Ahead of Dec 10 legislative council polls, JDS, BJP move closer

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The November 30 photographs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading Janata Dal Secular (JDS) supremo H D Devegowda by his hand before the two held a “cordial meeting” at Parliament House have put the spotlight on the two parties ahead of a crucial Vidhan Parishad election scheduled for December 10.

The ruling BJP and the opposition JDS have shared a blow hot, blow cold relationship in Karnataka ever since the latter parted ways with the Congress in July 2019 – after their alliance government fell apart due to defections to the BJP. But now, with elections to 25 seats in the state legislative council, the JDS has seemingly decided to drop its stance of equidistance from the BJP and the Congress and to throw in its lot with the ruling BJP.

Soon after the Devegowda-Modi meet, Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai announced that Devegowda’s son H D Kumaraswamy and former BJP CM B S Yediyurappa would chalk out a plan for a JDS-BJP alliance for the council elections. On Saturday, November 4, Kumaraswamy stated that a JDS-BJP tie-up for the polls would be decided keeping the future interests of the JDS in mind, specifically the 2023 Assembly polls.

The December 10 polls are being held on account of 15 Congress members, 6 BJP members and four JDS members retiring in January 2022 from the 75-member council, where the BJP currently has a strength of 32 seats, the Congress 29 and the JDS 12. This is apart from an Independent member and the council chairman, who is from the JDS. The BJP is keen to wrest a few seats from the Congress while the Congress and JDS are keen to at least retain their numbers.

One of the reasons for the possibility of a JDS-BJP alliance for the council polls is the fact that the JDS has fielded a candidate only in six of the 25 district-wise constituencies – where elected representatives from local bodies will vote for legislative council candidates on a preferential basis. A second reason is that the BJP is desperate to wrest control of the Upper House (where it now depends on the JDS for passing Bills) and is keen to ensure that the Congress (which has 15 seats at stake compared to the BJP’s 6 and JDS’s 4) loses significant ground.

“In six constituencies where we have fielded candidates, there are candidates from all three parties. We cannot ask BJP to support our person. In other places, Congress and BJP are fighting and JDS will decide on these constituencies keeping the future in mind,” said Kumaraswamy.

A failure by the BJP to win a good number of seats is seen as being detrimental to the party’s prospects in Karnataka ahead of the 2023 Assembly polls.

“It is a very commercial election — where a person with the deepest pocket will get the nod of the elected local body delegates in each constituency. In most places, voters have already decided on who they will support and so a JDS-BJP alliance will work only in a few seats,” a former state MLC said.

In some places, the alliance forged by party leaders may not work on the ground, he said. “The alliance with the BJP is an opportunistic move by the JDS but the BJP will take up the offer only if it is sure that the alliance will help it win a specific seat,” he added.

The dalliance between the JDS and BJP in Karnataka is not a new one, except that this time, for the December 10 elections, it is more overt than earlier. Devegowda has enjoyed a cordial relationship with Modi for long, with the two often making it a point to greet each other on social media on special occasions.

Despite Devegowda maintaining JDS’s independent status, the party has in recent times helped the BJP tactically — especially in gaining control of the state legislative council in Karnataka and facilitating the passage of BJP-backed bills.

In February this year, the JDS supported the ouster of council chairman K Prathapchandra Shetty, of the Congress, and facilitated the election of M K Pranesh of the BJP as deputy chairman in exchange for a JDS candidate, Basavaraj Horatti, being given the post of the council chairman. In a tactical move, the BJP passed the controversial Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill, 2020, through the legislative council soon after its MLC became deputy chairman (a day ahead of JDS’s Horatti’s election as council chairman).

In July this year, CM Bommai paid a courtesy visit to Devegowda’s home, triggering speculation of the JDS moving closer to the BJP with the presence of a former Janata Parivar man in the chief minister’s chair.

“Ours is a regional party and we are trying our best to survive. There has been a coalition with the BJP on one occasion and there has been a coalition with the Congress on another occasion. We have the experience of both sides. We want to fight independently in the next elections and take up important issues facing the state of Karnataka,” Devegowda had said after the meeting with Bommai.

Last December, shortly after the JDS backed the BJP that passed the Karnataka Land Reforms (Amendment) Bill, 2020 — a law to withdraw restrictions that allowed farm land to be purchased only by agriculturists –in the legislative council, Kumaraswamy was accused by farmer groups of abandoning the cause of farmers, a core constituency of the party.

“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 very Kumaraswamy who waived the loans of farmers to the tune of Rs 25,000 crore despite opposition. No one patted me then,” an upset Kumaraswamy said then.

Last December, amid speculation of the JDS merging with the ruling BJP, Kumaraswamy and Yediyurappa had ruled out a merger but said “the parties are willing to work with each other on an issue basis”.

Over a decade ago, in 2006, the JDS allied with the BJP — a decision that was said to be against the wishes of Devegowda — and Kumaraswamy was made CM. The alliance fell through in 2007 after the JDS did not transfer power to the BJP.

Kumaraswamy has also stated in recent days that he would have been in a better political situation if he had allied with the BJP rather than the Congress after the 2018 polls. That year, after the elections threw up a hung verdict, the Congress and JDS had come to power, with Kumaraswamy being given the chief minister’s post despite winning fewer seats than the Congress.

The support base of the JDS and the BJP lie in two distinct regions of Karnataka — the former has a base among the dominant Vokkaliga community in southern Karnataka while the BJP has a hold over the dominant Lingayat community in northern Karnataka. The talks of closer ties between the parties has come at a time when the BJP has been making inroads into JDS territory in south Karnataka.

The JDS and Kumaraswamy are walking a thin line in attempting to retain its core support base – farmers and minorities — while being in the good books of the BJP which is in power in Karnataka and at the Centre. While Kumaraswamy is more inclined to take the BJP plunge, his father is said to be reluctant on account of his bond with parties on the left of the political spectrum, say long-term JDS observers.

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