Most exit polls have suggested a powerful kingmaking role for the Janata Dal (S) once the results of the Karnataka elections are declared Tuesday. Eight major polls Saturday predicted a median 26 seats for the party — with the higher end of the predicted range in some polls reaching 35-40 — a critical mass in a situation in which nearly every poll sees both the Congress and the BJP falling short of the halfway mark of 112. (There was no voting Saturday at two of the 224 seats in the Assembly.)
JD (S) leader H D Deve Gowda and his son, state party president H D Kumaraswamy, in fact, have an excellent record of playing both kingmaker and king in uncertain times, depending upon possibilities a fluid political situation throws up.
For instance, who would have thought that Deve Gowda, who could at best claim credit for having delivered 16 Lok Sabha seats to the Janata Dal (which had a dismal overall score of 46) in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, would become Prime Minister? In his last speech in Lok Sabha as Prime Minister a year later, Deve Gowda asserted that he would be back, signaling that he, at least, did not believe that he had got a shot at the country’s top job merely by a fluke.
Seven years after Deve Gowda lost his prime ministership, the 2004 Karnataka Assembly polls threw up a badly split verdict. The BJP emerged as the single largest party with 79 of the 224 seats, followed by the Congress with 65. Deve Gowda, whose JD (S) was third with 58 seats, forced the Congress to make N Dharam Singh Chief Minister — bypassing S M Krishna — of a Congress-JD (S) government. At that time he spoke of keeping “communal forces” out, but in less than two years, Kumaraswamy became Chief Minister after striking a 20-month rotating chief ministership deal with the BJP. Kumaraswamy enjoyed his term till October 2007, but then refused to make way for the BJP’s B S Yeddyurappa.
In 2004, Deve Gowda secured for Siddaramaiah, who was at the time a member of his party, the post of Deputy CM in the Dharam Singh government. A year later, however, he had Siddaramaiah removed — ostensibly for indiscipline, but actually to ensure that Siddaramaiah would not pose a challenge to Kumaraswamy when he took charge of the party. Siddaramaiah went on to realise his ambition of becoming CM by joining the Congress later — and the dynamics of the Deve Gowda-Siddaramaiah relationship will come in to play again should the results on May 15 force the Congress and JD (S) to work together again.
In the last Assembly election in 2013, the JD (S) won 40 seats with a vote share of 20.09%. In 2008, it won 28 seats, but its vote share, at 18.96%, was only slightly lower. Back in 2004, Deve Gowda’s party won 59 seats after polling 20.07% of the vote. This performance was a huge improvement over its 1999 score of 10 seats (10.42% vote).
Deve Gowda has fought the 2018 election in alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. Dalits are an estimated 24% of Karnataka’s population. The JD (S) has a strong base among the Vokkaligas, who are around 12%, and are concentrated in the Old Mysuru region. The outgoing Assembly has 53 Vokkaligas. The Congress had won 25 of the 55 seats in Old Mysuru, the JD (S) got 23, and the BJP only two.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been making complimentary references to Deve Gowda during the campaign. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, has described the JD (S) as the BJP’s “B-team”. By mid-morning on May 15, Deve Gowda would have begun to weigh the possibilities before him.