of both the cadre-based BJP, which is trying to woo the rural masses of Karnataka, and the grassroots-based Congress.

Other political entities in the State such as the AIPJD, the Samajwadi Party (whose only well-known face is former Chief Minister S. Bangarappa), and the once-powerful JD(U), which has just five members in the present Assembly, will find it impossible to make the leap from being fringe players to heavyweights. Bangarappa's unsuccessful attempts to float regional outfits offer a prime example for this.

According to N. Thippanna, JD(S) State president, the alliance with the BJP will not damage the party's secular image. "Our association with the BJP does not mean that we will become communal. Far from it. We will continue to be secular. Party workers are happy, and are viewing the decision to go along with the BJP favourably. In fact, they say that it should have happened in 2004 itself. The verdict then was a rejection of the Congress. But we did not honour the people's verdict and instead joined hands with the Congress and allowed it to come back to power," he said.

But just how much this partnership with the BJP will hurt the party will probably be known only when the State goes to the polls. Even senior leaders such as Deputy Chief Minister M.P. Prakash and Finance Minister P.G.R. Sindhia, who have not joined the Kumaraswamy faction, are unsure just how things will play out. Says Sindhia: "The happenings are no doubt a setback to the formation of a non-Congress, non-BJP front, but nothing can be said now about the future of the party. Things will have to settle down first. The situation is fluid. Deve Gowda is my leader. But one thing is for sure, I am not going to associate myself with RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] elements or the BJP. If the JD(S) aligns itself with the BJP, then I will disassociate myself from the party."

This threat does not worry Kumaraswamy, for at the moment the likes of Sindhia are probably in a minority.

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