On December 8, soon after the BJP government passed The Karnataka Land Reforms (Amendment) Bill, 2020 – to withdraw restrictions that allowed farm land to be purchased only by agriculturists – in the state Legislative Council with support from the opposition Janata Dal (Secular), JDS leader and former Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy was accused by some farmer groups of abandoning their cause. Farmers are a core constituency of the party in Karnataka.
One farmer leader called Kumaraswamy a “deal master”, and the CPI(M), an ally of the JDS, said “the real face of the JDS has been exposed” by its support for an “anti-people law”.
Former Chief Minister and leader of the Congress in the state legislature Siddaramaiah asked on social media: “In the morning they support the farmers’ protest and in the evening they vote in favour of anti-farmer laws. What kind of politics is this H D Kumaraswamy? How can people who call themselves sons of the soil and children of farmers stab farmers in the back?”
Kumaraswamy had expressed support for the land reforms Bill in September as well, saying he too faced allegations of illegal ownership of agricultural land. But the support to the BJP’s amendments to the Karnataka law at a time when farmers are leading a massive protest against the central government at the borders of Delhi, have opened JDS up to criticism.
“Let farmer leaders who are attacking the JDS conduct an introspection. Let them ask themselves if it is possible for the JDS to take an anti-farmer stand? I want to remind such people that it is this Kumaraswamy who waived the loans of farmers to the tune of Rs 25,000 crore despite opposition. No one patted my back then,” a visibly upset Kumaraswamy said the next day.
Rapidly losing ground to the BJP in areas that were once its bastion in south Karnataka and with very little hold on BJP-dominated north Karnataka, the JDS, which ruled the state in alliance with the Congress in 2018-19, is now fighting for its political survival.
The party and Kumaraswamy are walking a narrow line in attempting to retain their core support base while being in the good books of the BJP, which is in power both in the state and at the Centre.
Like in 2006, when Kumaraswamy chose to ally with the BJP against the wishes of his father, former Prime Minister and JDS supremo H D Deve Gowda, the JDS once again seems to be in a dilemma over choosing between its core secular, pro-farmer credentials and cosying up to the BJP. The fact that the BJP is in possession of an arsenal of cases against JDS leaders has not helped.
There have been signs in recent weeks of the JDS – particularly Kumaraswamy – leaning towards the BJP and Chief Minister Yediyurappa. Several senior members among the 33 JDS MLAs in the state have weighed the option of joining the BJP in order to ensure their political survival.
Kumaraswamy has been assiduously avoiding criticising the BJP and its leadership, and has instead often targeted Siddaramaiah, his arch rival from the time they were together in the JDS.
“The goodwill earned in 2006-2007 (when he was CM for the first time) was lost by allying with the Congress party. When I stepped down as Chief Minister in 2006 I was popular. After allying with the Congress in 2018, Siddaramaiah and his gang destroyed my reputation. I walked into their trap and agreed to the alliance because of Deve Gowda,” Kumaraswamy said earlier this month. “The Congress cannot fight the BJP so it keeps targeting the JDS, which is a small party,” he said.
Some of the rivalry between Kumaraswamy and Siddaramaiah stems from their affiliations to castes – Vokkaligas and the OBC Kurubas – who are considered to be arch rivals at the ground level in south Karnataka. There is also the old perception that the Deve Gowda family does not promote any leaders from outside of the family.
In September, as charges of corruption emerged against Yediyurappa’s family, Kumaraswamy had a closed-door meeting with the CM, which gave rise to speculation that the former allies were discussing alternative alliance strategies. In November, Kumaraswamy and Yediyurappa held another closed-door meeting.
“I have not met the Chief Minister secretively. I met him in his house during the day. I have met him to discuss the development work in the constituencies of my MLAs,” Kumaraswamy said.
During the recent winter session of the state legislature, the JDS’s attitude towards the BJP has been mixed, especially in the Legislative Council. While it did help the BJP pass the land reform amendment, it sought modifications to The Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill, 2020, resulted in the BJP dithering over tabling the Bill in the Council on Thursday.
“Opposition parties are not there to merely oppose. They have to execute responsibilities in a constructive manner. JDS has treaded a constructive path with respect to the amendments to land reforms act by protecting the interests of farmers. The JDS ensured that the legislation became a balanced one,” Kumaraswamy said after the land reforms Bill was passed.
He said that an earlier version of the Bill allowed individuals to own up to 216 acres of farm land, but on his suggestion, this had been capped at the existing 108 acres.
On the opposition to the cattle slaughter Bill, Kumaraswamy said: “JDS is not acting in the interest of any vote bank but in the interest of the welfare of farmers.
“Let those criticising me scrutinize my pro-farmer stands and study our pro-farmer programmes. Being a person who is walking the path of Deve Gowda – who hails from the farming community and rose from the dust – myself and the JDS will not deceive the soil and sons of the soil,” he said.
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