Will the Janata Dal (Secular) be revitalised by its decision to take a hard Hindutva turn and ally with the Bharatiya Janata Party-dominated National Democratic Alliance for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections? Or will this pave the way for the Karnataka party’s primary support base from the Vokkaliga community to move to the BJP?

It will all depend on this election, political observers say. If the Janata Dal (Secular) candidates fail to perform well, the BJP will gain control over the Vokkaligas, who form 14% of the state’s population, and push HD Deve Gowda’s party into oblivion.

It is a possibility that Janata Dal (Secular) worker Krishna Gowda was well aware of when attended a rally in Channapatna town on April 2 at which the BJP’s Amit Shah kicked off the National Democratic Alliance’s election campaign in Karnataka. Said the 65-year-old member of the Vokkaliga community, “If JD(S) faces defeat in the election, I will switch to BJP.”

His compatriot, Nanje Gowda, 60, echoed his sentiment. “If JD (S) wins, we will stay with the party,” he said. “Else, we will move to the BJP since it supports the cause of Hindus.”

JD(S) worker Krishna Gowda, 65, says he will join BJP if his party performs badly in the Lok Sabha elections.

When the Janata Dal (Secular) in September announced its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party to fight the Lok Sabha elections in Karnataka, its decision was prompted by the results of the state elections declared four months before. Of the state’s 46 Vokkaliga-dominated constituencies, the Janata Dal (Secular) won only 11 – down from its tally of 25 in 2018.

Though many of the Vokkaliga-dominated constituencies had voted for the Congress in the assembly elections, allying with the party was not an option for the Janata Dal (Secular). The two parties had fought the 2019 Lok Sabha elections together but the partnership collapsed amidst a series of allegations and counter-allegations. At the heart of their conflict is a battle for the leadership of the Vokkaliga community.

Besides, many members of the Vokkaliga community have begun to display a pronounced sympathy for Hindutva. Twenty-one-year-old Sreenath, who recently graduated in computer science, said that the BJP’s Hindutva agenda and the Janata Dal (Secular)’s farmer-first agenda are two sides of the same coin.

“I am from a family of JD(S) supporters,” Sreenath said. “Ours is a farming community. Farmers love their land. So it is easy for us to love our country. The BJP is teaching us to protect our country at any cost.”

Amit Shah launches NDA’s election campaign with a road show in Channapatna on April 2.

Sentiments like this encouraged Janata Dal (Secular) leader HD Kumaraswamy to ignore the suffix in his party’s name and offer unwavering support to Hindutva initiatives that he had staunchly opposed in the past.

In December, for instance, Kumaraswamy extended support for the Sangh Parivar’s Dattamala Jayanti celebrations at Chikkamagaluru’s Baba Budangiri shrine. Though the cave is venerated by both Hindus and Muslims, the Sangh Parivar – the family of Hindutva organisations to which the BJP belongs – is aiming to transform the shrine into a Hindu place of worship.

The next month, Kumaraswamy attended the inauguration of the still-incomplete Ram temple in Ayodhya, expressing his delight at the opportunity to visit the shrine. This was in contrast to his earlier criticism of the BJP for exploiting Ram’s name for political advantage.

He even apologised to a leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organisation of the BJP, whom he had previously criticised for instigating communal unrest in the state.

The Janata Dal (Secular)’s alliance with the Hindutva party repudiates the principles on which the party was founded in 1999. HD Deve Gowda started the party after splitting from the Janata Dal following disagreements about aligning with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

To be sure, this is not the first time the Janata Dal (Secular) has tied up with the BJP in Karnataka. In February 2006, it struck an opportunistic pact with the Hindutva party that propelled Kumaraswamy to the chief minister’s position. However, 20 months later, the BJP abruptly withdrew from the coalition. President’s rule was imposed.

Nonetheless, there is a significant contrast between then and now. In 2006, the Janata Dal (Secular) wielded substantial influence, with 58 MLAs in the house of 224 seats. In 2024, it finds itself grappling for survival, with a mere 19 MLAs and a single Member of Parliament.

Having conceded much electoral ground to the Congress and the BJP over the years, the leadership of the Janata Dal (Secular) decided that it would survive only if it effected a tie-up with the Hindutva party. “It will help us build our party in the state,” said TA Sharavana, Janata Dal (Secular) spokesperson and member of legislative council.

The party hopes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will reward Kumaraswamy with a major portfolio at the Centre. Kumaraswamy has said that he would like to be appointed Union agriculture minister if National Democratic Alliance returns to power this summer.

A JD(S) worker distributes shawls at Channapatna on April 2.

Senior BJP leader and former Karnataka education minister S Suresh Kumar claimed that both parties will benefit from the alliance. “I hope JD (S) will win all the seats it is contesting, while its strong Vokkaliga vote base will support BJP in other constituencies,” he said. The aim of the alliance, he said, “is to defeat Congress in Karnataka and teach them a lesson”.

The leaders of the Janata Dal (Secular) will have their own strategy to stay relevant, he said. “Deve Gowda is the party’s supreme leader,” said Kumar. “What decides the party’s relevance is how Kumaraswamy takes it forward. Decimating a strong regional party is not on the BJP agenda.”

Out of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka, the Janata Dal (Secular) is contesting three on its own symbol. Two of these have been given to members from the Deve Gowda family. Kumaraswamy, the son of the party founder HD Deve Gowda, is running from the party’s stronghold of Mandya. Gowda’s grandson, Prajwal Revanna, is seeking re-election from Hassan. In the Kolar constituency, which is reserved for members of the scheduled castes, the party has nominated M Mallesh Babu.

The biggest surprise was the decision to field Gowda’s son-in-law, CN Manjunath, as a BJP candidate from the Bengaluru Rural constituency. This was the only constituency in Karnataka that the Congress managed to win in 2019.

Children wearing masks at the National Democratic Alliance road show in Channapatna on April 2.

Shifting allegiance

The alliance with the BJP has injected vigour into Janata Dal (Secular) workers, who had been steadily gravitating towards the saffron outfit.

All India Kisan Sabha leader Krishne Gowda, who lives in Malavalli in Mandya district, has been keenly observing the new-found love for the Sangh Parivar among the Vokkaliga community members and Janata Dal (Secular) workers.

“The pace of saffronisation has gained momentum after the electoral agreement,” he said. “JD (S) workers are vying with Sangh Parivar cadres to propagate hate through social media platforms.”

Krishne Gowda predicts a mass exodus of Janata Dal (Secular) workers to the BJP if Kumaraswamy loses the Mandya election. “Though the BJP is in alliance with the JD (S), I think the saffron outfit will work to ensure Kumaraswamy’s defeat so that it can get the Vokkaliga community on its side,” he said.

Hindutva outfits have long been working to get a foothold in Mandya, known as Karnataka’s Sugar Bowl. In January, the region witnessed a huge protest in Keragodu village after the police removed a saffron flag that had been raised on a pole in a public place to commemorate the consecration of the Ram Temple. It was replaced with the national tricolour. Kumaraswamy attended the protests wearing a saffron shawl.

In the run-up to the 2023 assembly election, the Sangh Parivar tried to fan a story that Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan, who is increasingly being demonised by Hindutva supporters, had been killed by Vokkaliga leaders Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda. But the ploy did not work. Vokkaliga monks condemned the Sangh Parivar move and said that there was no historical evidence to prove this claim.

JD(S) worker Nagaraju lauded Deve Gowda and HD Kumaraswamy for aligning with the BJP in the Lok Sabha election.

Muslim supporters

While the Janata Dal (Secular)’s new turn has gone down well with Vokkaligas, it has hurt its appeal among the Muslim community, which is also a significant source of support for the party.

A 56-year-old Muslim man in Mandya, who asked to remain unidentified, said that he had consistently voted for the Janata Dal (Secular) until the last Lok Sabha election. But by joining hands with BJP, he said, he party has betrayed Muslims.

Janata Dal (Secular) spokesperson TA Sharavana had an explanation for the party’s decision. He argued that despite appeals from HD Deve Gowda himself, Muslims had voted for the Congress in the last Assembly election. “If they have chosen not to support us, why should we continue to stand by them?” he asked. “Our primary concern is the future of our party.”

It is not just ordinary Muslim voters who have felt abandoned. The pact with the BJP has even forced Muslim leaders from the Janata Dal (Secular) to sever ties with the party and seek refuge in the Congress.

Former Union minister of information and broadcasting CM Ibrahim, who was expelled as Janata Dal (Secular) state president in December 2023 after he criticised the deal with BJP, said Deve Gowda would realise that the alliance was a huge mistake after the parliament election.

“Muslims and Dalits will not vote for JD(S) anymore,” he warned. “Gowda and Kumarasawmy should understand that the party got 17 out of 19 MLAs [in the 2023 state election] because of support from these two communities. The party is going to draw a blank in this election.”

CN Manjunath, Home Minister Amit Shah and HD Kumaraswamy during a road show in Channapatna in the Bangalore Rural constituency on April 2.

Family affair

The decline in the popularity of the Janata Dal (Secular) began in 2013, when the Gowda family assumed full control of the party’s affairs. Decisions were made without consulting senior members and family members were appointed to key positions.

Deve Gowda’s decision to dissolve the party’s executive committee in October 2023 and appoint his son HD Kumaraswamy as ad-hoc president of the state unit after a few members contested the decision to ally with the BJP was a case in point.

Ibrahim said Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy held secret talks with the BJP without consulting him. “The father and son worked out the modalities of the deal,” he said. “They kept me out as I vehemently opposed the alliance.”

A Narayana, political analyst and professor of policy and governance at Azim Premji University, agreed that the party’s problems started from the time it became family-centric. “It promoted family members to the top posts without nurturing second- or third-rung leaders,” he said. “Disenchanted leaders began to desert the party. The family promotion was at its worst in the 2019 Parliament election.”

Of seven constituencies that the party contested, three party strongholds were allotted to family members.

JD(S) candidate from Hassan, Prajwal Revanns, seeks blessings from party founder HD Deve Gowda, who is also his grandfather, before leaving home to file his nomination papers.

Former Janata Dal (Secular) MLC Ramesh Babu, who quit the party and joined the Congress in 2020, said Kumaraswamy calls all the shots in the party. “During the election time, Kumaraswamy would first reserve winnable constituencies to his family members leaving insignificant seats to hardworking party workers,” said Babu. “He turned the party into a private family property.”

He noted that few regional political parties that have entered into alliances with the BJP have lasted long.

Narayana believes that the BJP is poised to gain if the Janata Dal (Secular) becomes irrelevant. “The deal with BJP will not help JD(S),” he said. “But BJP will use the tie-up to broaden its base in the Vokkaliga community. This will hasten JD(S)’s slide to obscurity.”

Senior Janata Dal (Secular) leader K T Sreekante Gowda said that ups and downs are very common in politics. “We are passing through a rough patch now,” he said. “It is unjust to write our obituary. We have shown our resilience in the past and we will come back strongly soon.”

All photographs by TA Ameerudheen.