The decision of R.V. Deshpande, Patel's high-profile industries minister, and others to cross over to Hegde's so-called apolitical Rashtriya Navanirmana Vedike (RNV), couldn't have been timed better. With barely three weeks left before the state elects its MPs, the crisis has extinguished the party's confidence, already threatened by a rejuvenated Congress and the BJP alliance with Hegde's Lok Shakti.
A known Hegde supporter from northern Karnataka—like the five others who crossed over—Deshpande stayed with the JD despite his mentor's expulsion by Gowda in June '96. Several open calls by Hegde to join him were met with silence. So when he did announce his decision to quit the Patel government—though not the JD, to ensure retention of the assembly seat—and join the RNV, it was as if the floodgates had been opened. It was the most scathing public attack on Gowda by a party colleague who'd also worked with him as a minister.
Deshpande minced no words when he said JD had become Gowda's fiefdom. He also pointed accusing fingers at Gowda's Man Friday, union civil aviation minister C.M. Ibrahim, for blocking his pet Bangalore International Airport project, which is now to be executed by the Tatas and a Singapore consortium. Gowda has always eyed Hegde supporters in the party with suspicion. He never lost any opportunity to needle them about their loyalty and, according to sources in the JD, he more than once pressurised Patel to remove Hegde followers from the ministry.
Then there was also interference by Gowda's two politician sons, both in the government and in the party. During the 11 months when Gowda was prime minister, H.D. Revanna—Patel's cabinet minister for housing—and H.D. Kumaraswamy—a first-time MP—acted as Gowda's antennae in Karnataka. While their influence over the party in Lingayat-dominated north Karnataka was negligible, they held fort in Bangalore, sitting over Patel, and exercising a tight grip in the Vokkaliga-dominated areas of south Karnataka. They're also held responsible for alienating some senior JD leaders and turning them against Gowda. While peace has been made with two such leaders, deputy chief minister Siddaramaiah and transport minister P.G.R. Sindhia, Union textiles minister R.L. Jalappa is still unappeased. Among his several complaints against Gowda was that his sons worked to defeat the official JD candidate, a Jalappa man, in the assembly bypolls after he moved to Delhi.
However, despite the tensions there was no immediate provocation to trigger the defections. Deshpande's move had gained momentum over the last few weeks. Patel and senior JD ministers admit in private that an effort was being made to wean away the required one-third MLAs to the Lok Shakti to avoid disqualification. JD ministers told Outlook that Deshpande was under tremendous pressure from his constituency in Uttara Kannada district to join Hegde.
Another factor might be the JD's poor prospects in the coming polls. The Lingayats in north Karnataka were found to be moving away from the JD towards the BJP in the '96 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP-Hegde alliance has further boosted hopes that they may completely dump the JD this time.
To the credit of JD's crisis managers, they averted further defections though Bangalore was abuzz with many more names waiting to join RNV. While two more MLAs announced their decision to follow suit, there's no confirmation yet. Meanwhile, Lingayat pontiffs exerted pressure on the majority Lingayat MLAs to stay put in the Dal and not cause the downfall of a Lingayat chief minister. And in what JD leaders consider a splendid move, Patel called for a vote of confidence on January 27.
But while he might win the confidence of the house, it'll certainly not indicate whether the JD enjoys the confidence of the electorate. In the 11 assembly by-polls since May '96, the party lost five of the nine seats it held. In elections to 25 legislative council seats from local authorities last month, the party won 12 (40 per cent votes) while the Congress got 11 (37 per cent).
Indeed, cause for concern even without the defections, considering the JD rules 19 of the 20 local authorities in the state. Gowda, Patel and friends shouldn't be surprised if voters don't repose the same confidence in JD as they did two years ago.