Will the 2023 Karnataka Assembly polls be a battle of political survival for former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda-led Janata Dal (Secular) or will the regional party once again emerge as a ‘king’ or a ‘kingmaker’, like it did in 2018, in the event of a hung verdict? Political circles are abuzz with this debate before the past couple of elections, and this time is no different. Plagued by desertions and internal rifts, and with the image of being a ”family party”, Gowda’s son Kumaraswamy, has in a way single-handedly managed the JD(S) campaign across the state, with his aging father taking the backseat.
Kumaraswamy has by-and-large focused his campaign on a five-fold programme called ‘Pancharatna’ — quality education, healthcare, housing, farmer welfare and employment — that the JD(S) plans to implement in the event of coming to power. Though the 89-year old Deve Gowda initially stayed away from campaigning due to age-related ailments, he pitched in and travelled and campaigned for JD(S) candidates in the past couple of weeks, especially in the party bastion of Old Mysuru region, making an emotional pitch, and countering the Congress’ and BJP’s attacks against his party. Allegations by both national parties that the JD(S) was the ‘B team’ of the other, and that JD(S) was hoping to win just 35-40 seats at the most to play a crucial role in government formation in case of a hung verdict were among the criticisms faced by Kumaraswamy in this campaign. Since the time of its formation in 1999, JD(S) has never formed a government on its own, but had been in power twice in coalition with both national parties — for 20 months with BJP from February 2006 and with Congress for 14 months after the May 2018 Assembly polls- with Kumaraswamy as the Chief Minister.
This time, the party has set an ambitious target of ”mission 123” to form a government on its own by winning at least 123 out of total 224 seats, and has been seeking votes invoking regional Kannadiga pride and fueling a narrative that national parties — the BJP and Congress — fall well short of serving interests of the state.
There are, however, doubts among some political observers and within a section of the party itself about JD(S) meeting this target; the party’s best ever performance so far has been in the 2004 Assembly elections, when it won 58 seats, and 40 seats in 2013 was its second best.
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In the 2018 polls, JD(S) won 37 seats.
The party’s vote share is stagnant. It has been ranging between 18-20 per cent, as the party has managed to continue its hold on to a sizeable number of constituencies, predominantly in the Vokkaliga belt of Old Mysuru region (south Karnataka).
It is this Gowda family’s hold over the Vokkaliga community that dominates the Old Mysuru region comprising 61 seats (excluding the 28 constituencies in Bengaluru), which the ruling BJP and Congress are looking forward to breaking and improving their prospects.
The Congress is considerably strong in Old Mysuru region and has been a traditional rival for the JD(S) in the belt, BJP however, is weak here and is aiming to make swift inroads with an aim to get a clear majority. There is already a sense that Congress is trying to consolidate its hold in the region with D K Shivakumar, the party Vokkaliga strongman as its state president. However, some party leaders are hopeful about the JD(S)’ prospects of coming to power, by winning a few more seats than they did last time, and once again using the knack of power politics, by holding the key for government formation, in the event of a hung verdict.
Aimed at getting rid of perception about JD(S) being too family centric, Kumaraswamy this time ensured that a party worker H P Swaroop got a ticket from the family bastion of Hassan, despite his sister-in-law Bhavani Revanna being adamant till the last minute, wanting to contest. It had reached to a level to bring family rift out in the open, however Gowda’s intervention resolved the issue.
However, critics of the party are not too impressed by this move as Kumaraswamy’s son Nikhil is contesting from Ramanagara, which is the neighbouring constituency of his father’s — Channapatana. Kumaraswamy’s elder brother H D Revanna is contesting from Holenarasipura.
According to some political observers, JD(S) inability to grow beyond the Vokkaliga dominated old Mysuru region, other than in certain select pockets of north Karnataka is seen among its other drawbacks.
It remains to be seen how the party manages to make gains in other regions this time, while retaining its hold in Old Mysuru.
However, some political analysts note that the JD(S) is still a force to reckon with and it’s too early to write off the party which may again hold the key to power in case the Congress and the BJP fail to get a majority on their own.