Elections

The Karnataka Congress Model

Will the 'Karnataka model' help the Congress party to win maximum seats in the upcoming elections?

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Congress party supporters hold the party's symbol during a roadshow for Mansoor Ali Khan, election candidate for Bengaluru central Photo: Getty Images
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The dust on Karnataka assembly elections of 2023 might have settled. But not for the BJP which lost its only gateway to South India – the only south Indian state where the saffron party could form a government and taste the best electoral success. The Congress won 135 seats with a 43 per cent vote share, which are both the largest obtained by any party in Karnataka since 1989. It wasn’t just the sheer scale of the grand old party’s win, but also the reassertion of its secular resolve during the electoral campaign that bolstered its win. But has the current Congress party in Karnataka led by Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar been able to stick to this resolve?

The Congress, BJP and JD(S) have remained the three prominent parties vying for power in the state’s electoral history. While members of each party have often hopped, skipped and jumped, the parties themselves have mostly stuck to their core ideologies.

Prior to the 2008 assembly elections in the state, the Congress Party had sought votes on the basis of its ideology of secularism, nationalism, social justice, and economic growth for all, especially for the common man. The JD(S) manifesto focused on the rural poor, with its chief leader Deve Gowda promising to write off all loans of small and marginal farmers borrowed from cooperative and public sector banks from 1991 onwards. In sharp contrast to the Congress and the Janata Dal(S), the BJP had declared that immediately upon coming to power, the party will address the key issues of security and economy (promote individual enterprise and foreign investment) and work towards ‘Ramrajya’. In that year, BJP emerged victorious.

Fast forward to the eve of 2023 assembly elections in the state, the saffron party rode high on the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with polarising the electorate on issues like Savarkar, Tipu Sultan, Hijab, Azaan and the Uniform Civil Code – none of which struck a chord with the voters. Meanwhile, the Congress party refused to be drawn into the Hindutva debate and instead, promised to undo the ‘regressive’ legislations brought in by BJP. And most importantly, the party promised to implement five main assurances if elected: 10 kg food grains to every BPL (Below Poverty Line) family, Rs 2,000 monthly allowance for a woman head of family, free bus travel for women, 200 units of free electricity and an unemployment dole to graduates and diploma holders.

Template of welfare ‘guarantees’

The Congress fine-tuned its welfare strategies and targeted key groups such as farmers, women and young voters. Although their implementation saw initial hiccups, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah announced the rollout of all five schemes from June 2023 which received a great response.

The Shakti scheme, for example, had promised “free travel to all women throughout the state”, which is expected to benefit 25 million women across the state at a cost of over Rs 4,051.56 crore to the exchequer every year. Over five lakh women (approximately 5,71,023) travelled on the buses of four RTCs in Karnataka on the first day of the rollout of the scheme. By November 2023, the scheme clocked 100 crore users since its launch.

The success of this approach, which eventually came to be known as the ‘Karnataka model’, meant that the party wanted to replicate this model during the state assembly elections held in five states late last year (it only worked in Telangana) and also for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

Taking the lead in opposition unity

The results of Karnataka assembly elections were declared in May and barely a month later, the state Congress unit led efforts in uniting opposition parties to put on a strong front against the BJP, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

It was rather ironic that, in 1969, the Glass House of Lalbagh in Bengaluru was witness to the first split of the Congress party after months of internal conflict. Many then observed that the Congress faced more opposition from internal rivalries than from the BJP or JD(S). More than 50 years later, the grand old party invited twenty-six Opposition parties to the second of such huddles in Bengaluru in July 2023, barely a few months after Congress swept the polls in the region.

It was at the end of this meeting that the opposition parties announced the name of their alliance: I - Indian, N - National, D - Developmental, I - Inclusive, A - Alliance. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah also hosted a dinner at Taj West End in Bengaluru, wherein these opposition parties were present.

In fact, even before the INDIA alliance came together, the swearing-in ceremony of Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar on May 20 was the first occasion wherein Opposition parties showcased their unity. Apart from Chief Ministers of Congress-ruled states, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, Tamil Nadu CM M K Stalin and Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren were present at the occasion.

Contradictions

But the Karnataka Congress unit has not been one without contradictions. The party that largely won the assembly elections due to its welfare promises and ‘secular’ and ‘inclusive’ stance, finds itself at odds when it comes to certain controversial issues.

Before the elections, the party had announced that it would withdraw the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Act, 2020 which had imposed a near-total ban on cow slaughter in the state. After coming to power in June, the Siddaramaiah-led government announced that the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Act, 2022 — popularly referred to as the anti-conversion Act — would also be repealed. Both the provisions came into force during BJP's rule amid objections from the Congress and the JD(S).

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However, Bills for repealing these laws are yet to see the light of day.

Even on the issue of the contentious hijab ban, which the Congress had termed as “inhuman and communal” when it was in the opposition, the party was seen making a U-turn on its promise of revoking the ban. In October 2022, a Division Bench delivered a split verdict while hearing a challenge to the Karnataka High Court order validating the ban. The matter has been pending since then before a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court. However, in December 2023, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah declared publicly that he had directed officials to lift the ban on wearing hijab in educational institutions. But barely a day later, he clarified that the matter was still at the discussion stage. “We are thinking about lifting the ban. We will discuss it at the government level before taking a final decision,” he said.

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This fear of being dubbed as ‘anti-Hindu’ might have forced the party’s leader Siddaramaiah to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ after inaugurating a Ram Sita Lakshman temple and a 33-ft monolithic Hanuman idol at Mahadevapura in Bengaluru on January 22 – the same day of the new Ram Mandir consecration ceremony.

Will the 'Karnataka model' help the Congress party to win maximum seats in the upcoming elections?

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