Bengaluru: Even as the BJP has declared that it will need no leg up to form the government in Karnataka, Prime Minister Narendra Modi may just have alluded to a Plan B today with generous praise for HD Deve Gowda, whose party, many believe, will decide whether the Congress retains the southern state - or loses it to the BJP.
- Rahul Gandhi had accused HD Deve Gowda of being a proxy for the BJP
- PM Modi hit back at Mr Gandhi, saying "you disrespect a veteran"
- Mr Gowda's party could be a decision-maker if no party gets majority
Opinion polls claim that voting on May 12 will conclude with no party getting a simple majority - and Mr Gowda's Janata Dal Secular or JDS will therefore be the decision-maker.
"You disrespect Deve Gowda even though you are a novice and he is a veteran" the Prime Minister said at one of his three rallies in Karnataka today. Mr Modi was referring to Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president, against whom he unbundled a series of recriminations; among them, the charge that Mr Gandhi would not be able to speak, "in English, Hindi, or (his) mother's first language (Italian)" for even 15 minutes without consulting (his) notes."
The PM was responding to Mr Gandhi's challenge, stated a few days ago, of entering a 15-minute debate with him in parliament on the alleged failures of his government.
In March, Mr Gandhi accused Mr Gowda of being a proxy - "the B-team" - for the BJP and urged voters to spurn the JDS.
The Congress and Mr Gowda have a heavily scratched record. In 2005, Mr Siddaramaiah, then considered Mr Gowda's protege, exited the JDS after the senior leader moved his son, HD Kumaraswamy, to pole position. Mr Kumaraswamy would go on to bring down Karnataka's first coalition government - the JDS and the Congress - and became Chief Minister with the BJP as his new team-mate. Mr Siddaramaiah joined the Congress, meanwhile, and was elected Chief Minister five years ago.
Mr Siddaramaiah has, uncharacteristically for the Congress, been allowed plenty of operating space in his campaign. He insists that the PM's rallies don't scare him - Mr Modi has as many as 15 planned over the next week - and that he will not befriend the JDS simply because the Congress will return to power on its own.
The BJP's chief ministerial contender, BS Yeddyurappa, has also made similar arguments. In an interview to NDTV earlier this week, Mr Gowda said that though he considers the earlier partnership with the BJP a mistake, his son's take is different; however, he asserted, he is confident that Mr Kumaraswamy would not repeat the experiment with the BJP, a party often derided by Mr Gowda as a communal force.
Mr Modi's remarks today are an overture to the man, who, till the results are declared on May 15 at least, is enjoying the attention and the tantalizing prospect of having the largest say in who will govern Karnataka.