The message of the overwhelming verdict in favour of the Indian National Congress in the southern state of Karnataka shows that the Congress party may still be shaky, but Congressism is going strong.
There was plenty in the swearing-in ceremony of CM Siddaramaiah on Saturday and other things at the eventful weekend that confirmed my belief. Congressism may be described as an ideology that is focused on developing the bottom of the social pyramid when it comes to electoral priorities, laws, policies, and programmes - even if it is led at the very top by people whose personal backgrounds may be quite different in terms of caste, economic status or education.
Such a socio-economic approach based on the contemporary democratic transformation of India stands in contrast to the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) Hindutva and culture-centric worldview in which religious traditions and national pride on the world stage are much more important. Often, it pays rich electoral dividends, as we have seen previously in Karnataka.
No Such Thing as a Free Vote
Having said that, it is increasingly apparent that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP may be a little shy but not quite opposed to practising, albeit in a muted way, something that goes against Modi's own rant against 'revdis' (freebies) in electoral politics. His "Garib Kalyan" agenda focused on rural toilets, piped water, and free foodgrains for the poor sound like a 21st-century version of the roti-kapda-makaan (food, clothing, shelter) version of the yesteryear Congress.
What is clear is that voters in New India demand new-age goodies. I prefer to call them "votebies" rather than freebies for obvious reasons. If there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as a free vote either.
Several things were evident on Saturday to suggest that little has changed in the Congress at the top despite the setbacks it has suffered over the past decade. But there are some visible modifications in its campaigning and focus. It is improvising more on pro-poor welfare schemes, branding them better (learning from Modi, I am sure) and going to town with a new burst of energy.
The Siddarmaiah cabinet's "in-principle" approval on the day it assumed office for the Congress party's five pre-election manifesto "guarantees" to woo unemployed graduates, women, and the poor, set the template for more populist or vote-grabbing combo offers in the run-up to 2024.
An Attempt at Opposition Unity
Drawing on a corporate analogy, I say that Congress is like a company with strong research and development (R&D) and marketing departments, but its HR department is in disarray.
The run-up to the swearing-in of Siddaramaiah and his rival-cum-deputy CM DK Shivakumar in a prolonged, noisy show of ambition by their respective followers was such that it was natural for observers to compare it with the Ashok Gehlot-Sachin Pilot clash in Rajasthan or the Bhupesh Baghel-T S Singhdeo differences in Chattisgarh.
Also evident at the swearing-in function was the show of opposition unity in the run-up to Mission 2024. It is better perhaps to call it an attempted opposition unity. While National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah, Tamil Nadu chief minister DMK supremo M K Stalin and the Bihar twins, Nitish Kumar of Janata Dal (United) and Tejaswi Yadav of Rashtriya Janata Dal were happy to do the customary display of chained hands on stage with Siddaramaiah, communist leaders, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, one TV channel dusted up a 2018 video grab of a similar opposition unity stage show. The anchor remarked gently that it had not aged well. After all, the opposition's grand plan did not quite take off in 2019 when Modi won a second term.
Bahujan Samaj Party's Mayawati, Samajwadi Party's Akhilesh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress were present in 2018 and conspicuously absent at the Kanteerava Stadium at this year's political rock show in Bangalore, though the TMC was represented by a party leader in a sign of solidarity. We cannot even begin to think of Telangana CM and Bharat Rashtra Samiti (BRS) leader K Chandrashekar Rao in the opposition framework.
I visualise Congress-led opposition unity efforts like a Rubik's cube within a Rubik's cube.
Congress' Rubik's Cube Syndrome
The Grand Old Party has to first establish a reasonable degree of credibility as the nucleus of a would-be opposition alliance even as it has to struggle within its HR department as rival leaders and caste groups jostle for power and prominence.
However, it was clear in Bangalore that the Nehru-Gandhi family still calls the shots. The Congress party makes no bones about the fact that Rahul Gandhi is the unofficial supremo, though Dalit veteran Mallikarjun Kharge is the president.
Technically speaking, Rahul Gandhi is currently only a Congress party MP from Kerala, and Priyanka Gandhi is the general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh. Both were as good as shadow president and deputy of sorts as they shared the dais in Karnataka's cabinet ceremony. Earlier in the week, the 'Shivaramaiah' duo shadow-boxed each other in Delhi with references, calls, and meetings in which the party's First Family figured prominently.
As it turns out, Sunday, 21 May, happened to be the death anniversary of the Gandhi scions' father and late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The opportunity was ripe for Congress CMs Ashok Gehlot, Bhupesh Baghel, and of course, Siddaramaiah to run huge ads in national newspapers with some programmes liberally named after the assassinated former prime minister.
The dynasty is a double-edged sword for Congress: it unites the party but invites opposition and media criticism.
Rahul Gandhi's confident speech at Bangalore brandished its love for an alliance of tribals, Dalits, and the sundry poor as the party's backbone. Religious minorities, not clearly named, need no mention at all as was evident in their representation in the Siddaramaiah cabinet. Congressism is alive and kicking and so are the Gandhis.
But there is a lot of hard work ahead for the party in juggling the fiscal burden of its welfare programmes with intra-party rivalries at various levels and states. Picture it like a stock market screen in which prices go up and down every minute or second, and the Congress leadership as frenetic traders at the keyboards.
It is not as if the BJP is without its internal tensions and rivalries. Twitter wags keenly point to the delays in government formation by the BJP in Haryana, Assam, and even Uttar Pradesh. Murmurs of intra-BJP rivalry surfacing in Madhya Pradesh add to the chatter.
Power-sharing remains a common game in a modern democracy, often in stark contrast to the rhetoric of self-sacrifice or selfless devotion that Modi and Hindutva champions speak of.
But unlike the Congress, the BJP's rat race is less visible to the naked eye.
With a decade behind in the PM's seat, Modi, whether he or his party admit it or not, will increasingly be judged on performance than personality or popularity. But they can take cold comfort from the fact that while the BJP negotiates a greased pole, Congress is struggling to overcome its Rubik's cube-within-a-rubik's cube syndrome.
(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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