Father proposes, son disposes. That seems to be the fate of the grand alliance which the ruling Congress had in mind ahead of the legislative council elections in Karnataka, scheduled for December 27. The move to stitch together an alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular), which reportedly had the blessings of party supremo and former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda, was shot down by his son H.D. Kumaraswamy, former chief minister.
A handful of JD(S) MLAs, who allegedly struck a deal with the Congress at a meeting with Congress general secretary in charge of Karnataka, Digvijaya Singh, were reprimanded by Kumaraswamy. “I will quit, but will not forge any alliance,” he said, warning the MLAs of disciplinary action.
The MLAs—Zameer Ahmed Khan, N. Cheluvarayaswamy, H.C. Balakrishna and Akhanda Srinivasa Murthy—hit back, saying the talks were initiated at the behest of Deve Gowda. But Deve Gowda has made a U-turn, parroting Kumaraswamy’s lines, “We will go it alone”. The Congress, not willing to acknowledge the snub, has fielded its own candidates. The Siddaramaiah government is keen on winning all 25 legislative council seats up for election (from the local authorities' constituency) so as to ensure that no legislation gets stalled in the upper house, where the BJP holds sway.
The JD(S) can do better without the Congress support, according to Kumaraswamy. “We can easily win five to six seats on our own and do not need the Congress,” he said. “My aim is to win 10 seats and we will go with the sentiments of our grassroots workers rather than forge an alliance with the Congress.” Some MLAs like Madhu Bangarappa supported Kumaraswamy’s stand. “Adjustment politics will demoralise grassroots workers. We must nurture local leadership at taluk and zilla panchayat levels,” he said.
The father-son discord is the major crisis facing the JD(S) today. Leaders, workers and activists wonder whom to listen to—the 82-year-old patriarch, or his 56-year-old son—as they continue to contradict each other. Deve Gowda wants to safeguard his secular image, stay relevant in national politics, and, if possible, even play kingmaker when time is ripe. Kumaraswamy is focused on state politics and seems happy to hold on to what is already in his kitty, while building the party brick by brick.
Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy have always trodden different paths. In the 2004 assembly elections, when none of the parties got a majority (of 224 seats, the BJP won 79, the Congress 65 and the JD(S) 58), Deve Gowda chose to support the Congress. However, the government headed by chief minister N. Dharam Singh of the Congress, with Siddaramaiah of the JD(S) as deputy CM, collapsed after Kumaraswamy walked out with 46 MLAs and forged an alliance with the BJP. The new JD(S)-BJP coalition had Kumaraswamy as chief minister and the BJP’s B.S. Yeddyurappa as deputy CM. Deve Gowda boycotted the oath-taking ceremony of his son for joining hands with the “communal” BJP and called it a “Black Day”. After a while, however, he acknowledged his son as a mass leader with growing popularity.
One of the reasons behind the churn within the Gowda family is the growing political ambition of its members. Kumaraswamy's son Nikhil Gowda and his brother H.D. Revanna's son Prajwal Revanna have become active in politics. Deve Gowda, Revanna and a few other senior leaders are in favour of tying up with the Congress, especially since the government is led by Siddaramaiah, a former JD(S) leader. But Kumaraswamy fears it might weaken his position.
Most JD(S) MLAs, who have stayed out of power for long, are in favour of a tacit understanding with the Congress. “We need funds for the development of our constituencies and what is wrong if we have cordial ties with the ruling party? Without putting up a good performance, it is difficult to retain our seats in the next elections,” say the MLAs.
The JD(S) has lost some of its senior leaders like P.G.R. Sindhia and Siddaramaiah to infighting and allegations of nepotism. The party is still known as the appa-makkala paksha (father and son party). Its influence remains confined to Hassan, Bengaluru Rural, Ramanagara, Mandya and Mysuru even as the Congress, under the leadership of Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar, is making its presence felt in the Vokkaliga belt. The JD(S)'s alleged links with real estate mafia and criminals have affected its reputation. It now functions out of a makeshift headquarters in Bengaluru after being shunted out of its office by the Congress, aided by a court order. Yet, the JD(S) continues to put up a fight. The Bihar election results and the increasing polarisation could end up in its favour.
“The Bihar poll results point to a new direction for regional parties. There will be more clarity after the upcoming polls in UP, Kerala and Tamil Nadu,” said Deve Gowda. Moreover, the growing caste and communal polarisation in Karnataka is likely to hurt the Congress and benefit the JD(S), believe party workers. The silence of the JD(S) MLAs during the Tipu Sultan debate in the assembly, the mass protests by the Vokkaligas against actor Girish Karnad’s comments on Kempegowda and the recent padyatra of Vokkaliga pontiffs to the newly discovered grave of Kempegowda point to the fact that the JD(S) is working hard to consolidate Vokkaliga and Muslim votes.
But the Deve Gowda-Kumaraswamy tussle could upset its plans. Does Deve Gowda see his heir apparent in Kumaraswamy? “He is a crowd-puller and as a chief minister, he has performed the best so far,” said Deve Gowda.
Kumaraswamy credits his father for being an experienced politician, but stops short of endorsing all his decisions. “We cannot sacrifice the party for the whims of a few," he said. "In the coming days, tough decisions will be taken. Enough is enough!”