Deve Gowda's Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S) has emerged as the biggest surprise in the run-up to this year's Assembly elections in Karnataka. A party which was out of the political depth for more than a decade is suddenly in news. The reason for this is the support it receives from the Vokkaligas, the traditional supporters of the JD(S) and a dominant caste in the South Karnataka region.
The ruling Congress is also aware of the Vokkaliga consolidation around JD(S). Congress insiders says that the strong backward caste, Dalit and Muslim polarisation, coupled with lack of any outreach towards the community, has led to Vokkaligas to rally around JD(S) in greater gusto. This community till today has given five chief ministers to the state.
The Vokkaligas hold sway in 10 districts of Karnataka like Mandya, Hassan, Mysore, Kolar and Chikamagalur - mostly in southern part of the state.
Congress sources say that in earlier elections, a part of the Vokkaliga community voted for the other parties, but this time the consolidation around JD(S) seems to have grown even more. Even Asadudin Owaisi has declared support for JD(S). He will not be fielding candidates and would campaign for the party if required.
This makes Congress more nervous than the BJP. The BJP's Lingayat-led alliance has traditionally never received a substantial chunk of this vote which dominates the old Mysore region. Vokkaligas are dominant peasantry and form the bedrock of Deve Gowda's vote bank. In this election they seem to be rallying hard around the former Prime Minister because they feel neglected by the Congress.
The BJP on the other hand understands that better performance of JD(S) means weak performance of the Congress in South Karnataka. BJP's strength lies in North Karnataka which is further sub-divided into Bombay Karnataka and Hyderabad Karnataka.
Few months back, Congress president Rahul Gandhi wanted agriculture minister of Karnataka Krishna Byre Gowda - a Vokkaliga - to take over as the chief of party's Karnataka unit. Reliable sources said that Gowda wanted Chief Minister Siddaramaiah on the same page as he did not want to be reduced as a symbolic head leading the Congress in the state.
Apparently, the chief minister did not take much interest in the proposal. Many say that lack of outreach is a result of acrimonious parting he had with JD(S) leadership years back.
Today, Siddaramiah is the face of Kannadiga pride and Dalit-Muslim and backward caste consolidation. Congress even has the number advantage over BJP but Vokkaligas still have the potential to derail Congress's comeback campaign by denying it a simple majority. Till polling, the game is on.