A seasoned campaigner as Prime Minister Narendra Modi is, he has deftly turned a virtual foe---Janata Dal chief and former prime minister Deve Gowda---into a friend overnight and raised the chances of the BJP coming to power in Karnataka.
Most opinion polls were giving the Congress an edge in the upcoming elections when Modi went to call on Gowda. The former prime minister had until then been waxing eloquent, warning that if his son HD Kumaraswamy tied up with BJP after the polls he would disown him.
Such was the extent of his antipathy towards the BJP. Bets were being placed that the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) which had come to grief after sharing power separately with the Congress and the BJP in the past would emerge a king-maker with a hung assembly looming large.
Much as the octogenarian leader is denying that he has softened towards the BJP after that meeting, the writing is on the wall. Given to flattery much like most senior politicians, Gowda now finds merit in Modi as he never did.
Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is left sulking that Modi has hijacked the JD-S away. Indeed, yet another leader has been left high and dry in the wake of Modi’s guile and chicanery. And why not? Politics is a game of strategists who know when and who to strike at. There is no knowing what the actual outcome of the Assembly elections would be.
But with Modi’s blitzkrieg of rallies and the ‘secret’ understanding with the JD-S, there is little doubt that the tables may well have turned on the Congress, led nationwide by an upstart Rahul Gandhi and in the state by a pompous leader who is no match for Modi in realpolitik.
At the crucial meeting, Modi reminded Gowda of how he had persuaded him not to quit his Lok Sabha seat in line with his (Gowda’s) assertion that he would if the BJP was voted to power in 2014. Gowda acknowledged that whenever he went to meet Modi he was escorted by him from his car to the inside of the Prime Minister’s home personally and likewise when he was returning Modi used to open his car door and respectfully usher him in.
By contrast, Rahul had been mocking at the JD-S as the ‘B’ team of the BJP and taking digs at Gowda and Kumaraswamy. That he will have to pay the price for it is now quite on the cards. The politics of Karnataka has interesting sidelights to it. In 2005, Siddaramaiah, then considered Gowda's protege, had exited the JD-S after Gowda moved his son Kumaraswamy to pole position. Kumaraswamy then went on to bring down Karnataka's first coalition government of the JD-S and the Congress and became Chief Minister with the BJP as his new team-mate. Siddaramaiah joined the Congress, meanwhile, and was elevated to Chief Minister five years ago.
By going out of his way to appease Gowda, Modi is also playing to the Vokkaliga community—a prominent peasant caste of Karnataka—which is a core vote base of the JD-S. Gowda is a Vokkaliga. But it would be foolhardy to underestimate Kumaraswamy. The JD-S leader could still spring a surprise and align with the Congress if he gets his pound of flesh. In the event of a ‘hung’ Assembly if the Congress offers him the chief ministership in a coalition, he can well ditch the BJP, secret agreement or no agreement. He may also bargain for some ‘lucrative’ ministerial berths.
In the battle for control of caste votebanks, the Congress has stolen a march over the BJP and the JD-S by making inroads among the Lingayats who have for long been with the BJP. The state government's decision to seek minority religion status for the politically influential Veerashaiva-Lingayat community from the Centre has proved to be a shot in the arm to the Congress, as a forum of Lingayat seers recently indirectly gave a call to the community to support the party in the upcoming assembly elections.
The jockeying for power is indeed intense with high stakes involved.