Despite the Bharatiya Janata Party’s blitzkrieg where it mobilised all its leadership including chief ministers of some far-off states, holding thousands of rallies, roadshows and whatnots, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself helming the election campaign, with polarising rhetoric and emotive appeals, the Congress party romped home with a comfortable majority in the 2023 Karnataka assembly election.
Apart from the local factors and campaign strategies, this assured win points to the way forward for the Indian National Congress Party as far as its ideological core is concerned.
I think the commitment to secularism, resolute stand and fight against the politics of hate and societal polarisation, targeting BJP for its crony capitalism and juxtaposing it vis-à-vis people left to fend for themselves and facing hardships, support for and advancement of the broadened and inclusive social justice, and rights-based economic justice for the deprived seem to be the five pillars of Congress’s ideological canopy.
The ideological narrative around these five components has been in the making for some time.
Different strands of it have been articulated by its leaders, especially Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, during its conclaves in Udaipur and Nava Raipur. In Udaipur, the party gave a clarion call for ‘Bharat Jodo’ against the divisive and exclusionist politics of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP.
This was followed by the Bharat Jodo Yatra where Rahul Gandhi espoused these ideas. In its 85th Plenary Session in Raipur, the Congress party articulated its “inclusive and progressive” vision of India based on constitutional values and principles. But its most visible and cogent articulation through campaign speeches and commitments in the election manifesto happened during the Karnataka assembly election and portends further concretisation by the Congress party in future party programmes and elections.
At the core of the Karnataka election manifesto of the Congress party is its avowal of national harmony and unity. It talks of India being “inclusive, harmonious and culturally vibrant”, and calls out BJP for its politics and policy of “hate, bigotry and communalism”, its attempts to rewrite the history of India by “changing textbooks”, and “unleashing violence and cruelty against different sections of society”. To counter this, the manifesto promises to establish Bharat Jodo Social Harmony Committees in all gram panchayats.
The Raipur Declaration promised to bring a resolution against hate crimes in the country if voted to power, the manifestation of which is seen in the manifesto. It says that the Congress party if voted to power, will take firm and decisive action against individuals and organisations like Popular Front of India, Bajrang Dal and other organisations spreading hatred against communities on the basis of caste or religion. Without any doubt, this is a bold move by the Congress party, which, many commentators at that time felt, could mar its chances at the hustings.
The unethical alliance of politicians and businesses, resulting in ‘crony capitalism’ where only certain businessmen corner all the benefits at the expense of the public good has been a key theme in Rahul Gandhi’s public speeches in recent times. The narrative lent itself ideally to include similar practices at the state level and corruption charges against the Bommai government in the form of the ‘40% sarkara‘ and ‘PayCM’ campaigns.
The fourth pillar of Congress’s ideological canopy is social justice.
In the Udaipur Nav Sankalp Declaration, the party had advocated “Justice for All”, and had asked for the release of the caste census data. In the Karnataka election, it went a step further when Rahul Gandhi endorsed the demand for the caste and socio-economic census and proportional representation. This is a new ideological turn for the party. The party has promised to increase reservations from 50% to 75%, with the hope that it will help them connect with and bring back several backward classes to its fold. This is also likely to facilitate a broader opposition unity as several parties have been demanding a similar exercise in their states.
The last and final pillar is economic justice, which has to go hand in hand with social justice. It has been part of the ideology of the Congress party earlier too. For example, it promised NYuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) in the 2019 parliamentary elections as well as in its Udaipur Conclave Declaration. The Congress’s Karnataka manifesto recounts the United Progressive Alliance government’s “rights-based paradigm of MNREGA, RTI, Right to Food, Right to Fair Compensation for Acquisition of Land, Right to Forest Produce”, which it claims were a game changer for the poor.
However, what is new in the reiteration of these programmes is positing them as rights and not largesse, with the former denoting citizenship and not merely as some benefits and largesse from a benevolent ruler.
The Congress party’s Karnataka manifesto expands the basket of rights by promising five guarantees – Gruha Jyothi (free 200 units of electricity to all the houses), Gruha Lakshmi (Rs 2,000 per month to all women family heads), Anna Bhagya (10 kgs of foodgrains to every member of a below poverty line household), Yuvanidhi (Rs 3,000 and Rs 1,500 for two years to unemployed youth, graduates and diploma holder, respectively) and Shakti (free travel for women in government-run buses). In addition, the party promises to regularise slums and give title deeds to the people living there.
Mounted on these ideological pillars is the canopy of the Congress’s idea of India, which is a plural, inclusive, harmonious, liberal, just and united India. And, under this canopy are ‘we the people of India’ – all the people, the rich and the poor, especially the poor and deprived, belonging to different faiths, castes and communities.
Building on the declarations in the two Conclaves and Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Karnataka election suggests that this is the ideological narrative, the Congress party is honing to take to the Indian people till, during, and (hopefully) beyond 2024.
The article was first published on The wire as The Karnataka Assembly Election Marks the Consolidation of Congress’s Ideological Core on May 18, 2023.
About the Author
Devender Singh is a former UN staffer. He worked with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) from 2015-2021. Currently, he is a visiting senior fellow with the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), Delhi.
Also read Withering away of India’s Demographic Dividend by the Author on IMPRI Insights