India is about to witness what could be its most important and ruthless state election ever. The balloting starting on Saturday in Karnataka state could move the country closer to the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party’s dream of eliminating its main rival the Indian National Congress, the country’s first political party, from every Indian state.

Surveys and ground reports say that while the Congress could get more votes than others, the BJP could still form the government by forming coalitions – a strategy it implemented in Goa and Meghalaya states.

A key player is state party Janata Dal (Secular), which is fighting a do-or-die battle. If it wins, it could turn kingmaker. But if it doesn’t, it will be the party’s third consecutive loss in the state, and threaten its relevance.

It will be hard for JD(S) to get a majority on its own, but wins in even a few states could make a huge difference if the Congress’ and the BJP’s scores are close. One thing that is certain about the JD(S) is that it will embrace anybody for power.

Hot and cold

The “secular” Congress party would have been a natural ally for the JD(S), but the relationship between Congress’ candidate for chief minister, the incumbent Siddaramaiah, and JD(S) chief H D Deve Gowda, his former mentor, is at its worst, and can virtually be ruled out.

As for the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi both attacked and praised Gowda in campaign speeches in the past week. In one speech he accused the JD(S) of “striking a secret understanding with the Congress” and asked voters not to “waste their vote.” The next day, in a large public rally in Tumkur district, Modi began by praising Deve Gowda as one of the “most respected” leaders in Karnataka.

The general perception behind Modi’s “unsolicited” praise is that it lent credence to speculation around a BJP-JD(S) pact.

Most analysts believe that if there is a hung assembly, Gowda’s son H D Kumaraswamy will seek the BJP’s support to form a government with himself as chief minister. According to a JD(S) leader, such a scenario would also “meet the BJP’s ambition of creating a Congress-free India.”

But Deve Gowda, who once became prime minister as a result of a fractured mandate, has consistently rejected all speculation of supporting either the Congress or the BJP. A former BJP leader, Gowda even admonished his son and threatened to disown him if he made a pact with the saffron party.

“Modi did not help Karnataka in any way in the last four years. I have met him four to five times asking him to address farmers’ problems. He only listens but does nothing,” Gowda told Asia Times.

For all its talk of being an independent regional entity, the JD(S) shares power with the Congress in Karnataka capital Bangalore’s state municipal corporation. At the same time, the city corporation in Mysore has been ruled jointly by the JD(S) and the BJP for four years.

In January, the BJP and JD(S) also supported rebel Congress candidate B Bhagyavathi’s election as mayor of Mysore.

The math

In the 2013 Karnataka election, the JD(S) and the BJP each got a 20% vote share and 40 seats. Congress won with 37% of the vote. Eight months later, the state party Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), which secured 10% of the votes, merged with the BJP.

This raises the saffron party’s vote share to 30%. KJP chief B S Yeddyurappa, a graft-accused former Karnataka chief minister, is now the BJP’s chief-minister candidate for Saturday’s election.

Modi is now trying to get that edge of 5% by urging Deve Gowda’s supporters to dump the JD(S) and give the BJP a decisive victory.

Party sources say the JD(S) is also keeping its post-poll options open. Gowda could expect that the BJP, in its desperation to remove Congress, will agree to make his son Kumaraswamy chief minister of a coalition. And if that happens, the BJP could force the Gowdas to accept its diktats in return.

But according to a JD(S) leader, the party is aware of the “collateral damage caused by Modi’s praise.”

“Muslims and other minorities will drift away from the JD(S). The Muslim community would prefer to go with the Congress if it becomes clearer that the JD(S) has colluded with the BJP,” he said.

The kingmakers

Some JD(S) leaders are predicting that the party could cross the 50-seat mark in the state assembly of 224 constituencies (seats). If that happens (as it did in 2008), the Congress and the BJP will invariably be forced to vie for a post-poll alliance with the JD(S).

Whether the JD(S) emerges as a kingmaker will be decided by Karnataka’s Old Mysore region. Known as the party stronghold, it has 61 seats. It is also the home turf of Congress candidate Siddaramaiah, and the focal point of his rivalry with his mentor. The BJP has little presence in the region.

The JD(S) relies heavily on the region’s dominant Vokkaliga caste, which forms around 8% of the state’s population. It will try to win at least 25-30 seats in the region.

According to a BJP leader in Karnataka, Modi’s surprise praise for Gowda was also a tactic to polarize Vokkaliga votes against the Congress.

“Of the 89 constituencies in south Karnataka, Vokkaligas are the game-changers in 70-75 constituencies. A majority of the Vokkaligas are angry with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah,” he said.

“If Modi continues to appreciate Gowda, it could result in Vokkaligas developing a soft corner for Modi, and Modi’s move could help them divert their votes to the BJP.”