Inside the refurbished Janata Dal (Secular) office in Krishnarajapet town, popularly known as KR Pet, in Karnataka’s Mandya district, three local party functionaries were busy scrutinising the voters’ list on Friday. They were finalising the areas for the door-to-door campaign of the party’s chief ministerial candidate HD Kumaraswamy, who is expected to visit the KR Pet constituency on May 8. “Our candidate Narayana Gowda will win the seat hands down,” said Santosh Gowda, the more loquacious among the three. “Our only aim is to ensure a bigger victory margin for him.”

KR Pet is a Janata Dal (Secular) stronghold. A large section of the electorate here hails from the landowning Vokkaliga community, widely believed to form 11% of Karnataka’s population. Both its main contenders, Narayana Gowda of the Janata Dal (Secular) and KB Chandrashekhar of the Congress, belong to this community. Incumbent Narayana Gowda defeated Chandrashekhar by 9,243 votes in the 2013 election. The Bharatiya Janata Party has a negligible presence here. In 2013, its candidate CN Manjunath logged just 1,976 votes.

Karnataka goes to the polls on May 12, with counting scheduled for May 15.

Santosh Gowda and his friends have predicted a hung Assembly, which means that the Janata Dal (Secular) is likely to play a major role in government formation. “We hope Kumaraswamy will take a cue from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in Udupi last week and stitch a post-poll alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party,” he said. “It is imperative to keep Vokkaliga-hating chief minister Siddaramaiah and the Congress out of power.”

In an apparent move to woo the Janata Dal (Secular) for a post-poll alliance, Modi had showered praise on the party’s national leader and former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda during an election speech in Udupi in coastal Karnataka on May 1.

“I can never think of being disrespectful to Deve Gowda,” Modi had said. “Whenever he comes to meet me in Delhi, I open his car door as he is elder to me and a senior leader of the country.” In the same vein, he went on to blame Congress president Gandhi for treating Gowda badly during public gatherings a few months ago. “It was shameful,” he said. “Is this Rahul’s culture of treating the elders?”

It is still not clear why Modi chose to praise Deve Gowda. But his comments have reinvigorated hope among Janata Dal (Secular) workers that their party would return to power in the state after more than a decade.

Four days later, however, Modi trained his guns on the Janata Dal (Secular). At a rally in Tumakuru on Saturday, he said Deve Gowda’s party had a secret pact with the Congress. But that same day, BJP president Amit Shah showered praise on the Janata Dal (Secular) leader.

‘JD(S) workers, but Modi fans’

Thirty-five-year-old Santosh Gowda was a worker of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh before he joined the Janata Dal (Secular) six years ago. The RSS is the ideological mentor of Sangh Parivar organisations, including the BJP. Though he left the RSS, Santosh Gowda considers Modi to be a true national leader. According to him, Janata Dal (Secular) leaders Deve Gowda and his son Kumaraswamy are the leaders of Kannadigas, people who speak Kannada.

Santosh Gowda said that the Janata Dal (Secular) should join the BJP even at the cost of losing Muslim votes. “The minority communities anyway prefer the Congress to the JD(S),” he said. “I hope better sense will prevail among our leaders.”

Janata Dal (Secular) workers in Ullenahalli, a village in the neighbouring Nagamangala constituency, too are looking for tie-up with the BJP. “We are Modi fans though we belong to the JD(S),” said Venkatesh, an auto rickshaw driver. “We like Deve Gowda hence we vote for the JD(S). Karnataka will benefit if Modi and Gowda work together.”

His friend Kumar, also an auto rickshaw driver, said he did not know the difference between the two political parties. “I do not think there is much difference between the two,” he said. “They had formed a coalition government in 2006, isn’t it? How could that be possible if there was a huge difference between the two?”

He added: “Anyway, the BJP is more dependable than the Congress.”

Nagamangala is witnessing an interesting fight between the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular). Two Vokkaliga heavyweights – N Chaluvaraya Swamy of the Congress and Suresh Gowda of the Janata Dal (Secular) – are the top contenders here this time. They both have swapped parties since 2013, when they fought each other in the elections. Swamy was with the Janata Dal (Secular) at that time, while Suresh Gowda was with the Congress. Swamy had trumped Suresh Gowda by 20,363 votes. The two defected to rival camps just a few months before the Karnataka election was announced in April. The BJP has negligible presence here too.

Chaluvaraya Swami Fans Association members check the voters' list at the Congress office in Nagamangala. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Swamy’s campaign in Nagamangala is managed by his fans’ association – the Chaluvaraya Swamy Fans’ Association, which functions from a spacious office in Nagamangala town. The Congress moved to this office after Swamy joined the party earlier this year. “This was the JD(S) [Janata Dal (Secular)] office till Swamy’s exit from the party,” said Ravikantha Gowda, the Nagamangala taluk president of the association. “The Congress got the office after Swamy was inducted into the party.”

Ravikantha Gowda said he and his friends would join any party of Swamy’s choice. “Swamy sir is our boss, he is our leading light,” he said. “We don’t believe in political parties. We worked for JD(S) and now we are working for Congress. His political opponents claim that Swamy will join the BJP if he gets a better offer. We are not bothered about it.”

Ansar Pasha, who owns a shop in Haneefa Mohalla in Nagamangala, says he does not trust the Janata Dal (Secular) anymore. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Impact on Muslim votes

By switching to the Congress, Swamy stands a better chance of winning Muslim votes since Modi’s overtures to the Janata Dal (Secular) have made the Muslim residents in Nagamangala, who number more than 10,000, nervous.

On Friday afternoon, Ansar Pasha, Kaleem Pasha and Ahmad Sharif, were discussing politics sitting in front of the electric goods shop owned by Ansar Pasha in Haneefa Mohalla, a Muslim settlement in Nagamangala. “There were rumours about a power-sharing deal between the JD(S) and BJP since early this year,” said Ansar Pasha. “The rumours are going to come true.”

He added: “We do not trust the JD(S) anymore. It will go to any extent to get power. It had shared power with BJP in 2006. It is not easy to forget the past. We thank Modi for reminding us of the party’s past.”

Kaleem Pasha said that Muslims could not even think about voting for the Janata Dal (Secular) because of the likelihood that it might join hands with the BJP after the elections. “We want to elect secular candidates,” he said.

Both the Pashas feared that an alliance between the Janata Dal (Secular) and the BJP would only strengthen the saffron party. “Haneefa Mohalla residents cannot forget the communal riots of 1982 in which one person was killed,” said Kaleem Pasha. “We will vote for only secular candidates.”

Local Janata Dal (Secular) leaders in Nagamangala said that the party cannot afford to lose sizeable Muslim votes in a fight against a seasoned politician like Swamy. “We are meeting Muslim community members with an assurance that the JD(S) will not align with the BJP,” said Javare Gowda, Nagamangala taluk president of the Janata Dal (Secular). “We will tell them about Deve Gowda’s statement that he will disown HD Kumaraswamy if he made any truck with the BJP.”

Other Janata Dal (Secular) leaders privately admitted that Modi’s praise of Deve Gowda had done their party more harm than good. “Modi’s remarks made Muslims believe that the BJP has already struck a deal with JD(S),” they said. “This has eroded the Muslim community’s trust in us. It is impossible to win the trust back.”

Imran Khan serves biryani at his restaurant in Chamarajpet in Bengaluru. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Fate of Muslim candidates

Muslims form the majority of voters in Chamarajapet constituency in Bengaluru city, which is witnessing a two-way fight between the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular). Both parties have fielded Muslim candidates who switched sides recently.

Incumbent Zameer Ahmed Khan has been given the Congress ticket. He was with the Janata Dal (Secular) during the 2013 elections, when he defeated Congress candidate GA Bava by 30,162 votes. Former Congress leader Altaf Khan is the Janata Dal (Secular) candidate.

In the Muslim-majority Padarayanapura slum in Chamarajapet, voters expressed surprise at talk of a tie-up between the BJP and Janata Dal (Secular). “How could the JD(S) support the BJP?” asked Imran Khan, who runs a biryani restaurant inside the slum. “It means Congress is the only party Muslims can trust.”

Syed Sadiq, a scrap dealer in the slum, said that Deve Gowda’s party should not join hands with the BJP. “I do not want to go by the media reports about the alliance,” he said. “I am ready to wait till the election results are out.”

‘JD(S) is not a dependable ally’

In sharp contrast to the enthusiasm among Janata Dal (Secular) workers for a post-poll alliance with the BJP, the saffron party’s workers in neighbouring Belur constituency in Hassan district are sceptical about a tie-up with Deve Gowda’s party. The BJP has a considerable presence in Belur.

In 2013, the Congress’s YN Rudresh Gowda trumped the Janata Dal (Secular)’s KS Lingesha by 7,529 votes to win the seat. Karnataka Jana Paksha, a party formed by BS Yeddyurappa in 2012 after he quit BJP, garnered 22,095 votes, while BJP candidate Eshwarahalli Lakshmana got 10,254 votes. Rudresh Gowda died in March and the Congress has fielded his daughter MN Keerthana from the seat this time. KS Lingesha is the Janata Dal (Secular) candidate here while the BJP has given a ticket to a relatively new face, KS Suresh.

“In 2007, the JD(S) had walked out of the coalition government it had formed with the BJP’s support,” said Satheesh, a BJP worker in Belur. “It showed that the JD(S) is not a dependable ally. What will we do if the party cheats us again? I do not think we should go for a tie-up with them.”

Another BJP worker Mahesh, who is a Vokkaliga, said that the Janata Dal (Secular) is not transparent in its approach. “It is a party of power hungry people,” he said. “Aligning with them will erode the BJP’s credibility.”

Malika Jan, a 58-year-old maker of incense sticks in Chamarajpet, Bengaluru, argues with Congress workers who came to seek her vote. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).
Muslim women participate in the Congress candidate's election rally in Chamarajpet in Bengaluru. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).
Venkatesh (second from left) and Kumar (third from left) in Ullenahalli village of Nagamangala constituency claim that they are Modi fans though they work for the Janata Dal (Secular). (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).