There is a clear message emerging for the Indian National Congress and the Gandhis: Decentralize Electoral Management and Planning to Local Leaders, Empower Grassroot Leadership, Stay Away from Campaigning, and Promise a ‘Socially-Cohesive Welfare-Driven’ Alternative to the BJP’s Divisive Politics…*
A thumping Congress victory in the state assembly elections of Karnataka against the incumbent BJP offers a set of interesting takeaways-a) for the grand old party’s electoral strategy; b) it’s electoral prospects/planning for upcoming state assembly elections, c) for the broader ideological alliance needed in designing a national level political opposition (requiring a Congress-anchored role) that seeks to counter (or take on) the BJP in 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
A lot is also going to be written on the above subject over the next few weeks, especially on what influenced Congress’ massive victory in Karnataka and what led to BJP’s downfall, as more seat-wise vote share data becomes available and analyzed by more qualified, political analysts-scientists with nuance.
For one, the “diminishing electoral returns for Hindutva”, as Roshan Kishore calls it here, has empirical resonance now, not just in Karnataka, but this may be representative of a common sentiment resonated by the electorate for states across the South of India, where the BJP currently has no vital electoral standing. These feature states from Telangana to TN to Kerala to Karnataka (all also ranking high on our index: AEI) where any state-campaign, driven by the sole need to polarize, divide voters on communal lines, hasn’t worked for the BJP.
It also says a lot about the limited capability of PM Modi’s own electoral charisma, particularly in state-assembly elections. After West Bengal, where PM Modi’s name was also pretty much on the ballot (much like Karnataka) -taking on Mamata Banerjee’s TMC, and where too, BJP’s electoral campaign pivoted around a communal polarization-based agenda (targeting Muslims), we see how, in Karnataka too, the same old divisive electoral narrative had limited reach or acceptance amongst voters. There are of course other socio-economic factors too that are driving the more vulnerable, poorer sections of electorate to vote against the BJP.
In an analysis written few days ago, this author argued that in a largely urban-constituent based voting population in Karnataka, most voters may prefer to go beyond identity-based markers to vote on key local socio-developmental issues, further seeing a complementary pull of an anti-corruption protest vote, and those voting for enhanced ‘access equality’ (especially amongst the marginalized, socially poorer/low income groups), and how that may ultimately determine the final electoral outcome in favor of the opposition. Ajoy Ashirwad, from The Wire, provided a few of these causative pointers too from his ground reportage in Karnataka. With the results now out, one can safely say that these observations were validated.
Looking ahead: State-Elections and a Broader Ideological Cohesion for 2024
For me, a Congress victory in Karnataka, unlike what its own party is making it out to be-seeing this as a resounding victory of the Bharat Jodo Yatra and Rahul Gandhi’s own electoral appeal (post-yatra), offers an important moment of critical reflection (as against getting carried away) for the party’s own path ahead.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra, as argued earlier, may have helped the grassroot level INC party workers and the larger party cadre to find some solidarity and share a common sense of optimism during Rahul Gandhi’s Padayatra, but to equate that ‘good feeling’ with the fact of becoming the ‘main reason’ for a resounding state-level electoral victory is committing a huge disservice to both, the party’s own internal electoral machinery anchored by Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar, and the role of other socio-economic factors (price rise, unemployment, high corruption) that mobilized a protest vote against the BJP.
To Gandhis: Decentralize Electoral Management in States, Empower Local Leaders…
The INC, and particularly the Gandhi family, may very well continue to do what they have done so far in the months ahead too and see what has worked for their party’s electoral appeal: in Himachal Pradesh, in Karnataka (and in cases of MP, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh earlier during last assembly election): Stay out of the state as much as possible, trust-empower the local leadership, grassroot level cadre to anchor the assembly election on their own.
The Gandhis conscious or un-intentional effort (whichever it may be) to trust a decentralized political machinery at the level of the state -and promote it has reasonably worked well in taking on a more ‘centralizing’ power-hungry Modi-Shah led BJP. Not just with the Congress, even in other states where the regional parties have outstripped the BJP, from the TMC in West Bengal to the LDF in Kerala to the AAP in Punjab, decentralized political planning mechanism with a locally accepted leadership guided by an electoral agenda pivoting around ‘socio-welfare’ objectives for the local population as a combine done well against the BJP.
It also speaks volumes of the increasingly ‘electorally aware’ Indian voter, who does well to distinguish her vote on issues that matter in a municipal election vs. state-assembly election vs. a national-level election and doesn’t go by much of what the mainstream media peddles as news or what the rhetoric says. Yes, (social) identity-based markers (from caste to class to religion to ethnicity) do matter, but they are increasingly finding lesser relevance as a sole-factor influencing or catalyzing into a majority vote for any given party or leader.
From the Congress’ perspective, this is important to note, given three are important state-level elections coming up next: in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh. Two of these states are currently being run by Congress-led governments and for MP, the BJP did well to turn to deflect the elected MPs to its party and topple the Kamal Nath-Congress led government.
Taking cues from its recent electoral successes, the Grand Old Party will do well to entrust and empower the local state leadership -while ensuring a solidified campaign against the BJP. Any effort to ‘implant’ candidates or place ‘top-down’ leaders or political managers in charge, as done by the Gandhis earlier (in Punjab and other states), may backfire-as it is doing for the BJP. ‘Centralizing’ electoral management of state-level or municipal elections doesn’t really seem to work-no matter what power, or money you may have as a ruling party.
Extrapolating at Risk
For the Lok Sabha elections of 2024, we are still almost a year away, and at our own risk, the temptation to ask the big question: whether Karnataka’s state-election results, or any recent opposition-electoral victories, offer a vital message for the opposition to take on the BJP? is real.
It is worth noting, that for one, based on what we have seen over the last few election cycles, Karnataka’s own state-election results may have a marginal or almost no real effect on other upcoming state-assembly elections, that is, from Telangana to Rajasthan.
Voter-preference based studies of seat-wise vote share patterns (for one party vs. another) for each election after another has been driven by too many complex, context-dependent factors, and to say one election victory can drive any significant change at the national level polls, may seem too far-fetched (or ill-informed from a macro-analytical exercise).
There is still, however, a larger message or signaling effect of the trend these election cycles indicate for opposition parties (especially the Congress as the main gravitating anchor) to muster the ‘confidence’ they desperately need to both, take on the BJP electoral bandwagon in 2024 and also present an alternative vision for the electorate to see.
Ideologically, a counter-intuitive electoral agenda to BJP’s majoritarian-communally divisive campaign would require Opposition Parties, surely anchored by the INC, to build their 2024 campaign around a more socially cohesive, developmental agenda, bringing both: needs-concerns of the most vulnerable (the socially marginalized and economically poor) right up and center. From jobs, to price-rise, to social security, to issues including ‘affirmative action’ (women reservation), all will require a clear focus in the opposition’s campaign manifesto-and its articulation.
What PM Modi earlier dismissed as ‘Revadi politics’ may be nothing but the cornerstone of India’s deeply stratified electoral campaign trajectory push, where any sensible, large campaign (from a state to a national level) may need to acknowledge the issues facing its electorate and at the same time offer an alternative political economy paradigm that is vital for different groups’ (particularly the marginalized) ‘aspirational’ mobility through productive jobs, enhanced social security, human capital developmental investments (healthcare, education), and public support for localized interventions. I will have more to say on ‘what’ kind of a paradigm may the ‘political opposition’ may need for 2024 in the week(s) to come.
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