In the saffron sweep of Karnataka’s 28 Lok Sabha seats recently, two seats stood out against the BJP wave: Bengaluru Rural, won by DK Suresh of the Congress and Hassan, won by Prajwal Revanna of the JD(S). All that needs mention here is: Suresh is the brother of Congress leader and former Minister DK Shivakumar, who is currently in Enforcement Directorate custody and that Prajwal is the grandson of former Prime Minister and JD(S) supremo HD Deve Gowda. And all things become clear as crystal.
The BJP was resisted- very marginally, but definitely resisted - by just one section of the population of Karnataka, which is the Vokkaligas, a community that hails from south Karnataka. Deve Gowda was, till recently, the undisputed sole patriarch of the community and DKShi (as Shivakumar is called) was, till recently, his only opposition left standing. Both are icons of the community and no one else, with the exception of DKShi’s former mentor and former Union Minister SM Krishna, as well as late former Union Minister Ambareesh, had any clout at all in south Karnataka.
This rankles the BJP. If state BJP leaders are to be believed, it particularly rankles their national president and Union Home Minister Amit Shah that any part of Karnataka could prefer another party to his. And if the state’s BJP leaders are to be further believed in the information they informally share, the man currently hailed as ‘Chanakya’ has carefully mapped out the path to capture the Vokkaliga vote as well.
The induction of SM Krishna
The first step, according to many across political parties, was the capitulation of SM Krishna, till then the Vokkaliga face of the Congress party, ahead of 2018 Assembly polls. He held a press conference, criticised then Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi announced that he was joining the BJP in March 2017. There were lots of behind the scenes statements that SM Krishna was allegedly ‘forced’ to do this with threats of economic ruin held against his son-in-law VG Siddhartha, the founder of Cafe Coffee Day.
Siddhartha allegedly killed himself just over a month ago, citing his financial difficulties and cases against him filed by the Income Tax authorities and Enforcement Directorate. Several of those very same cases are linked to and filed against DKShi as well. While some people point out that the BJP strategies on this matter seem to have misfired, resulting in sympathy for Siddhartha and DKShi, the fact remains that the economic empire and might of two Vokkaliga giants, one former Congress and one still in Congress – Krishna and his mentee DKShi -- are almost in ruins.
Krishna, in the last stages of his political career, has lost whatever credibility he had. DKShi, seen even by the Congress as either moneybags or as a strongman, is slowly seeing the drying up of all his resources, capped by his daughter Aisshwarya being grilled by the Enforcement Directorate. Irrespective of the Vokkaligas rallying behind him, as witnessed by Wednesday’s massive protest, DKShi is a considerably weakened man.
The decline of JD(S)
The JD(S), labelled a ‘Vokkaliga’ party, faced losses in Mandya and Tumakuru, two of its strongholds in the recent Lok Sabha Elections. The party is in shambles. Deve Gowda, who lost Tumakuru, is in his late eighties. His sons HD Kumaraswamy and HD Revanna, set up by him as his party’s next line of leadership, do not have his kind of hold on the community. Kumaraswamy, a two-time Chief Minister with truncated stints, is still popular with the community, but this has waned a bit in the last one year. He doesn’t command the almost-blind adherence from the community that his father did.
Revanna’s hold on his district, Hassan, is pretty strong and that was one of the reasons his son and the JD(S) did win that one seat. But he doesn’t have much clout or acceptance beyond this district and is largely disliked for his ‘interfering’ tendencies. Gowda’s grandsons Prajwal and Nikhil, the son of Kumaraswamy who lost in Mandya, and the third line of leadership, are youngsters out-jockeying each other and are not yet considered mature enough to take on real leadership roles in the party and the community. Moreover, Prajwal, the party’s sole MP, is scrambling to respond to a case filed by BJP leaders in the Karnataka High Court questioning his financial transactions in his election affidavit that could lead to the election result being countermanded.
Grooming Ashwath Narayan
The BJP has thus craftily created a leadership vacuum in the Vokkaliga community that it hopes to fill. Mandya was won by Sumalatha, the wife of former Congressman and former JD(S) man Ambareesh, who steadfastly refused to join the BJP till his death a year ago. Sumalatha, won the Mandya seat supported by disgruntled Congress and JD(S) supporters, with some help from the Raitha Sangha and the fledgling BJP in the district. The BJP, however, has managed to make this victory to be about them and their inroads into the region, thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi endorsing Sumalatha in his election rally in neighbouring Mysuru. All and sundry ask Sumalatha and the Congress leaders who supported her, the same question now: When are you joining the BJP?
Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa greeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Deputy CM Ashwath Narayan behind.
The BJP had banked on former Minister CP Yogeshwar, formerly of both the Congress and the JD(S), to be its Vokkaliga face but he lost the battle to both Kumaraswamy and DKShi. The party then turned its sights inward to groom a Vokkaliga leader. This led to the appointment of CN Ashwath Narayan, a Bengaluru MLA and till recently, a lightweight in the BJP, as Deputy CM. Ashwath Narayan reportedly belongs to the Gangadkar sub-sect of the Vokkaligas, who dominate southern Karnataka. This and his ‘engineering’ of recent Congress and JD(S) defections is supposedly the reason he was preferred to the more senior R Ashoka, despite the latter’s strong RSS roots. The BJP also speaks in hushed tones about Ashoka’s ‘links’ with Kumaraswamy and DKShi, which some say, could have worked against him.
There is also another subtle action that the Yediyurappa government has carried out, which has got buried under the brouhaha over DKShi’s arrest. The emerging Vokkaliga leader in the Congress is former Minister Krishna Byre Gowda. KBG is credited with coming up with the Krishi Bhagya scheme during Siddaramaiah’s tenure as Chief Minister. The Krishi Bhagya scheme aimed at sustainable agriculture by collecting rainwater in farm ponds in drought-hit areas. The Yediyurappa government has opened a probe into this scheme and managed to cast aspersions on the sterling reputation that KBG has had so far. The stage is set in every way for Ashwath Narayan to step up. But whether he can fulfill his party President’s aspirations is another story.
Sowmya Aji is a political journalist who has covered Karnataka for 26 years.