Written by Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta.

Hardly anyone had doubts that H. D. Kumaraswamy and his party Janata Dal (Secular) would emerge as the kingmaker in a closely contested election in Karnataka, except us and perhaps Amit Shah. A few weeks ago, we had argued that JD (S) was in decline and the probability of them emerging as the pivotal player was very unlikely. Kumaraswamy had the last laugh and is now the Chief Minister of the state.

Why did we think JD (S) would not emerge as Kingmaker? Our argument was largely based on a declining trend in JD (S)’s vote share – 19 per cent of the vote share in 2008, and 14 per cent and 11 per cent in the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha polls, respectively.

The BJP and Amit Shah had devised a strategy to undercut the Congress by supporting the JD (S) in key constituencies, and this in hindsight worked to the advantage of the JD (S).

This decline started with the fragmentation of Janata Dal in 1990s (the predecessor of JD(S) in Karnataka) and then, in 2006, Siddaramaiah, who considered himself Gowda’s successor, left the party and joined the Congress. In the past few elections, the party was confined to one community (Vokkaligas) and to a few districts in Southern Karnataka. Thus, we concluded that the party’s last-ditch effort to remain relevant through a pre-poll alliance with the BSP and support from the AIMIM would not succeed.

The JD (S), however, won an impressive 37 seats with a little over 18 percent of the votes. This prevented the BJP from reaching the majority mark. Now the party has entered into an alliance with the Congress to form the government. How did the JD (S) manage to win so many seats despite a decline in its vote share from 2013 when it won 20 percent of the votes? Our pre-election prediction about the JD (S) was not entirely unreasonable. The party lost votes in every region of the state except Southern Karnataka where it gained six percentage points (See Table 1). The JD (S) also managed to increase its seat tally in this region, compensating for the losses suffered in other parts.

Table 1: JD (S) loses across Karnataka except South (Vote Shares)

2013 2018 Gain/Loss
Bangalore 20.1 18.4 -1.7
Bombay Karnataka 10.9 8.6 -2.3
Central Karnataka 22.6 22.9 0.3
Coastal Karnataka 9.5 5.5 -4.0
Hyderabad Karnataka 16.2 12.4 -3.8
Southern Karnataka 34.9 40.9 6.0

Source: TCPD, Ashoka University
Table 2: INC Vote intact in South Karnataka (Vote Shares)

2013 2018 Gain/Loss
Bangalore 40.3 39.7 -0.6
Bombay Karnataka 38.0 39.4 1.5
Central Karnataka 33.8 35.2 1.4
Coastal Karnataka 42.6 40.1 -2.5
Hyderabad Karnataka 34.6 42.2 7.6
Southern Karnataka 34.1 35.0 0.9

Source: TCPD, Ashoka University

Why did the JD (S) do so well in Southern Karnataka while losing elsewhere? There are two possible explanations for this phenomenon.

One possible explanation is that there was a greater consolidation of Vokkaligas behind the JD (S) as the Congress flirted with Lingayats. But we can rule out this explanation because – a) Congress’ vote share in south Karnataka did not decline, so it is unlikely that the party’s Vokkaliga supporters shifted (See Table 2); and b) if there was a shift of Vokkaligas from the Congress, the JD (S) should have gained (or at least not see a dip in their vote share) in other regions of the state as well. There is no reason why the Vokkaligas would shift away from the Congress only in south Karnataka.

The second explanation is that there is a good possibility that the BJP tactically helped the JD (S) in Southern Karnataka to undercut the Congress. Amit Shah on numerous occasions during the campaign had predicted that the Congress would get the ‘biggest shock’ from the old Mysuru region. And then Prime Minister Modi praised H. D. Deve Gowda during his rally in Udupi. Throughout the campaign, the Congress had termed the JD(S) – the B-team of the BJP.

The data presented in Figure 1 indicates a possibility of tactical voting between the BJP and JD (S). The horizontal axis represents the difference between the Congress and JD(S) vote shares in 2018 and the vertical axis represents the BJP’s vote share. A comparison of the Southern Karnataka plot with other regions shows that in seats where the JD (S) won, on average the BJP’s vote share was very low, which is not the case in seats where the Congress did well. This was most evident in Siddaramaiah’s constituency, Chamundeshwari, where the JD (S) candidate defeated the Chief Minister by a margin of more than 35,000 votes and the BJP won just 9,000 votes. To defeat a sitting Chief Minister in his traditional seat with such a big margin, when there was no palpable anti-incumbency, lends support to this hypothesis.

Figure 1: BJP’s Tactical Support to JD (S) in South Karnataka
Source: TCPD, Ashoka University

This pattern is less visible in other parts of the state where the BJP could take on Congress alone. It seems that the BJP and Amit Shah had devised a strategy to undercut the Congress by supporting the JD (S) in key constituencies, and this in hindsight worked to the advantage of the JD (S). In essence, the BJP’s tactical support during the election and Congress’s unconditional support to Kumaraswamy as the Chief Minister has revived the JD (S) in Karnataka politics.

Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta are both PhD students in Department of Political Science at University of California at Berkeley, United States. Image credit: by hd_kumaraswamy/Twitter.

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