There’s a strategic shift in Congress’ campaign tactics in Karnataka
Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s campaign launch for the Karnataka elections has been marked by a significant departure from the party’s approach for at least the past four decades. He has provided a much more prominent place for the state leaders of his party than has been the norm for Karnataka’s Congress leaders since the years before Indira Gandhi. He began by advising Prime Minister Narendra Modi to meet the governance standards set by chief minister Siddaramaiah. And he went on in other meetings to extol the virtues of other state leaders.
The tactical value of energising the local unit has been quite evident with Gandhi getting enthusiastic crowds along his campaign trail. But, coming as it does after the prominent place given to Amarinder Singh in the Punjab elections, the reliance on the state leadership could be an indicator of a larger strategic shift. The 2014 elections brought to the fore the depths to which the party could be dragged down if it projected Gandhi as its sole leader. It has thus become necessary to present Gandhi not as a charismatic face that will lift the party’s fortunes on his own, but as a leader of an effective army of prominent state-level leaders.
Understanding what this change demands has not been easy for the Congress. This transformation has been presented as a movement towards a cadre-based party. The AICC general secretary in charge of Karnataka had asked the constituency-level leaders of the Congress to set up booth-level committees of the party. But the Congress in Karnataka has always been a mass-based party rather than a cadre-based one. It has consisted of a large number of local leaders who have their own loyal following. These leaders are often not willing to hand over that following to a party. There was thus considerable resistance to the idea of setting up booth-level Congress committees.
The Congress appears, in recent weeks, to have come to terms with this reality. It has returned to the well-established practice of trying to attract leaders with their own personal following. Gandhi began his tour of the state recently by welcoming a BJP MLA with a large personal following into the Congress. And there are a number of other high-profile entries that are expected in the coming weeks.
This strategy is not without its costs. The 2013 victory of the Congress in Karnataka was built around a campaign against illegal mining by BJP leaders in the Bellary district. Siddaramaiah had, in fact, led a padayatra to Bellary against these leaders. The 2018 campaign has been launched by Gandhi welcoming one of those very leaders into the Congress.
If the Congress believes this stark opportunism will not have its costs, it is primarily because it is confident that its responsiveness as a state government over the past five years will pay dividends. These years have not been kind to rural Karnataka, with the state facing a series of droughts. But these difficult conditions have served to highlight the welfare focus of the Siddaramaiah government. Indira canteens with subsidised meals in Bengaluru or the Anna Bhagya scheme of subsidised rice across the state have had a direct impact on hunger at a time when India has been ranked a lowly 100 of 119 countries in the Global Hunger Index. Equally important in a dry land agriculture state, the Krishi Bhagya scheme has enabled farmers to set up farm ponds with pump sets.
The danger for the Congress is that this local level progress could be blown away by another polarising communal experiment. The BJP leaders have been highlighting the murders of some Hindu activists and Prime Minister Narenda Modi went so far as to speak of the ease of doing murders in the state as opposed to the ease of doing business. The Congress has tried to counter this move by emphasising the Hindu character of its leaders, with Siddaramaiah trying to make it a battle between a humanist Hindutva and an extremist Hindutva.
The results of this battle will only be known when the elections in Karnataka are over. But the larger question Rahul Gandhi will be seeking answers for is: can state leaders be the stepping stones to national power in 2019?
Narendar Pani is professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru
The views expressed are personal