Its chances of becoming a strong regional force have significantly diminished following its electoral defeat and subsequent reunion with the BJP.
In mid-October, the Janata Dal (Secular) unceremoniously ousted C.M. Ibrahim as Karnataka president after he disagreed with the party’s decision to ally with the BJP. H.D. Deve Gowda, former Prime Minister and national president of the JD(S) dissolved the party’s State executive committee and appointed H.D. Kumaraswamy, his son and former Chief Minister, as the party’s ad hoc president.
With this step, the JD(S) overcame Ibrahim’s futile resistance, confirming that there would not be any impediment to the decision to join hands with the BJP. The action also reiterated the fact that the party continues to remain in the control of Deve Gowda and his family, as it has been since inception, and that they will not tolerate any attempt to challenge their hegemony.
Since the Congress’ spectacular victory in the Karnataka Assembly election in May (it won 135 out of the 224 seats), there have been murmurs in political corridors that the JD(S) was considering tying up with the BJP. The reasons for this are not hard to find: the JD(S) was battered in the election, where it lost seats and vote share, leading to speculation about its very future. (It won just 19 seats, with a vote share of 13.29 per cent, compared with 40 seats and 18.3 per cent in 2018.) The BJP did not lose vote share but came a distant second with 66 seats.
Kumaraswamy has taken on the burden of leading the opposition by sharply challenging the Congress both inside and outside the Assembly. Interestingly, the JD(S) allied with the BJP and became a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) a year after its ally, the Janata Dal (United), walked out of the NDA. The JD(U) went on to join the INDIA bloc.
Ironically, the JD(S), founded in 1999 by Deve Gowda, was meant to confront the BJP’s communal politics and provide the voters of Karnataka with a regional alternative. Deve Gowda served as Prime Minister between June 1996 and April 1997.
In its maiden Karnataka election in 1999, the JD(S) fared poorly, winning only 10 seats of the 203 it contested, but in its next outing, in 2004, the party won as many as 58 seats.
Experts said that it was the support of Vokkaligas and Muslims that led to this significant jump in its tally. (Vokkaligas, the powerful peasant caste to which Deve Gowda belongs, are dominant in south Karnataka.) The JD(S) formed a coalition government with the Congress after this election. Siddaramaiah, the current Chief Minister, then represented the JD(S) as Deputy Chief Minister but was expelled from the party in 2005 because Deve Gowda favoured Kumaraswamy as his political heir. This move eroded the semblance of internal democracy within the party, which soon became associated with just one caste, Vokkaligas, and its first family.
The opportunistic politics of the JD(S) also became evident at this time when Kumaraswamy allied with the BJP in 2006. The impetus for this rupture with the Congress was the lure of the Chief Minister’s chair. Even though the BJP had more MLAs, it supported the idea of Kumaraswamy initially being the Chief Minister, in a rotational agreement wherein B.S. Yediyurappa would occupy the chair after 20 months.
- The JD(S), founded in 1999 by Deve Gowda, was meant to confront the BJP’s communal politics and provide the voters of Karnataka with a regional alternative.
- The political behaviour of the JD(S) since its inception has been marked by ideological vacuousness combined with opportunism.
- Karnataka is the only southern State that does not have a strong regional party, a gap the JD(S) could have filled.
However, in a blatant betrayal, Kumaraswamy walked out of the alliance in 2007 when it was Yediyurappa’s turn to become Chief Minister. Yediyurappa exploited the volte-face to the hilt in the 2008 campaign, and the BJP won handsomely to form a government on its own for the first time in the State. Kumaraswamy had to wait for a decade to come back to power although his party’s vote share remained constant through 2008, 2013, and 2018.
In the 2013 election, the Congress formed a government headed by Siddaramaiah. The 2018 election again threw up a hung Assembly, and a desperate Congress conceded the top post to Kumaraswamy to keep the BJP out. Kumaraswamy, the perennial kingmaker in Karnataka, became Chief Minister even though his party had only 37 MLAs. But the coalition was wobbly from the start, with Siddaramaiah interfering in governance issues. Kumaraswamy was accused of favouring his support base in south Karnataka. An emotionally overwrought Kumaraswamy often broke down in public.
The BJP’s brazen attempts to lure away MLAs, which began in 2018, fructified in 2019, when a total of 17 legislators from the Congress-JD(S) combine defected, leading to the fall of the coalition government. With the fall, the Congress-JD(S) alliance also ended.
In the 2023 Assembly election campaign, the JD(S) made a fresh attempt to woo Muslim voters, even appointing Ibrahim as State president. It was clear that the JD(S) was losing ground, but only a handful of pre-election surveys predicted the scale of the party’s defeat, where its vote share plummeted to an abysmal 13 per cent.
Muslims blamed for abandoning JD(S) in 2023 election
The 2023 results made it clear that both the BJP and the Congress had made inroads into the Vokkaliga heartland in the south, and this vote had shifted away from the JD(S). But Kumaraswamy blamed Muslims for abandoning the JD(S). In retrospect, it becomes clear that Kumaraswamy was already preparing to go with the BJP.
In its journey of more than two decades, the JD(S) has always retained its vote share in the south and a few other pockets, except in 2023. This year, it became clear that the party was facing an existential crisis. Deve Gowda, often described as the patriarch of the Vokkaligas, turned 90 this year, and the party does not have any other charismatic leader.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Congress and the JD(S) carried over their State-level alliance but were comprehensively vanquished by the blitzy campaign led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in the State, the Congress and the JD(S) won only one each while the BJP got 25. The Congress blamed the JD(S) for its poor performance.
Now that the JD(S) is back with the BJP, will the combine sweep 2024? That will depend on how the primary vote banks—Lingayats for the BJP and Vokkaligas for the JD(S)—vote.
According to preliminary discussions, the JD(S) will not be given more than four seats, which means that it will be a minor partner in the alliance. However, if the NDA returns to power at the Centre in 2024, the JD(S) will continue to remain relevant in Karnataka.
The political behaviour of the JD(S) since its inception has been marked by ideological vacuousness combined with opportunism. Karnataka is the only southern State that does not have a strong regional party, a gap the JD(S) could have filled, but the tight control by Deve Gowda and his family and its privileging of Vokkaligas have resulted in eroding its support base even in its bastion of rural south Karnataka.
The party is fighting for its very survival, and its alliance with the BJP must be seen against that background.