The Congress victory in Karnataka provides a route map on how the mighty electoral machine of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can be contained. The Congress discussed development, stayed away from mudslinging, highlighted the BJP government’s corruption, and deliberately spoke about local issues while the BJP banked on just one person—Prime Minister Narendra Modi—and the groundwork of its cadre.
Senior Congress leaders in charge of the campaign said there were many factors behind the party’s decisive victory: Five months of hard work at the State, district, taluk and booth levels; staying focussed on the messaging and refusing to be distracted by the BJP’s attempts to change the narrative; and remarkable cohesion between the State and national leadership.
The first major test came soon after the release of the manifesto, in which it highlighted equality before the law and pledged to ban organisations that promoted enmity and hatred. The BJP was quick to claim that this was aimed at appeasing minorities.
The manifesto, in its “Law and Justice” section, stated: “The Congress party is committed to take firm and decisive action against individuals and organisations spreading hatred among communities on the grounds of caste and religion. We believe that the law and the Constitution is sacrosanct and cannot be violated by individuals and organisations like Bajrang Dal, PFI or others, promoting enmity or hatred, whether among majority or minority communities. We will take decisive action as per law including imposing a ban on any such organisations.”
No question of ambiguity
While there is no ambiguity in the manifesto, many BJP leaders in their speeches claimed that the Congress wanted to ban “Bajrang Bali” [Lord Hanuman]. In his first public meeting after the May 2 release of the Congress manifesto, Modi was quoted in the media as saying: “I have come to the land of Hanuman. I am fortunate that I got the opportunity to pay obeisance to the land of Hanuman but see the misfortune that when I have come to pay my respects to Hanuman’s land, at the same time, Congress in its manifesto has decided to lock up Lord Hanuman… first they locked up Lord Rama, and now they have vowed to lock up Lord Hanuman.” Modi began his meetings with the chant “Jai Bajrang Bali”. Many BJP leaders followed suit.
A Congress leader said that this was one of many BJP “distractions” that they had to fight hard against. “There were so many lies. They [the BJP] throw some 10 lies at you [the Congress] and the Congress usually ends up having to expose these as lies at press conference after press conference. The lies would be so massive that voters might end up thinking there was some truth in these,” he said.
Asked what they were, he pointed to the BJP’s spin on the mention of Bajrang Dal in the manifesto. Anyone who reads the manifesto will know what the Congress meant. But not many do, and the BJP campaign was forceful in that the charge was from the Prime Minister himself.
Apart from this, the leader said that former Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s remark on Karnataka sovereignty was deliberately distorted, and the claim that the Congress would roll back all reservation that had been granted to various sections was an outright lie. “This time, while local leaders addressed these issues, we did not go all out and move away from our key campaign slogans. We stayed focussed on the message, and that has yielded results,” he added.
Also, this time the Congress high command decided to involve party leaders from across India in the campaign effort. Anyone who had an idea was heard, said a leader. This meant that many leaders from the Tamil Nadu Congress were also on the scene—Sashikant Senthil was in charge of the Congress war room, while others, including Manickam Tagore, Jothimani and Mohan Kumaramangalam, handled different regions. The plan was to ensure that deficiencies on the ground were communicated to the leadership early, and these were rectified as early as possible.
The Congress also addressed the issue of differences between its two leaders, former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president D.K. Shivakumar. Sunil Konagulu, the Congress’ new political strategist, made sure that videos showing the bonhomie between the two leaders were circulated widely across the State. In these videos, the leaders avoided serious issues and spoke mostly in a lighter vein about themselves.
“This is perhaps my last election,” Shivakumar told Frontline before the campaign got off the ground. “I will do anything that is required for the Congress to win.” True to his word, Shivakumar accommodated conflicting demands through the campaign and was patient with the needs of factions within the party.
Though the Congress does not have the BJP’s financial muscle, the party was keen to ensure the safety of its candidates. Soon after the close of voting, the leadership got the sense that this would be a tight finish. “It is impossible to predict the outcome in constituencies where the victory margin is tight,” said one leader, explaining the need to secure all their MLAs and bring them safely to Bengaluru. Hence, the Congress was ready to fly down its MLAs from multiple places to Bengaluru. The party had also blocked 130 rooms in a five-star hotel in the city to have all their MLAs in one place, in case the race was tight.
Manickam Tagore said that it was clear that the people wanted change, but that alone was no guarantee that a non-BJP government would be formed anywhere. “The BJP will use any tactic [to come to power]. We had to protect our MLAs. This is what any political party will do,” he added.
Representatives of the Congress high command met on May 11 and in subsequent days so as to ensure a smooth transition to power. The party is sorely aware that it will lose badly in the upcoming Assembly elections in other States in the event of a power struggle, as is being witnessed in Rajasthan.