Karnataka 2023 Part-8: The JD(S) Finally Enters Terminal Decline

Karnataka 2023 Part-8: The JD(S) Finally Enters Terminal Decline

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Saturday, April 22, 2023 11:57 AM IST
Karnataka 2023 Part-8: The JD(S) Finally Enters Terminal DeclineJD(S) leaders HD Kumaraswamy (left) and HD Deve Gowda.
  • The two parties, BJP and the Congress, have shown that their policies resonate far more with voters than anything the JD(S) has left to offer.

    All that stands between the JD(S) and its final collapse is its hope of a hung assembly in the assembly elections next month.

The assembly seat of Arsikere, in Karnataka, is steeped in history. Nestled in a sylvan tract between the Cauvery and Hagari river basins, and straddling multiple important trade routes, this bustling entrepot has always been a prize. 

A Hoysalas princess nurtured its prosperity by commissioning a reservoir, and a delightful temple of that era still stands in the city centre. 

It was a key trading post of the Vijayanagar Empire, the Marathas and the Wodeyars used to squabble for its control, and Javagal Srinath, one of India’s greatest pacers, hails from around here.

Arsikere’s political history is no less significant. It has been a formidable stronghold of the Janata Dal (Secular), the JD(S), since 2008. 

The party has won this seat thrice in the period, and led in in this segment in three general elections (it is a part of Hassan Lok Sabha constituency, another JD(S) bastion).

And yet, as if in signal of changing times, the JD(S) was unable to find a candidate for Arsikere seat till the very last moment, after their three-term sitting MLA, KMS Gowde, defected to the Congress. 

All of a sudden, the contest in this JD(S) stronghold has turned into one between the Congress, and a party which got less than 15 per cent of the vote in the last three assembly elections — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The two big questions on people’s minds are if the BJP will win in Arsikere (it might), and whether the JD(S) candidate (a defector from the BJP and a distant relative of BS Yedyurappa) will retain his deposit while coming third (he might not).

In many ways, Arsikere is emblematic of the terminal decline the JD(S) has entered into. It will not last another election cycle in its present form. 

That is a huge comedown for a party which traces its roots back to the first rebellion against Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s, earned its spurs during the Emergency, won the popular mandate on its own, and even gave the nation a Prime Minister — HD Deve Gowda.

Yet this decline was inevitable, since the party’s strength for so many decades — an extremely intricate and widespread social coalition consisting mainly of the Vokkaliga community concentrated in southern Karnataka, Muslims, some Scheduled Castes, and selected Other Backward Castes (OBCs) — has turned into its greatest weakness. 

The very identity politics which the JD(S) is based upon has now become its Achilles heel. 

We should have seen this coming in 1999 itself, when the JD(S) split, and a portion of its vote went to the BJP. We would have seen it happen in 2013, by when the BJP had begun to attract a fair share of the vote in JD(S) realms, but for Yeddyurappa’s awful rebellion which set the party’s growth back by a decade. 

But we will see it happen in 2023, in a number of seats which had hitherto been loyal JD(S) citadels, when the BJP pushes the JD(S) to third place, makes the contest more bipolar with the Congress, and even wins a few.

The seats aren’t well known, and are off the beaten track, but they will become famous on 13 May: Arkalgud, Chiknayakanhalli, Kolar, Maddur, Gubbi, Sira, and others.

Some political analysts may attribute this decline to the suffocating nature of dynastic politics; it kills ambition, loyalty, and career growth, in anyone not related to the family in charge. 

Others may attribute the JDS’s present predicament to self-defeating, self-destructive intra-familial squabbles, which make Medici palace intrigues seem docile in comparison.

HD Kumaraswamy’s otiose, unseemly spat with his brood, over his obstinate rejection of his sister-in-law Bhavani Revanna’s candidature for Hassan seat, has enough spice for a hit mini-series. But it is also both futile and rather redundant, since the BJP won this prestigious seat in 2018. 

Perhaps, then, the more fundamental causes for the JD(S)’s terminal decline lie in two questions, Swarajya asked last year.

One, “What is the logical end-point of a party like the JD(S) but oblivion, if it does not, at some point, revert to its original socialist roots?”

Two, “What future does the JD(S) have beyond the Gowda dynasty, when its Kannada identity was long ago lost in a saffron deluge, and its secularism was appropriated by the Congress?”

This is the truth. The JD(S) held on to its shrivelled vote base not for any ideological appeal, but because the BJP’s growth was hindered twice — first by the delimitation of 2008, and then by the internal rebellion of 2013. 

And whatever subsidies or schemes the JD(S) espoused, seemed miserly against the bountiful welfarism doled out by the Congress. In the freebie sweepstakes, the JD(S)’s promises lag far behind the Congress’s, since actions speak louder than words.

It is the same case in the fierce world of competitive secularism. 

The Congress party’s sustained advocacy of ‘Tipu Jayanti’, its demonstrated ability to weather the backlash, and its unabashed efforts to woo adherents of even formally proscribed organisations like the Islamist Popular Front of India, limit both the JD(S)’s efforts at appeasement, and the geographical extent of its appeal. 

That is why the JD(S) is set to get squeezed in Northern Karnataka.

Worse, while the immediate beneficiary of the JD(S)’s shrinkage will be the Congress, who stand to mop up its Muslim vote base, the bigger beneficiary over the next election cycle will be the BJP, which has finally started building up a robust crop of popular Vokkaliga leaders in Central and Southern Karnataka, like Ashwath Narayan, Shobha Karandlaje, and CT Ravi.

Consequently, the JD(S) not only gets outgunned on both policies and politics, but it is also becoming increasingly difficult for the party to clearly elucidate what it stands for, or whom it represents.

If it can’t do that, then it can’t stand out in a crowd, and that disability, as everyone knows, is a death knell in electoral politics. 

The inference, then, is that the sordid intra-dynastic feud which presently has the party in a clasp, is more a symptom of the malaise the JD(S) is mortally afflicted by, rather than a cause.

The BJP has comprehensively usurped the JD(S)’s vital plank of Kannada pride, the Congress has successfully replaced the JD(S) as the primary defender of ‘victimized minorities’ against ‘fascist, majoritarian, Hindutvavadi forces’, and together, the two parties have shown that their policies resonate far more with voters than anything the JD(S) has left to offer.

As things stand, the JD(S)’s time as a political force of worth in Karnataka is drawing to a close. At best, it may take heart in the fact that it is not alone in this predicament. 

Other parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Janata Dal (United) which, too, found electoral profit for decades by building selective vote banks, are similarly being swept into oblivion by the rising tide of a civilisational vote.

All that stands between the JD(S) and its final collapse is its hope of a hung assembly in the assembly elections next month. If that happens, then the party might be able to eke out another pathetic year or two of relevance, with the handful of MLAs it will win.

But if not, then only its death throes will remain.

Either way, an end is inevitable since the Janata Dal (Secular), the People’s Secular Party, no longer represents the people, its party organisation is in tatters, and it isn’t even secular enough anymore to attract the identity vote.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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