In the election campaign ahead of the Karnataka assembly polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had criticised the Congress' five electoral promises to the voters, disparagingly dubbing them as 'revdi culture'.
The Congress party, instead of muting its rhetoric around them, highlighted these promises again and again in the campaign and vowed to implement them in the first Cabinet meeting if they were to come to power. True to their word, the newly formed Siddaramaiah government gave approval to these welfare measures on Saturday, 20 May, in its first Cabinet meeting.
These five promises are:
200 units of free power to all households (Gruha Jyoti)
Rs 2,000 monthly assistance to the woman head of every family (Gruha Lakshmi)
10 kilogram of rice free to every member of a below poverty line (BPL) household (Anna Bhagya)
Rs 3,000 every month for unemployed graduate youth and Rs 1,500 for unemployed diploma holders aged 18-25 for two years (Yuva Nidhi)
Free travel for women in public transport buses (Uchita Prayana)
Congress Campaign Coalescing Around Social Justice
The Congress party's election campaign was also notable for its high-pitched messaging around affirmative action, caste census and other similar 'social justice' issues. Additionally, the party's manifesto had a slew of poll promises under the head of 'Social Welfare,' aimed at Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and Minorities. Rahul Gandhi and other senior Congress leaders did not just spoke about these issues and promises in their speeches, the party cadre and social media executives made sure their message spread far and wide. The short clips of Gandhi's speeches, for example, were widely circulated.
The Congress leaders seem to have figured out that coalescing their political campaign around social justice will give them a fighting chance against the Bharatiya Janata Party's Hindutva pitch. "The only way to counter Hindutva is social justice and welfarism," a source in the Congress told The Quint. "In the entire history of the party, the tallest leader of the party has never spoken about social justice so aggressively ever before," they further said, referring to Gandhi's espousal of caste census, proportional representation, etc.
The soundness of this strategy, which was properly fleshed out at the Congress' 85th plenary session at Raipur in February, could be witnessed in the party's resounding victory against the BJP in Karnataka.
The Congress adopted a programme statement titled 'Social Justice and Empowerment Resolution' at the Raipur plenary session, spelling out its past track record on welfare schemes as well as its vision and policies for the future. If one carefully goes through this 46-point document, you wonder if it has been drafted by someone who has just read John Rawls' philosophical masterpiece, A Theory of Justice.
However, a senior Congress leader stated that this strategy of social justice and welfarism was first adopted in the 2018 Chhattisgarh assembly elections. "Our strategy of reaching out to OBCs and other marginalised sections, which also reflected in ticket distribution, was instrumental in our victory then," the leader claimed.
As opposed to the BJP's occasional derision of welfare policies as 'freebies', 'crutches', 'revdi', the Raipur resolution rightly frames them as 'rights'. The detractors of social justice state that the inequalities in society are a fact of life where people get rewarded for their talents, hard work and contribution to society. If you are falling behind, it's probably because you aren't working hard enough, they claim.
The proponents of social justice, on the other hand, state that this is a simplistic understanding of inequality. For one, people have no role in the talents they are bequeathed with – they are simply winners of a genetic lottery. Two, individuals need a supporting environment and a loving family to develop their talents. Even your work ethic is dependent on external factors like having a supportive and loving family. Also, people do not get paid commensurate to their contribution to society or their hard work. A farm labourer gets paid much less than a person engaged in drug trade, for example.
The BJP and its parent organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh seem sceptical about ideas like social justice. The ruling party's slogan of 'minimum governance' extends to gradually withdrawing from social security schemes and pushing the Indian State away from welfarism. On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi had gone to the extent of promising universal basic income of Rs 12,000 per month to every family ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Socialist parties like the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal (United), Periyarist party like Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Bahujan Samaj Party and INC understand that in liberal democracy, we have to make sure people get what they need and not just what they deserve. This becomes all the more important in a country like in India where majority of the people live in stark poverty. Invariably, the State has the responsibility to specially attend to the needs of the most marginalised and the most disadvantaged.
"In India, social justice is almost entirely about caste," philosopher Akash Singh Rathore told The Quint. India's millennia old caste system has set the terms of opportunities available to people and allocation of resources. Hence, for the creation of a just society, challenging castes becomes important.
This is at the core of DMK's ideology as the party was a product of a long anti-caste movement in Tamil Nadu. Parties like SP, BSP, RJD and JD(U) too accept this premise. The INC seems to have finally come to this realisation if one were to go by its Raipur resolution and the Karnataka campaign.
Karnataka Shows the Way?
As the Congress warms up to the social justice agenda and as it ties hands with regional parties that have always championed it (explicitly or implicitly), social justice may turn out to be one of the key issues in the upcoming assembly elections (Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana) as well as next year's general elections.
Here are a few significant developments since January that show the seriousness of the Opposition parties about social justice:
Nitish Kumar-led Bihar government's caste-based survey, which began in January (though it has now been stayed by the courts)
The INC's social justice resolution at Raipur plenary session in February
Naveen Patnaik-led Odisha government's census of Other Backward Classes, currently ongoing
A multi-party conference in April organised by All India Federation for Social Justice, a vehicle floated by Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin, where the demand for caste census was vociferously made
The Congress leader revealed that Rahul Gandhi may launch another yatra, from west to east, similar to his Bharat Jodo Yatra last year. While the finer points of the yatra remain to be fleshed out, Gandhi is expected to focus on three key issues:
Crony capitalism, employment, inflation, etc
Deliverables and welfare schemes similar to five guarantees in Karnataka
While parties like Aam Aadmi Party, Trinamool Congress, Biju Janata Dal and Shiv Sena (UBT) will have no qualms about welfare schemes, they may not easily agree to pivot their campaign around social justice issues centring caste. Nevertheless, the Opposition unity doesn't have to hinge only on this issue, and the Lok Sabha elections will naturally be fought on multiple fronts. The fact that the INC has won a major victory in Karnataka, where its campaign mainly revolved around social justice, will encourage it and other parties to try the formula elsewhere, most importantly in next year's Lok Sabha elections.