A localised election campaign focusing on corruption and price rise, impactful social engineering and strong local leadership— these are some of the factors that helped the Congress sweep the recent Karnataka elections and defeat the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the JD(S). However, the two factors that definitely worked in the grand old party’s favour were that it won on the back of an aggressive posture without bothering about the pro-Muslim charge that the BJP had heaped on it and without falling into the Hindutva trap.
The Congress manifesto in Karnataka not only spoke of Hindu militancy but also of restoring the four per cent Muslim quota which the BJP had scrapped and distributed among Lingayats and Vokkaligas. Its manifesto also promised to ban the Bajrang Dal and the Popular Front of India (PFI).
The Congress’ renewed position in Karnataka vis-à-vis the BJP’s no-holds-barred Hindutva campaign swearing by Bajrang Bali (Lord Hanuman) was in sharp contrast to its campaign in the states where it had been decimated or almost wiped out. Gujarat is a shining example where just about five months ago, in the December 2022 state elections, the party was left panting at an all-time low of 17 seats.
So, what changed in these five months? If the Congress could sweep Karnataka, why did it clock its worst performance ever in Gujarat? The answer lies in the pre-poll promises made in manifestos and campaign patterns.
Unlike in Karnataka, where Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, and even Sonia Gandhi addressed public meetings, the central leadership was missing in action in 2022 in Gujarat. Rahul Gandhi was busy walking from Kanyakumari to Kashmir as part of his Bharat Jodo Yatra, but Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh—the two states where elections were due in December 2022—were not en route. Rahul campaigned in Gujarat only twice. On the other hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah went to the state almost every fortnight. Even the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP’s) Arvind Kejriwal came calling once or twice almost every week. In its opening innings in Gujarat, the party managed to win five seats.
Unlike in Karnataka now, the Congress manifesto in Gujarat 2022 fought shy of strongly raising issues concerning the Muslims, besides its other original vote banks of Dalits and Adivasis. The party’s performance was dismal in all these three constituents of the party’s traditional voters.
The key reason is that the central leadership left the state unit to its own devices and the latter abrogated individual constituencies to the contestants, who had only the party symbol while they fought on their own.
At best, the key opposition party’s manifesto comprised freebies almost akin to what newcomer AAP’s Guarantee Card promised and was largely a copy-paste of various welfare schemes run by the Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan. Gehlot was the Gujarat election in-charge.
Though the Congress announced a slew of schemes for the minorities, they largely remained embedded in their manifesto document and weren’t on the top of the party’s campaign. The manifesto, among several other things, promised to create a Ministry of Minority Affairs, which has been a long-pending demand of Muslims in Gujarat. But on August 15, 2022, the remission of mass rapists of Bilkis Bano by the Gujarat government was conspicuous by its absence in the manifesto.
“The Congress manifesto was quite elaborate and it did have many schemes for the Muslims. But they didn’t have an impact,” says Mujahid Nafees, the Convener of the Minority Coordination Committee, a non-political body. “The reason for this,” says Nafees, “is the general apathy of the Congress party towards the Muslims, fearing they would lose the Hindu votes. Only the sitting and contesting Muslim MLAs campaigned, the state leadership remained aloof.”
He pointed out that the major chunk of the Hindu votes, especially in the urban regions, belongs to the BJP and wondered what loss the Congress leaders feared. And even by glossing over all the issues of its original vote banks and that of Bilkis Bano, the party still achieved precious little.
The Bilkis Bano case is the perfect example of the wide gap between promises made in the Manifesto and ground realities. The release of the 11 convicts in the 2002 gang rape case created some ripples, but not something that the Congress party took up as a huge issue that spoke on the larger question of the general atmosphere of the persecution of Muslims.
Yes, the Congress’ central leadership made statements condemning the release of the convicts immediately after the remission, but it never was among the key campaign themes of the party. However, significantly, no Gujarat-level leader addressed the issue aggressively except for firebrand Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani. He had told a section of the media that the party may or may not get votes on this, but this was the question of justice to the victim and not reaping political gains. “Bilkis Bano is a woman first irrespective of her religion. And this, when the Prime Minister speaks of Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao,” he said. For the BJP, which knew the Congress would not take a strong position on it, this was a non-issue.
The central leadership of the Congress giving Gujarat a veritable go-by in 2022 was surprising given that in 2017 the same party came close to defeating the BJP on the back of Rahul Gandhi’s strong campaign targeting Narendra Modi’s economic policies without wading into Hindutva waters. Gujarat is a tested Hindutva laboratory of the BJP and all attempts at soft-Hindutva here would backfire. Just when the 2017 results were declared, Rahul Gandhi took charge as the All India Congress Committee (AICC) president.
The Congress won 77 seats plus three Independents supporting it and the BJP won 99 seats, just seven seats more than a simple majority of 92. So, what clicked for the Congress in 2017, didn’t in 2022. So much so that only one of the five Muslim candidates won, only three tribal seats out of 27 went into its kitty along with three Dalit seats from the total 13 seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes.
The AAP, Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM and several Independents queered the pitch for the Congress by splitting the votes in Dalit and Muslim-dominated seats in 2022.
There are 25 seats where the Muslim vote can easily tilt the balance. There are 65 seats where a “smart combination of Muslim and Dalit candidates could upset the BJP’s applecart,” says Nafees.
The 149-seat (out of 182) record the Congress set in 1985 under the leadership of former chief minister, the late Madhavsinh Solanki, was attributed to its rainbow coalition of Kshatriyas (OBCs), Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim (KHAM). It was during the violent 1985 anti-reservation agitation led by saffron forces that the BJP realised its championing the cause of the higher castes won’t serve any electoral purpose with 75% voters consolidated in the Congress. And, as the riots took a communal turn, the BJP’s homogenising Hindutva project was launched.
Under the BJP’s new strategy then, all the caste contradictions collapsed under one single umbrella and gradually split apart the Congress’ KHAM formula. Then, in the early 90s, the Ram Janmabhoomi Rath Yatra started from Somnath, led by BJP patriarch LK Advani with Modi being a charioteer. From then on, the Congress party went on losing state elections.
If the Congress’ Karnataka victory in 2023 demonstrated that the BJP under Modi is not invincible, the same Congress with a campaign spearheaded by Rahul Gandhi in 2017 provided empirical evidence that Modi’s Gujarat fort is not impregnable. There is a huge difference between Karnataka and Gujarat. The southern state has a strong state-level leadership and a well-oiled organisational network. Gujarat has no state-level leader. Every contestant fights on his own as a Congress member but not on the strength of a cohesive party.
(Views expressed are personal)
(This appeared in the print as 'A Shift in Strategy')
Darshan Desai is a veteran journalist and founder-editor of development news network, Gujarat