The selection of candidates for the November 2 bye-elections to three Lok Sabha and two Assembly seats in Karnataka marks a turning point in the state’s politics. The Janata Dal (Secular) is contesting three of the seats as part of its deal with the Congress. It may seem from this and the fact that the regional party occupies the chief minister’s seat that it is on strong ground. But the party is on the verge of becoming irrelevant as the Congress has emerged the stronger of the ruling partners while the Bharatiya Janata Party has grabbed the entire opposition space.

In the 1990s, as the Janata Parivar shrank, it yielded space to the BJP as the main rival to the Congress across much of India. In Karnataka, however, a Janata Parivar faction – HD Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) – continued to hold sway, mainly in the Old Mysuru region where the BJP has so far managed only a nominal presence.

The upcoming polls look set to alter the dynamic. The Congress has given Ramanagaram Assembly seat in Old Mysuru, vacated by Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy, to the Janata Dal (Secular). The seat has always seen a high-voltage fight between the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), with the BJP never a factor. Ramanagaram used to be Deve Gowda’s constituency but when he vacated it after becoming prime minister in 1996, it was wrested by the Congress’s CM Lingappa, delivering a blow to the Janata Dal (Secular).

The Congress unit in Ramanagaram is furious with the leadership for not contesting against its arch rival turned ally. Lingappa’s son L Chandrashekar was angling to obtain the Congress’s ticket for Ramanagaram in this bye-election, but when the party decided to “leave the seat” for the Janata Dal (Secular), he left with much bitterness, along with several followers. He will now fight as the BJP’s nominee against Anitha Kumaraswamy, wife of the chief minister.

The consequences of the Ramanagaram decision will be felt across the Old Mysuru region as it erases the divide between the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), bringing them to the same side of the political divide with the BJP occupying the other. The Janata Dal (Secular) loses its political identity as the alternative to the Congress – something Kumaraswamy anticipated and expressed fears about even before entering into a coalition with the Congress after the last election threw up a hung Assembly. The beneficiary is the BJP, which has not managed more than a toehold in the region so far.

The political equation of South Karnataka is now becoming similar to North Karnataka’s in the late 1990s, but inversely. Back in 1998, former Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde all but erased the Janata Parivar from the north of the state when he allied with the BJP and, a year later, merged his Lok Shakti party with the Janata Dal (United), part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. By the time Hegde died in 2004, the Congress’s principal opposition in North Karnataka, comprising over half of the state’s 224 Assembly seats, was the BJP.

Straight fight

The Janata Dal (Secular) is contesting two of the three Lok Sabha seats on offer – Mandya and Shivamogga – while the Congress is fighting for its old stronghold of Ballari. Congress workers in Mandya, in the heart of Old Mysuru, are visibly unhappy with the party for not giving the seat to former MP Divya Spandana (Ramya), who leads the party’s social media outreach. She herself was reluctant, however, and the Janata Dal (Secular) found a via media by giving the ticket to LR Shivarame Gowda, a former Congressman now with the regional party.

In Shivamogga, the stronghold of the BJP’s BS Yeddyurappa, the ruling alliance again appears as a single entity. Here, the Congress was built up by former Chief Minister S Bangarappa and the Janata Party by another former Chief Minister JH Patel. After Patel gravitated towards the BJP along with Hegde, it became a direct contest between Bangarappa and Yeddyurappa. It all turned messy briefly when Bangarappa joined the BJP, but he soon left for the Janata Dal (Secular), where he stayed until his death in 2011.

Bangarappa’s elder son Kumar Bangarappa, now in the BJP, defeated his brother, Madhu Bangarappa of the Janata Dal (Secular), in his father’s old Soraba Assembly constituency in May. Now, Madhu Bangarappa is the ruling alliance’s candidate for the Lok Sabha seat, up against Yeddyurappa’s son BY Raghavendra. Kumaraswamy is camping in Shivamogga to ensure Madhu’s victory, and Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) workers are reluctantly working together, as, for the first time ever, the Congress has not put up a candidate in this constituency. The result is a two-way fight with the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) uniting against the BJP. There is a third factor – the Janata Dal (United) has fielded Patel’s son Mahima Patel, who has previously been in both the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular). But he isn’t expected to have much impact due to the lack of grassroots workers.

Ballari, the former constituency of Sonia Gandhi, is also seeing clear polarisation between the ruling alliance and the BJP. The Janata Dal (Secular) has steadily lost ground here. The Congress won six of the eight Assembly seats that make up Ballari Lok Sabha constituency in May despite the best efforts of mining baron and BJP leader G Janardhan Reddy and B Sreeramulu, his lieutenant. Sreeramulu’s sister and former MP J Shanta is the BJP’s candidate now, contesting against the Congress’s VS Ugrappa, a newcomer to the district. The Congress has brought in its strongest money-and-muscle man, minister D K Shivakumar, to ensure Ugrappa’s victory.

But it is the Assembly seat of Jamkhandi which offers the clearest evidence of Karnataka becoming a two-state party state. Jamkhandi has a substantial population of the Lingayats, Yeddyurappa’s community, so retaining it is a matter of prestige for the Congress. Siddu Nyamagouda won the seat for the Congress in May but he died in a road accident soon after. The party has now fielded his son Anand Siddu Nyamagouda. That the ruling alliance’s campaign to keep the BJP out is being led by former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah of the Congress while sitting Chief Minister Kumaraswamy is nowhere on the scene is an indication of the times to come.

Sowmya Aji is a political reporter who has covered Karnataka for 26 years.