It is not quite his “rising like a phoenix from the ashes” moment, but HD Deve Gowda must be feeling good that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has finally realised that the Janata Dal (Secular) can be ignored at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) own peril.
At a public meeting in Udupi in coastal Karnataka on Tuesday, Modi took potshots at Rahul Gandhi for “insulting” Gowda. His reference was to the Congress president calling the JD(S) the B-team of the BJP. It came a week after Rahul had said the JD(S)’s name expanded to Janata Dal (Sangh Parivar) and not Janata Dal (Secular).
“Whenever former prime minister HD Deve Gowda visits me in Delhi, I welcome him with respect and always give him time. The way Rahul Gandhi spoke about him recently is shameful,” Modi said on Tuesday, speaking not only about receiving Gowda at the door and opening the door of his car but also accompanying the 84-year-old former prime minister up to the car when he is leaving. The attempt was to show that he respected the elderly and how Rahul Gandhi did not know Indian culture.
With elections in Karnataka just 10 days away, this was enough to reignite the suspicion that the BJP and JD(S) have a tacit understanding ahead of the polls. Siddaramaiah has already alleged that a meeting took place between Amit Shah and HD Kumaraswamy on an aircraft. The Congress campaign in old Mysuru region, where the JD(S) is a force to reckon with, has been to say that a vote for the JD(S) is indirectly a vote for the BJP.
With rumour mills already abuzz, what could have been the reason for Modi to make these public overtures to Gowda?
The BJP may boast of Mission 150, but on the ground, a direct Congress vs BJP fight is only in about 160 constituencies out of 224. In the remaining 60-odd seats, it is a Congress vs JD(S) battle. So for the BJP to get to the simple majority mark of 113 on its own, it would need a lavish strike rate. Given that this has so far been largely a waveless election, the BJP would be wary about achieving the figure on its own.
Enter the JD(S) that too is fighting a do-or-die battle. A third successive defeat in Karnataka Assembly election would mean the party would face the risk of disintegrating. Siddaramaiah’s Congress poached seven JD(S) MLAs and gave them Congress tickets this time. It is imperative for Gowda and Kumaraswamy to be kingmakers in a hung Assembly scenario to grab a share of the power pie.
With Siddaramaiah employing the Kannadiga identity card effectively, Modi is projecting Gowda as the tallest Kannadiga leader, a Bhishma Pitamah of sorts. With Yeddyurappa unable to blunt Siddaramaiah’s Kannada pride, Modi is trying to tap into Gowda’s stature.
In an ideal world, the “secular” Congress would have been the natural ally for the JD(S). But with personal equations between Siddaramaiah and his mentor Deve Gowda at their worst, an arrangement is virtually ruled out. By getting Rahul Gandhi to attack Deve Gowda, Siddaramaiah has also closed the possibility of the Congress working out a post-poll alliance with JD(S) minus him.
But the olive branch to Gowda is also fraught with risk. This would make the Muslim voter apprehensive and that vote may gravitate towards the Congress.
Modi would also be aware that Gowda had recently said that he will disown his son Kumaraswamy if he allied with the BJP. The two parties have a history going back a decade, when Kumaraswamy, after finishing his 20-month as chief minister, refused to support a Yeddyurappa-led coalition government for the next 20 months. The BJP plan may well be to work out an arrangement, minus Yeddyurappa, should there be a hung verdict.
But the bigger picture is that Modi’s overreach is a virtual admission of the BJP’s thinking. That it is no longer sure about getting a majority on its own. It has started working towards a Plan B, to form a coalition government in Karnataka. Given the reputation of JD(S) as a political freelancer, it can be persuaded to be part of the power structure.
The JD(S) for all its talk of being an independent regional entity, shares power with the Congress in the Bengaluru municipal corporation. But in Mysuru, the city corporation is ruled jointly by the JD(S) and BJP for the past four years. In fact, this January, rebel Congress candidate B Bhagyavathi was supported by the BJP and JD(S) to be elected Mayor of Mysuru.
Even in Chamundeshwari, on the ground, JD(S) strategists talk openly of the BJP transferring its vote to Deve Gowda in order to ensure Siddaramaiah’s defeat. Modi’s talk means this pre-poll understanding in specific seats could translate into a post-poll arrangement.
The JD(S) has thanked Modi for the kind words for Gowda, but it has also given the Congress ammunition on a platter. The battle has become personal with the party asking if Modi showed the same respect to LK Advani or even to 75-year-old Yeddyurappa who is shown in photographs bending to shake hands with the prime minister.