New Delhi: As the country celebrated its 75th Independence Day, a sea of people — each proudly holding a tricolour — converged on the streets of Bengaluru.
Given how the BJP had launched its nationwide ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’ campaign with much fanfare in the days leading up to 15 August, one might have thought at first that this was an attempt at mass mobilisation by the ruling party in Karnataka, which will go to polls early next year.
But to one’s surprise, this was a show of strength by the Congress.
Karnataka BJP’s I-Day event saw an estimated footfall of about 50,000 supporters, while the Congress rally in Bengaluru — party leaders claim — saw the participation of about two-and-a-half lakh.
Even Congress leaders in Delhi were taken aback by the massive turnout at the party’s seven km-long Freedom March from Sangolli Rayanna’s statue near the Bengaluru City Railway Station to the National College Ground in Basavanagudi.
We can’t recollect the last time the party managed to put up a show like that anywhere in the country, a senior Congress leader told ThePrint on condition of anonymity.
Asked about the idea behind the I-Day Freedom March, D.K. Shivakumar, president of Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), said this outreach is important.
“Voter may click a photo with you. They might say that they never see you except when there’s an election. They may shout at you. They may praise you. Anything may happen. But at least like this, the leader and the voter are having a discussion,” he told ThePrint.
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What is KPCC doing differently
This brings us to the million-dollar question — what is Karnataka Congress doing differently from the national leadership to shore up the party’s fortunes?
The answer, simply put, is preparation in advance on a massive scale.
As preparation for the Freedom March, for instance, Shivakumar (60) embarked on a 15-day tour of the state to encourage more people to take part in the Freedom March.
The party bought over one lakh tickets of Bengaluru metro to make travel free for participants and created a website to assist those who wanted to register.
Further, to ensure that no tricolours were left lying around during the Freedom March, 1,200 Seva Dal volunteers were placed on the route to pick up any flags that may have been thrown away.
— Congress (@INCIndia) August 15, 2022
Compare the KPCC rally to preparations for the Congress’ nationwide Bharat Jodo Yatra and the difference becomes even more stark.
After months of planning, party leaders in Delhi said the rally will have only about 300 participants at any given point in time — startlingly low for the party that still wields approximately 20 per cent of the national vote share in parliamentary elections.
What motivates the Congress to do things differently in a state where, for the last 37 years, power has been alternating every assembly election?
“Congress in Karnataka is different because BJP in Karnataka is different,” said Bengaluru-based political analyst Sandeep Shastri, who is national coordinator for the Lokniti research programme of Delhi-based Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).
Shastri added that the “Karnataka unit [of Congress] is largely autonomous from the national leadership”.
Making his point about why the party’s central leadership needs to focus more on grassroot initiatives, Shivakumar pointed to Congress’ three-month-long membership drive during which he toured 100 assembly constituencies. Here, too, by enrolling a whopping 78 lakh supporters, the Karnataka Congress managed to set a membership record never before attempted by any other Congress state unit.
Asked if the post of Congress president — elections for which are around the corner — is something that would interest him, D.K. Shivakumar said he only knows “thoda-thoda” (little) Hindi and would therefore not be a good fit for the role.
He then repeated a quintessential Congress refrain: “The Congress party cannot function without a Gandhi at the helm. The workers, the leaders and the people — no one will accept it.”
‘Nothing can be achieved without fighting spirit’
Congress leaders in Karnataka believe that unlike most other state units, they are checking three broad boxes: mass outreach, visible leadership, and an enthused, active cadre base.
Unlike in Delhi, the Congress has been able to mount a visible opposition to the BJP in Karnataka. For this purpose, Shivakumar hired DesignBoxed, a political consultancy firm, to execute the party’s campaigns in the state about a year-and-a-half back.
But according to Shivakumar, the only way to keep party workers motivated is to be “seen as a leader”.
“If I was sitting in my house during Covid, this wouldn’t have happened. I got Covid twice and from the hospital I used to hold Zoom calls and hold discussions, give instructions.
“Any leader has to create confidence in the minds of workers. Without a fighting spirit, nothing can be achieved. The respective states [Congress units] have to set-up. I don’t want to comment on anybody’s efficiency,” he said.
Shivakumar’s colleague and senior Karnataka Congress leader, Dinesh Gundu Rao, agreed with the former’s assessment.
“The main thing is to not get caught up in tweets and press conferences. If the leaders stop touring, stop going to the streets, stop taking up ground issues, then both the workers and the people will lose faith. Every leader of the Karnataka Congress, be it me, or M.B. Patil or Dr G. Parameshwara, takes this very seriously,” Gundu Rao told ThePrint.
Soon after he replaced Dinesh Gundu Rao as KPCC chief during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in May 2020, Shivakumar and Gundu Rao dipped into their personal funds to pay Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) Rs 1 crore each to facilitate free transport for migrants. This forced the then Yediyurappa government to announce free transport for migrants willing to return to their native homes.
In April 2020, Karnataka Congress leaders procured vegetables from farmers who were at the brink of wasting their produce. They then sold the same vegetables at subsidised rates to those in need. “At that time, I rushed to the farmers, spoke to them and asked all Congressmen to buy that produce and distribute it to people. This included grapes, beans, flowers, everything,” Shivakumar said.
Then came the Hangal assembly bypoll in November 2021 — a test for CM Basavaraj Bommai in his own backyard. Not only did Congress wrest the seat from BJP, but it put up such a fight that the Janata Dal (Secular) candidate ended up losing his deposit.
Congress party sources said that when it comes to outreach, both physical and through the media, the Karnataka unit adheres to a “professional approach”.
“Every worker is given specific targets and it is verified whether or not they’ve met those targets. Workers work hard because they know that report of their work will go to president and they will be in his good books,” said a party functionary who did not wish to be named.
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Road to 2023
With its sights set on the 2023 assembly elections, the KPCC is now focusing on three core issues to target the BJP: corruption, governance and unemployment. During the campaign, emphasis will also be laid on Congress’ contributions to nation-building.
“We are sending out crisp and short material so that the common man can understand what we’ve done. On the other hand, we’re also comparing that to what Narendra Modi and BJP have not done in terms of providing jobs, not being able to control inflation, GST on commodities etc.,” said M.B. Patil, campaign committee chief of the Karnataka Congress.
Moreover, election-related literature has been customized according to where it is being distributed, Patil said, adding that the KPCC is distributing a crisp four-five page booklet at the booth level.
Congress is also seeking the endorsement of religious mutts that hold a huge sway. “I’m going to all mutts, big or small, and seeking blessings. The BJP is trying to project that all of them are with the BJP. But the swami jis are all blessing us,” Patil told ThePrint.
MLA Priyank Kharge, KPCC communications in-charge, talked about a ‘Digital Youth A Booth’ policy aimed at having one young “digital warrior” of the party in each booth.
“We nominated one young person who would be in-charge of getting people on Zoom, getting people online for party activities, helping people register for membership, Covid help and other things,” he added.
Endorsing KPCC’s mechanism to take stock of the work done by cadres, Kharge said: “It is because of this that we’ve been successful in setting the narrative in Karnataka over the last two-and-a-half years.”
Factionalism, caste equations
Factionalism has proven to be an Achilles heel for the Congress in many states and Karnataka is no exception.
Time and again, reports have hinted at a rift between Shivakumar and former chief minister Siddaramaiah. The party can then be seen trying to counter this perception with a public spectacle to reassure supporters that all talk of acrimony has been laid to rest.
Siddaramaiah’s birthday celebrations earlier this month was a case in point.
With speculation of differences of opinion between him and Shivakumar, the latter was photographed feeding Siddaramaiah cake — signaling that the hatchet had been buried, at least for the time being.
“Both of them are very popular leaders. Mr Siddaramaiah was chief minister and has a large mass following that is comparable to that of someone like Yediyurappa in BJP. Moreover, the performance of the present BJP government will be compared to that of his government for obvious reasons,” Gundu Rao explained.
He added: “On the other hand, Mr D.K. Shivakumar is also hugely popular and a very astute organisational man. He’s very active and the workers are inspired by him. Together, they make a formidable combination.”
Sources in the Karnataka Congress feel this is why the party high command has decided not to declare a chief ministerial candidate ahead of the upcoming assembly polls.
Sandeep Shastri said factionalism is as much a challenge for the BJP as it is for the Congress. “I have always argued that nobody defeats the Congress except the Congress itself. They fight best when the party stands united,” said Sandeep Shastri.
Adding that the Congress has “very consciously not declared a CM candidate”, Shastri said it is because the party’s strength would lie in its ability to bring together the OBCs, minorities and dominant castes, especially the Vokkaligas.
“In order to do this, it’s difficult to announce a CM candidate for the party. The moment you announce Siddaramaiah, what happens to Vokkaligas? And the moment you announce Shivakumar, what happens to OBCs? So, strategically, the party seems to have gone for collective leadership,” Shastri told ThePrint.
Siddaramaiah identifies as an OBC, while Shivakumar identifies as a Vokkaliga.
But Shastri warned that it is too early to say how factionalism and caste equations will affect the Congress in Karnataka, adding that these issues could surface during ticket distribution. And that, he said, is where Congress’ central leadership will have to step in.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)
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