Daydreams of a ‘sleeping’ giant

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Photo: S Radhakrishnan
Photo: S Radhakrishnan

Former prime minister HD Deve Gowda was one of the architects of the Third Front in 1996. Eighteen years later, the 80-year-old is hoping to repeat the trick as he steps into the autumn of his political career. Even as he travels all over the country to drum up support for the new avatar of the Third Front, his Janata Dal (Secular) is in disarray.

Gowda was just another regional satrap when he swapped the Karnataka CM’s office for that of the PM’s in 1996. He was asked to negotiate with the Congress on behalf of the United Front for forming the government at the Centre. The then Congress chief Sitaram Kesari agreed but on the condition that Gowda should be the PM. That was the finest moment of Gowda and his then party, the Janata Dal, which had 16 MPs. Ever since the Congress withdrew support in 1997, Gowda has remained on the margins of national politics.

On home turf, too, there was a slide in fortunes. After leaving the Janata Dal, Gowda floated the JD(S) and formed a coalition government with the Congress in 2004. But the experiment was shortlived. Soon, Gowda’s son HD Kumaraswamy went on to form a coalition government with the BJP. The JD(S)-BJP coalition fell in 2008 when Kumaraswamy refused to hand over power to the BJP, paving the way for the latter to win the subsequent polls and form a government on its own for the first time in south India. It also resulted in the JD(S) being branded as a father-son party hungry for power. Since then, the JD(S) has been on a slippery slope.

Nowhere was it more evident than in the polls held last year. Even though the JD(S) managed to win 40 seats in the Assembly polls, becoming the principal Opposition party, it suffered a setback in the Lok Sabha bypolls in Bangalore Rural and Mandya, considered JD(S) bastions. Kumaraswamy’s wife Anitha lost from Bangalore Rural to her Congress rival DK Suresh, the brother of Energy Minister DK Shiva Kumar. This defeat was read as the JD(S) losing hold in the Vokkaliga heartland, the state’s second largest caste and the party’s main support base.

“The bypoll results show that something is wrong with the party’s functioning,” a senior leader had said on the condition of anonymity. “The defeat in our own backyard underlines the need to do a serious introspection on the style of functioning. If mistakes are not corrected, the party will face a big crisis.”

In the forthcoming General Election, the JD(S) has decided to contest from all 28 constituencies in the state. Gowda has identified 13 constituencies where the party is determined to improve its performance to make its presence felt in the Third Front. “The JD(S) will focus mainly on Kolar, Chikballapur, Tumkur, Bangalore Rural, Mandya, Mysore, Hassan, Shimoga, Raichur, Bidar, Bijapur, Chitradurga and Uttara Kannada,” says Kumaraswamy.

However, the JD(S) is yet to finalise its candidates with party leaders saying the process will be held after the Assembly session ends on 21 February. The JD(S) is also exploring the option of seat adjustments with “like-minded” parties such as the JD(U), BSP and the Left parties.

In spite of Gowda’s wish to secure more seats and play a major role in the Third Front, opinion polls suggest a dip in the party’s vote share. The CNN IBN-CSDS survey conducted in January predicts that the part is likely to win a maximum of four seats. In 2009, the JD(S) sent three MPs to the Lok Sabha.

“The JD(S) won’t go far,” says political analyst SA Hemanth Kumar. “At best, it will get a maximum of three or four seats. Since JD(S) is a regional party, it hardly matters during the Lok Sabha polls. In Karnataka, the people would prefer to vote for either the Congress or the BJP.”

Without a sizeable number of MPs, Gowda won’t enjoy any bargaining power in the Third Front, which is likely to be dominated by the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav, J Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee. As a result, he is concentrating on getting as many seats as possible.

“But the Third Front leaders know Gowda very well,” says analyst Kumar. “The Left parties blame him for the BJP’s rise in Karnataka. During the 2009 bypolls, he had promised to support CPI candidate Radha Sundaresh, but switched loyalty to the Congress a week before the polls. The Left Front doesn’t trust him. As far as the Third Front is concerned, Gowda doesn’t matter at all.”

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