What led to the JD(S) debacle in the Karnataka polls

The JD(S) bagged a mere 19 seats


ON COUNTING DAY, former Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy, 63, was glued to the TV set at his JP Nagar residence in Bengaluru. The JD(S) leader had flown in from Singapore the previous night to be at home to track the results and possibly celebrate in case of a hung verdict. The JD(S) had fancied itself as a kingmaker, having got the chiefministership in coalition governments twice earlier―with the BJP in 2006 and the Congress in 2018―despite coming third. But its chances came to naught this time, as the Congress won 135 of 224 seats. The JD(S) bagged a mere 19 seats.

What hurt Kumaraswamy (in pic) the most was the defeat of his son Nikhil, 33, from Ramanagara.

What was more shocking was the party losing ground in its bastion―the Vokkaliga belt in the Old Mysuru region. The Congress won 37 of the 59 seats; it had won only 20 in 2018. The JD(S) won only 14 seats as against 29 in 2018. Its vote share, too, dipped from 18.3 per cent in 2018 to 13.3 per cent in 2023.

The verdict was both unexpected and worrying for the party. Its founder H.D. Deve Gowda―the tallest Vokkaliga leader in the state―commands enormous respect in the community, but it is no longer enough to hold its votes intact. The party’s best performance was in 2004―58 seats―when it had prominent leaders from different communities, like Siddaramaiah (Kuruba), Govind Karjol (dalit), R.V. Deshpande (Brahmin), C.M. Udasi and Basavaraj Bommai (Lingayat), Krishna Byre Gowda (Vokkaliga) and Zameer Ahmed Khan (Muslim). But after Siddaramaiah’s exit in 2005, the exodus of leaders continued, and today it is being accused of being a family-centric and caste-based party with little presence outside the Old Mysuru region.

The emergence of Vokkaliga leaders in the Congress and the BJP has caused a dent in its support base. At least five per cent of the Vokkaliga votes shifted to the Congress in the Old Mysuru region, as the community pinned its hopes on fellow Vokkaliga and state Congress chief D.K. Shivakumar becoming the chief minister. The BJP’s aggressive campaign in the Vokkaliga belt did the JD(S) more harm than it did the Congress. Party insiders also point to Muslims voting en bloc for the Congress after the BJP government scrapped the 4 per cent reservation for them under the OBC quota to make way for an enhanced quota for the Lingayats and Vokkaligas. Also, Mallikarjun Kharge’s elevation as Congress president helped consolidate the dalit vote in his home turf―Kalyana Karnataka region―where the Congress bagged 26 of 41 seats.

The debacle has hit Kumaraswamy hard. For someone who had campaigned rigorously ahead of the polls despite two heart surgeries―his Pancharatna Yatre covered more than 70 constituencies in 87 days―he stayed home post the verdict and asked his personal staff to leave for the day. He picked a book to read and retired to bed early. “Kumaranna has withdrawn into a cocoon and will be going to his farmhouse in Bidadi,” said his aide. “He is a hands-on farmer and has plans to make some changes to his plantation.”

Kumaraswamy had worked tirelessly to transform the JD(S) into a new-age party by hiring professionals for branding and designing the campaign and manifesto. Even Deve Gowda, who can barely walk at 90, addressed rallies. But none of that impressed the voters.

What hurt Kumaraswamy the most was the defeat of his son Nikhil, 33, from Ramanagara. He had also lost the 2019 Lok Sabha polls from Mandya. His defeat was being read as a vote against the party’s family-centric politics.

Clearly, the party needs to expand its bastion with a broad-based leadership.