Pre-poll manoeuvres

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

As Karnataka enters the run-up to the elections, the Janata Parivar remains as divided as ever despite a merger, the BJP is in disarray, two minor entities are preparing to test the waters, and the Congress is burdened with a record of poor governance.

KARNATAKA'S normally placid political landscape is seeing a spurt of action and energy as mainstream political parties prepare themselves for the Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections to be held just a year from now. Opposition parties are revamping their organisations and looking for electoral allies. New political formations have emerged, and they will test the waters in the forthcoming elections.

The Janata Parivar, constituting a cluster of breakaway groups from the original Janata Dal, has been pursuing the goal of merger for the better part of this year. At any given point, the former constituents of the Janata Dal are either in the process of splitting or merging, a tendency that has been inherent in this political formation in the State. Given the personality differences amongst their leaders, it appears unlikely that the two major factions of the Janata Parivar, namely the Janata Dal (Secular), led by former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, and the newly created All India Progressive Janata Dal (AIPJD), a party which emerged from the former Janata Dal (United) led by former Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde, will contest the elections as allies, let alone as a single party.

It is in this context, therefore, that the recent `merger' of the Janata Dal (S) and a rump group of the former Janata Dal (U), led by P.G.R Sindhia, must be seen. Sindhia and N. Thippanna (former president of the Janata Dal (U)) were among a group who joined the Janata Dal (S) at a public function organised by the Janata Dal (S) for the purpose in Bangalore. The national president of the Janata Dal (U), Sharad Yadav who disapproved of the merger, promptly dissolved the Karnataka unit of the party.

At the public meeting called to formalise the `merger', Deve Gowda called upon the AIPJD to join his party so that a re-united Janata Dal could fight the next elections against the "inefficient and anti-farmer" Congress government. The `merger' with the Janata Dal (U) has thus further consolidated Deve Gowda's leadership within the Janata Dal (S).

The AIPJD, which carries the mantle of the former Janata Dal (U), however, has decided to stay independent. Talks between the AIPJD and the Janata Dal (S) floundered largely on the issue of who would lead the new party. In a statement issued after the failure of the merger talks, S.R. Bommai, president of the AIPJD, expressed the hope that the merger of the two Janata parties would take place before the next Assembly elections, and offered to cede the post of president to the Janata Dal (S) if the latter agreed with the merger proposal. He said that there was no response from the Janata Dal (S) to the offer. The Janata Dal (S), on the other hand, called off the merger discussions with the Janata Dal (U) on June 20 saying that they were misled by Bommai and company who formed the AIPJD before substantive issues relating to the merger were discussed.

The AIPJD was formed because the majority of Janata Dal (U) leaders wanted to break politically with the BJP and come out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the Centre. A few days before his death, C. Byre Gowda, who was elected State president of the party, spoke to Frontline on the reasons for the formation of the party. "The Janata Dal (U) was formed during the chief ministership of J.H. Patel, when we found that Mr. Deve Gowda and his sons were working overtime to topple the Ministry," he said. "Through force of circumstances we had to go along with the BJP in the 1998 and 1999 elections although most of us were not from the BJP stock or ideology. We always wanted the party to come out of the NDA alliance, which Sharad Yadav was not prepared to do owing to the compulsions of the Bihar situation. We therefore formed a new party, the AIPJD." Byre Gowda was emphatic about the reason for which the party was formed, which was to break with the BJP. "Merger with the Janata Dal (S) was not the main reason," he insisted.

The failure of merger talks, according to the AIPJD, was because of Deve Gowda's refusal to share power in a new arrangement. The Janata Dal (U) and the Janata Dal (S) had come together briefly during the Kanakapura byelection to the Lok Sabha, which Deve Gowda contested and won. "He wants a surrender by us, not a merger, which we cannot agree to," said Byre Gowda. The AIPJD has said that it will not ally with either the BJP or the Congress(I) in the next elections. The party retains the support of the leader of the Janata Dal (U), Hegde. The veteran politician has been in poor health ever since his return from medical treatment abroad. It is unlikely that he will return to active politics, except perhaps in a symbolic way.

The most recent entrant into Karnataka politics is Vijay Mallya, Chairman of the UB Group, who was recently elected to the Rajya Sabha from the State with Congress support. Mallya is the national working president of the Janata Party, a virtually non-existent entity, which he is attempting to resuscitate with the support of Subramanian Swamy. Soon after taking over as working president, he set off on a six-day "Vijay Rath Yatra" in the northern districts of Bidar, Gulbarga, Raichur, Koppal and Bellary.

Mallya has said that he hopes to extend the Janata Party's network to Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal. (In football crazy West Bengal, UB has sponsored both the East Bengal and Mohan Bagan football clubs, a fact that Mallya no doubt hopes will work in his favour.) Mallya is known to be close to Chief Minister S.M. Krishna and has also received support for his party from Ramakrishna Hegde, who at different points of time has extended support to the Janata Dal (U), the AIPJD and the Janata Party.

The Janata Dal (S) views the emergence of the Janata Party with the utmost suspicion. "The emergence of Mr. Vijay Mallya and the Janata Party, with the all-too-familiar symbol of the farmer with a plough, appears to be part of a plan hatched by S.M. Krishna, Hegde and Mallya to ensure that the Congress is strengthened in the next elections,"

Deve Gowda told Frontline in a telephonic interview. He is sceptical of any merger possibilities, with "leaders pulling in different directions". It would appear that the Janata Dal (S) has retained the bulk of the original Janata Dal 's support base, owing largely to the mass base enjoyed by its veteran leader, now further strengthened by the entry of Sindhia and his group. The party claims that a large number of district-level functionaries of the Janata Dal (U), the Congress(I) and the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha have joined the party as well. "My primary concern is to revive and strengthen my party in Karnataka so that a Janata Dal (S) government can be formed in the State," Deve Gowda said. And as for his plans at the national level, he is clear that he will not initiate a revival of the Third Front, although he will extend support to any secular combine. The Janata Dal (S) will, however, try to contest at least 50 parliamentary seats in the next elections: in Maharashtra, Kerala, Delhi, and, of course, Karnataka.

THE BJP is tackling its inner-party problems of dissidence and factionalism while revamping its organisational structure. N. Ananth Kumar, the senior BJP leader from Karnataka, was asked by the party to resign as Union Minister for Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation and lead the State unit of the party. He replaced Basavaraj Patil Sedam. The BJP's electoral growth and public profile in Karnataka, which peaked in the early 1990s, has since plateaued, and even declined. It has put up a lacklustre performance as the principal Opposition party in the State Legislature.

The rift in the State leadership between B.S. Yediyurappa, the former State president, and Ananth Kumar, with both vying for the party presidentship, pulled the party in different directions. The State unit of the BJP expelled seven of its elected members of the Assembly for cross-voting in favour of Vijay Mallya in the last Rajya Sabha elections. Even the senior BJP leader, B.B. Shivappa, former Leader of the Opposition, was expelled for "anti-party activities". The decision to bring Ananth Kumar back to State politics was to "give dynamic young leaders a chance to build the party", Jagadish Shettar, leader of the BJP's legislature wing told Frontline. "We are likely to ally with one of the factions of the Janata Parivar this time too," he said.

A setback for the BJP in Karnataka was the resignation of Vijay Sankeshwar, Member of Parliament from Dharwad. Sankeshwar, a businessman and a newspaper magnate, left the party citing differences with Ananth Kumar, whom he described to the media as a "private limited company to which the BJP has mortgaged its affairs". Sankeshwar launched `Kannada Nadu', a new regional political party, on June 19. He announced that the new party would capitalise on the general discontent over Congress "misrule", on the way it handled the Nagappa kidnap crisis, the drought, the Cauvery dispute and the professional colleges admissions crisis. There has, however, been little response in north Karnataka to the political outfit.

The Congress (I) in Karnataka enters the run-up to the elections with all the political advantages that a disunited Opposition offers, but with a rather poor record of governance to defend. Perhaps the biggest setback to the S.M. Krishna government was its mess-up of the Nagappa kidnap episode, leading to the murder of the senior politician after his kidnap by the notorious brigand Veerappan.

There has also been a groundswell of resentment against the government for its poor handling of the drought that had affected large parts of Karnataka for the last two years. The poor official response to meeting the food requirement of agricultural labourers and farmers faced with unending crop failure combined with a sharp increase in rural indebtedness, has driven a number of farmers to suicide. The Karnataka government has responded rather late to the growing death toll of debt-ridden, drought-impoverished farmers in the State with a special relief package for drought-affected areas. Part of the package consists of a payment of one lakh rupees to the next of kin of a farmer who commits suicide.

Unless other measures that are seen to address the specific causes that drive farmers to commit suicide are introduced alongside and implemented effectively, this particular `relief' measure may appear to offer an incentive to farmers to commit suicide. In the popular perception it is an insensitive official machinery that is responsible for rural misery, and the new flurry of relief measures announced by the government are clearly a response to this. It may be a case of too little, too late.

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