The rebooting of the Congress

The social configuration in Karnataka was amply suited for the Congress’s redefinition

May 17, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 03:28 pm IST

Leader of the Opposition in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly and former State Chief Minister Siddaramaiah with Karnataka Congress chief D.K. Shivakumar at the Sri Chamundeshwari Temple, in Mysuru.

Leader of the Opposition in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly and former State Chief Minister Siddaramaiah with Karnataka Congress chief D.K. Shivakumar at the Sri Chamundeshwari Temple, in Mysuru. | Photo Credit: ANI

Prior to the announcement of the Karnataka election dates, there was little reason to believe that the Congress would secure a massive mandate. The pronouncements of the party’s leaders on data and victory margins were meant to be inspirational rather than evidence-based. Many commentators on the mandate have focused on the failure of the BJP in highlighting issues, choosing the right candidates and slogans, and countering Opposition charges. Such comments assume that the BJP was destined to win at the hustings. It could well be argued that the mandate is a positive outcome of the redefinition of the Congress, a redefinition which has succeeded in pinning down the BJP and reducing the electoral strength of the JD(S) drastically. The social configuration in Karnataka was amply suited for the Congress’s redefinition.

A distinct ideological map

The Congress crafted a distinct ideological map, and an action plan ensued from it. The party expressed its commitment to democracy as a value, which meant fostering equal regard to all irrespective of identity markers. It upheld the ideal of social justice, not merely as a set of preferential measures to vulnerable social groups, but also to undo prevailing partisanship, injustice, exclusion, and discrimination. It argued that both these values have been given a toss under the BJP. It pointed out that deference to citizen rights, including the right to dissent, is foundational to constitutional democracy. It demonstrated that the BJP regime undermined these rights and the institutions meant to protect them. While the Congress’s record on federalism is not unsullied, the party became an ardent votary on this issue given that the BJP has fostered centralisation and personalisation of power in recent years.

The Congress spelled out this ideological map with certain ‘guarantees’ that did not bear any caste or identity markers: monetary support to women-headed households, unemployment doles to educated unemployed, a certain quantity of foodgrains to poor households, certain units of free electricity to every household in the State, and free travel for women in public buses. These schemes were defended on grounds of enablement and inclusion, which are central to social justice, citizen rights, and participatory democracy. They helped the party to reach out to the unemployed, women, the youth, and the poor. These guarantees meant a lot to lower castes, minorities, and backward regions although they were not stamped with identity markers. Certain social clusters such as Dalits, Adivasis, farmers and fisherfolk were also later given specific assurances.

The Congress employed its flagship values to target the BJP on corruption, the communal stand-off, and inequality of citizenship. Attention was drawn to the humiliation of the local leadership, empty rhetoric, the use of media to subvert freedoms, and the deployment of state machinery to curb dissent as well as opposition to the regime. The party denounced crony capitalism, with state power babysitting it, and accused the BJP leadership of unconcern when floods and drought ravaged parts of the State. These charges found a listening ear, particularly in northern Karnataka.

The divide within

While Karnataka finds itself somewhere near the top among the States in gross economic statistics, the economic and social divide within the State is glaring. It gets further complicated by factors such as caste, regional disparities, the rural-urban divide, and religious and linguistic belonging. Intra-religious pluralism in Karnataka is as deep as inter-religious pluralism. There is large-scale and, often, distress seasonal migration of labour from certain parts of northern Karnataka to other parts of the State or other States. Much of this labour is unskilled and mainly drawn from lower castes. Their condition has become precarious with heavy floods and drought; the pandemic exacerbated their situation further. In central and southern Karnataka, while there is a noticeable elite among the lower castes, a vast majority of them live at the social margins. In the rural areas, there is a growing shift to non-agricultural occupations that are low paying. A vast majority of Muslims across the State too live at the social margins. While the big industry in Karnataka, centred around Bengaluru, is slowly spreading across the State, little can be said about its social responsibility.

Karnataka is the most linguistically plural State in south India and connects the cultural and artistic traditions of north India with the south. Social and literary movements have sought to redefine the State’s contours. Clearly, certain social classes, regions, castes, and communities — the labouring poor, informal labour, women in the informal sector, Muslims, the lower castes and communities – found themselves in sync with the Congress’s agenda and voted for the party overwhelmingly, particularly in northern, central and south Karnataka.

In contrast to the BJP, which called upon the electorate to vote with the Prime Minister in view, the Congress sought to anchor itself on leadership drawn from the region, with the Gandhis and leaders from elsewhere playing a supportive role. Many civil society groups, which were wary of the Hindutva project, played a key role in appealing to their respective social clusters. While the BJP is well-known for its booth management, a strongly motivated technical team pursued this task quietly and efficiently for the Congress.

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