The two national parties―the BJP and the Congress―are asking voters for a clear mandate to avoid a hung assembly. In theory, the Janata Dal (Secular) is also doing the same―former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy, 63, who is leading the JD(S)’s campaign, has set an ambitious target of 123 seats. But, in reality, the party is focused on bagging 30 to 40 seats. That could make it kingmaker or even king.
This is no wishful thinking as the JD(S) has proven. It shared power in 2004 and 2018 after winning 58 and 37 seats, respectively. But, 58 is still its best tally almost 20 years later as it has been unable to expand effectively beyond Old Mysuru; in 2018, 29 of its 37 seats were in the Vokkaliga heartland (the region has 59 seats). JD(S) patriarch H.D. Deve Gowda continues to be the tallest Vokkaliga leader in the state and commands enormous respect from the community, but that alone is now not enough to hold the Vokkaliga votes intact.
The emergence of Vokkaliga leaders in the Congress and the BJP, the exodus of JD(S) leaders and growing resentment among party workers over family-centric politics and nepotism have left the party in an existential crisis. The bigger challenge currently is the feud between Kumaraswamy and his elder brother and Holenarasipur MLA H.D. Revanna. The latter wants his wife, Bhavani, to contest from Hassan; Kumaraswamy is adamant the ticket should go to H.P. Swaroop, son of former MLA H.S. Prakash.
To make matters worse, Bhavani declared her candidature and claimed senior leaders would soon make the announcement. Kumaraswamy refused to budge. If given the ticket, Bhavani would be the eighth family member to enter electoral politics―Anitha, Kumaraswamy’s wife, is an MLA and their son, Nikhil, is set to contest from her seat (Ramanagara), Prajwal, Revanna’s younger son, is Hassan MP and his brother Suraj is an MLC. Interestingly, Anitha announced her decision to vacate her seat for her son at a rally, much like Bhavani’s unilateral announcement.
“I agree that the family has stepped in and fielded a member when the party faced a crisis,” said Kumaraswamy. “But, this is not one such situation. We should avoid giving anyone a chance to call us a family-centric party.” His fear is not baseless. Deve Gowda lost in Tumakuru in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and Nikhil was beaten by Sumalatha Ambareesh―clear signs of the winds of change sweeping through the Vokkaliga belt.
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Meanwhile, Prajwal threatened to resign as MP if his mother was not given the ticket, only to be rebuked by his uncle for blackmailing. Revanna expressed his annoyance over Kumaraswamy’s stand and said he was boss in Hassan. Political analyst Ravindra Reshme said Kumaraswamy is trying to clean the taint of nepotism, but has been cornered by his elder brother’s family. “The family has managed to keep the party afloat and continues to be relevant in state politics, but family-centric politics will be the party’s undoing,” he said.
An ailing Deve Gowda has largely stayed away from the campaign. Kumaraswamy, who himself has undergone two heart surgeries, has kept the show going. The JD(S)’s Pancha Ratna Yatre, promising reforms in education, health, agriculture, employment and housing, has completed 90 days and covered 70 constituencies. The yatra broke records for most garlands received (close to 800) in 90 days of a political rally. The JD(S) will now be hoping for just enough seats to have a say.