Eighty one-year-old former prime minister HD Deve Gowda has declared that this will be the last election he will contest. He is running from his home constituency, Hassan, in Karnataka’s old Mysore region, which goes to the polls today. The fact that he is using sympathy to woo the electorate reflects how much has changed for him and his party, the Janata Dal (Secular) party, over the last decade.

Gowda became a compromise choice for prime minister in 1996 as part of a third front coalition of regional parties. But since he was forced to step down from the post a year later, he has been restricted to the role of regional satrap, with little appeal in national politics. In 1999, he split from the Janata Dal to form Janata Dal (Secular) and built the party on the basis of his hold over the Vokkaligas, Karnataka’s second- largest caste group, who are estimated to form around 15% of the population.

Classified as an other backward class, the group is concentrated in eight to nine parliamentary seats around Bangalore and Mysore city, an area known as the Old Mysore region. It is a fertile agricultural belt, where caste affiliation is strong.

The JD(S)’s best performance was in 2004, when the party won 58 of the 224 assembly seats in Karnataka. In that election, neither Congress nor the BJP won a clear mandate, so the JD(S) was wooed by both parties. Gowda’s son HD Kumaraswamy emerged as a future leader.

Kumaraswamy was sworn in chief minister in May 2006 after a deal in which the JDS and BJP agreed to share the chief minister’s post in rotation, for a set period of time. But once Kumaraswamay’s term came to an end, the JD(S) reneged on the agreement and forced an election in 2008. As it turns out, BJP won a clear majority and the JD(S) ended up with just 28 seats compared to the 58 it had earlier. The party’s slide had begun.

Against this backdrop, the Congress was building itself under Siddaramiah, who is now Karnataka's chief minister. He had quit the JD(S) and joined the Congress after Gowda began projecting his son as the future leader. In 2013, Siddaramiah, who belongs to another strong OBC community, the Kuruba caste, forged what is known as the AHINDA alliance: it is the Kannada acronym for the conglomeration of non-Vokkaliga OBCs, dalits, adivasis and minorities. This caste equation balanced the Vokkaliga vote and allowed the Congress to oust the JD(S) from some of its strongest seats in assembly elections last year.

In the 2013 by-election to two parliamentary constituencies, Kumaraswamy’s wife Anitha lost the Bangalore rural seat and the party lost the Mandya seat, both to the Congress. These were considered JD(S) bastions and the loss was embarrassing. Kumaraswamy himself had to quit as president of the party and the Gowdas had to appoint a family loyalist, A Krishnappa, to the post to counter the criticism that dynastic politics destroying the party.

Traditionally, the BJP has had only marginal presence in the Old Mysore region, and the battle has always been between the Congress and JD(S). This time, however, the BJP has also fielded strong caste candidates in the old Mysore region, making the going tougher for the JD(S).

Kumaraswamy, who is popularly called “Kumar Anna” by JDS workers, is fighting from the Chikkaballapur seat, where he is up against union petroleum minister Veerappa Moily and BJP local strong man Bacche Gowda, who also belongs to the Vokkaliga caste. The constituency adjoins the Bangalore International Airport and has seen tremendous growth over the last decade.

“Every politician owns thousands of acres of land here and many farmers have just sold out and left the area,” said a shopkeeper named Dutte Gowda. He added that the outcome of the election will be difficult to predict because the demography of the constituency has changed drastically because of migration. This reflects a change in the profile of the population across the Old Mysore region. Much of the fertile farm land has been turned into prime real estate, which has meant more migration in and out of these constituencies. In this new situation, there are questions about whether the old caste equations will remain as decisive.

If Kumaraswamy is facing a tough three-way fight, Deve Gowda is also battling to retain his Hassan seat. “CM Siddaramiah is putting everything behind the Congress campaign and is out to get vengeance by defeating Gowda,” said a Congress leader on condition of anonymity. The Congress has fielded an incumbent MLA, A Manju, and the campaign is being micromanaged by the chief minister’s office. The BJP has fielded a candidate, but the battle is firmly between Gowda and the Congress. This has ensured that, despite being the face of the JD(S), Gowda has been largely restricted to campaigning for the Hassan seat.

Adding to Gowda's worries is a fierce personal exchange with the BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. In an effort to woo the minorities, Gowda had recently said he cannot "stay in Karnataka if Modi became prime minister". In a snide response to that remark, Modi, speaking at a rally in the state on Sunday, said. "If you can't stay in Karnataka, I would request you to come and stay with us in Gujarat.”

In every way, Gowda and Kumarswamy simply have to win if they want to the JD(S) to grow. A loss, especially for the former prime minister, could prove fatal.