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How Congress bent it like Modi in Karnataka; what really worked

In Siddaramaiah Congress has grassroots leader, icon in poor constituencies

Prashun Bhaumik | New Delhi | 13 May, 2023 | 07:30 PM

What were the magic ingredients of the Congress party’s win in this critical face-off with a front-and-center Narendra Modi-led campaign?

The Himachal Pradesh win in December 2022 gave the Congress party hope — a quiet local campaign, and a strategic communication campaign, including social media, which they used as the nuts and bolts of the crucial Karnataka win.

So what were the magic ingredients of the Congress party’s win in this critical face-off with a front-and-center Narendra Modi-led campaign?

Ironically, the Congress took Modi’s phrase “vocal for local” to heart and kept the battle for Karnataka contained to bread-and-butter issues of ‘bijli, sadak aur paani’ (electricity, roads and water). In Siddaramaiah, the Congress had a grassroots leader who was an icon in the poor constituencies of Karnataka. The other stalwart DK Shivakumar, despite having an oft-repeated rivalry with Siddaramaiah for the plum chief minister’s job, ran a message-cohesive campaign highlighting the “40 per cent corruption cut” in every state project that the Congress claimed the Bommai-led BJP government was taking. DKS, as he’s universally known, is a leading resourceful troubleshooter for Congress (sequestering Congress legislators in his resorts) and has remained undaunted despite a campaign of intimidation by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Randeep Surjewala, the Congress in-charge of Karnataka, parked himself there much before the campaign began in earnest and took the BJP by surprise. He knocked the two regional leaders’ head together for a disciplined campaign sans any controversy. Surjewala was blunt in telling them “we have to first win the election together then only can anyone become CM”.

Credit where credit is due. The new communications team of the Congress, comprising Supriya Shrinate, information & technology cell chief, Jairam Ramesh, general secretary in-charge of Communication and Pawan Khera, took the battle to the BJP. The trio match the BJP for aggression, take no prisoners and rebut fake news.

The Congress social media (SM) now outstrips and outshines the saffron party and that is a huge comeback for the party which lagged behind the BJP, originally the Godzilla in the SM room.

Not only has the Congress SM improved, it now betters the BJP on the current SM de jure app of choice – Instagram. Congress’ grip on Instagram is strong and imaginative while the BJP lags behind as dull and boring content. With the big fight of 2024 looming, the BJP, the most well-funded party in India, needs to play catch-up fast. I monitor SM professionally and the way the Congress has mastered the SM game has left me astonished. The BJP’s decline in the SM game is a huge Karnataka elections takeaway.

The BJP tried its best to polarise the Karnataka campaign bringing in Tipu Sultan and even Lord Hanuman riffing on the Congress manifesto plan to ban the Bajrang Dal. PM Modi told voters to think of Hanumanji and vote. The voters didn’t. And, to the Congress credit, they sensed the lack of any Hindutva appeal in the state election and kept the campaign grounded on corruption and lack of governance delivery.

The teachable moment from the Karnataka election is huge for the Opposition – keep elections local and grounded, empower regional leaders who the voters know and run a tight campaign not faltering on the Hindutva pitch that the BJP loves to play on.

The Congress in Karnataka sensed huge rural distress and made it a centrepiece of the campaign. The divided Bommai government, which had too many power centres, had no convincing narrative to take on Team Congress. The BJP fell between BS Yediyurappa, disastrous ticket selection by BL Santhosh, who kept flashing the Modi card, and the non-performing Bommai ministers.

The final takeaway is the reinvention of Rahul Gandhi who continues to be the main leader of the Congress. Post the Bharat Jodo Yatra, he has successfully gotten rid of the “Pappu image” the BJP had foisted on him. The Congress did well in the 21 Karnataka Assembly seats where Gandhi walked. The Congress was winning 17 of the 21 seats while writing this piece, which is quite a spectacular performance.

Priyanka Gandhi also actively campaigned in Karnataka in some hugely attended public meetings.

Clearly having Mallikarjun Kharge, a Kannadiga as Congress president, enthused Karnataka to vote for the Congress currently heading towards its best-ever vote share in half a century. Kharge, despite his age, ran an energetic campaign. Final takeaway: the Opposition can defeat the Modi-BJP as it gets the all-important ‘mahaul’ (atmosphere) and ‘hawa’ for 2024.

Swati Chaturvedi is an award-winning journalist
Courtesy India Today