The kingmaker of Karnataka: H D Deve Gowda hopes to play that role again

As regional satraps go, there should have been no one to match Haradanahalli Doddahalli Deve Gowda. The only Karnataka politician to have become Prime Minister, he had a profile in the entire state. No one forced him to confine himself to the Hassan-Old Mysuru belt of Karnataka, immersed in sectarian Vokkaliga politics. But that is what he opted to become and come mid-May, he is hoping he will once again play the role that he has essayed to a fine art — kingmaker.

Most people go from state politics to national politics. Deve Gowda went from national politics to state politics. In 1996-97, after the 13-day Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was defeated, Deve Gowda became the United Front’s (UF) candidate to become Prime Minister — the coalition United Front’s fourth choice because the partners of the coalition wanted to keep each others’ ambition in check. He pipped GK Moopanar at the post but could not get on with the then Congress President Sitaram Kesri for cultural reasons. The Congress virtually forced the UF to replace its PM and IK Gujral was installed after a humiliating exit for Deve Gowda. Between then and 2002, when he was elected MP from the Kanakapura Lok Sabha seat, Deve Gowda managed to lift his southward political career up by the bootstraps and became kingmaker in the assembly elections in 2004.

The thing about Deve Gowda is, he says all the right things, but does all the wrong ones. In 2001 when he was ‘unemployed’, he did a ‘padayatra’ around Bengaluru bringing the message of the villages to the town. The issue was the killing of two farmers in police firing during an agitation over the right to tap neera from coconut trees. He spoke of agrarian distress and suicides by farmers owing to faulty economic policies and priorities, de-industrialisation owing to liberalisation, the growth of poverty and unemployment. Little wonder then that he won the Kanakapura Lok Sabha seat by a big margin.

Then came the Karnataka Assembly elections in 2004. The Janata Dal Secular’s campaign was variations on the Kanakapura campaign theme. But there was an addition: Deve Gowda made it clear he would not be averse to an alliance with the Congress, and went on attacking the BJP during the campaign. So the minorities were greatly enthused.

In 2004, he became kingmaker. The BJP had 75 seats, Congress 65, JD(S) 57, and others 27. The Congress and the Janata Dal Secular (JDS) joined up and Dharam Singh became Chief Minister, supported by the JD S. 

But there were serpents in Eden. Remnants of the RK Hegde led Janata Dal which had joined the Congress could not get over their distrust of Deve Gowda and their dislike of his style of functioning. In 2006, Dharam Singh resigned. Rather than face elections, the Janata Dal Secular’s first son, HD Kumaraswamy struck a half-and-half deal with the BJP — that he would rule for the first half of the government’s tenure and the BJP would rule for the second half. The BJP, with 75 MLAs now became the tail that wagged the dog to the JDS’s 57 MLAs.

The first to gasp in disbelief were the minorities. At first, Deve Gowda claimed his son had broken his heart and done a deal with the BJP behind his back. But this phase lasted precisely one week. At the end of the day, blood is thicker than water and Gowda sided with his son. So he lost the faith of the minorities.

HD Kumaraswamy’s tenure followed. He went up and down, round and round, trying to carve out an independent place for the JDS. He spent nights in the huts of Dalits (although he carried his own commode, mattress and mineral water), talked to minorities to clear the air, and worked really hard.

And then, he decided to dump the BJP by denying it the chance to have its chief minister under the previously agreed arrangement.

Things began to move too fast for Deve Gowda. The BJP pulled out, but so did his closest lieutenant, the late MP Prakash. The other promising young leader of the JDS, Siddaramiah had already quit. Thus the party became secular, lost power, but also came to be known as the ‘thande-makkala party’ (father and sons party). Both Prakash and Siddaramiah left citing the father-and-son effect.

When the 2008 Assembly elections came around, predictably, an ambitious BJP and a weak and tremulous Congress were all that was left. From 57 MLAs in the Assembly, Deve Gowda came down to 17. In 2013, because of the BJP’s shenanigans, (Yeddyurappa split from the BJP and formed his own party) the JDS got 40 seats, the same as the BJP. And this time? Interestingly, so far JDS is not the target of the attack by BJP. What the future will bring, no one can tell.

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