To combat a cadre-strong BJP, Congress in Karnataka has developed new models of micro-communication involving socio-cultural engagement.
During Sankranti this year, Byatarayanapura Assembly constituency in Bengaluru city witnessed a slice of village life.
With rangoli competitions, rural games, folk dances, bullock carts, community preparations of Huggi aka Pongal, a day-long event, resembled a village fair.
The “Suggi-Huggi” event organised by MLA and Congress leader Krishna Byregowda was meant to bring people of the constituency together for a socio-cultural affair. The political outreach component, however, was not lost on anyone, given that elections are barely a few months away in Karnataka.
Byatarayanapura feels the pulse of ‘Suggi Huggi 2023’. The festive event has commenced with folk dances, rangoli, organic stalls, and Pongal distribution taking place in full swing! Be ready for an exciting and fun-packed day ahead #Snakranti #Byatarayanapura #TeamKBG pic.twitter.com/iwDijvBo7J
— Krishna Byre Gowda (@krishnabgowda) January 14, 2023
That particular event, although limited to Krishna Byregowda’s constituency, gives you a glimpse into similar activities that the Congress is attempting across the state at the booth level as part of its election campaign.
Instead of limiting its booth-level outreach to just an electoral exercise, the grand old party is looking at a socio-cultural outreach for impact creation. This election, Congress has adopted three tools: Out-of-party association, booth kits, and a facilitator model.
Eliciting electoral support through socio-cultural outreach has been a strong suit of the BJP — backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), with its links to mathas, religious leaders, Bhajan groups, temple meets, etc.
The basics are conventional but that is where it stops. While senior leaders of the party tour the state with the Praja Dhwani Yatra, cadres are engaged at the booth level with conventional activities like voter registration, electoral roll checks, and route mapping, to new initiatives like creating booth Congress groups.
“We have announced two guarantees so far — 200 units of free electricity for every household and a universal basic income promise of ₹2,000 per month for every woman head of a household. Cadres are taking the two guarantees door-to-door to convey them to the people. The outreach programme is already active for 50,000 booths. We are implementing booth kits for specialised outreach,” Priyank Kharge, Chairman of the KPCC Communications Cell, told South First.
This time around, the Congress is in the process of implementing specialised “booth kits” aimed at micro-mamagement of booths and targeting specific groups within — women and first-time voters, in particular.
“The focus of the campaign is at three primary areas: Broad narrative, successive campaigns, and micromanagement of booths. Successive campaigns will set the narrative in people’s minds and booth-level management adds the human touch to the campaign. It is a two-way system of outreach and feedback from the ground,” Sasikanth Senthil, chairman of the Karnataka Congress war-room for the upcoming polls told South First.
So what is different this time? While candidates will drive the initiatives, tasks, and plans for each booth, the Congress has set up a centralised mechanism to motivate and monitor booth activities instead of leaving it all up to candidates.
“The centralised mechanism gets real-time data through continuous interactions, feedback, local concerns, what different groups of people are thinking and talking about, and passes on communication to booth-level workers on a daily basis. It is a dynamic exercise. The purpose is to ensure that by the time we go to polls, every voter in every village knows what Congress is up to and why they shouldn’t vote the BJP back to power,” Senthil added.
Issue-based outreach for the party has revolved around corruption, with the Congress’ popular ‘PayCM‘ and ‘40 percent commission‘ government charge — and now the party’s guarantees ahead of its official manifesto release.
“We can call out the BJP for failing on 90 percent promises in the last four years because our government fulfilled 158 out of 165 promises. People are associating with our messaging on corruption, price rise, and unemployment because that is the ground reality,” Saleem Ahmed, Working President of Karnataka Congress, told South First.
The grouse over non-payment of MGNREGS dues to delayed elections to local bodies at district and taluk levels, Ahmed said, is adding to anti-incumbency against BJP.
Although the Congress still has the highest vote share in Karnataka, the figure has not crossed the 40 percent mark since 1999. In the 2018 Assembly polls, the Congress vote share stood at 38.04 percent. By the party’s own assessment, it needs to not just retain its entire vote share but also add an additional four percent.
“Only if we are able to get about 42 to 43 percent vote share can we contain the BJP’s under 35 percent, given that the rest of the vote share will be divided between the JD(S) and independents,” pointed out a senior leader of the party.
To enhance its vote share, other than first-time voters, Congress is seeking out allies. Allies in non-political but influential groups that aren’t part of the Congress’ ecosystem but share ideological similarities.
“There are many neutral groups that aren’t politically aligned but share common values, believe in the Constitution, and reject communal politics. We are reaching out to them,” Kharge said.
Bharat Jodo Yatra’s Karnataka leg, which saw the participation of many apolitical people and groups, has boosted the party’s efforts on that front.
At the backend, the party has adopted a “facilitator model”.
A facilitator — a local manager of sorts — has been given charge of every village in the state to supervise and coordinate with booth-level workers.
“Self-help groups function effectively under this model. We are adopting that to give specific tasks to our workers. Tasks are a combination of electoral, social and cultural initiatives undertaken on a weekly basis,” a senior member of Congress’ election team said.
The idea, the party says, is to create a network of support groups for the Congress at every booth. The support groups will include workers of the Congress, but also loyal voters. The facilitators engage with these booth groups for outreach activities.
While there is little doubt that anti-incumbency is a huge problem for the BJP, the primary challenge for the Congress in Karnataka is converting an anti-BJP voter into a pro-Congress voter.
“Occupying voters’ mind space is an uphill task and, in the last few months, we have been able to create the right content, set narratives, create discussions on relevant issues,” Kharge said.
Congress has assessed that a disgruntled but loyal BJP voter might choose to withdraw from voting altogether instead of voting for any other party. That leaves Congress with the task of using its promised welfare schemes to attract new and floating voters.
Leaders of the party believe that the right choice of candidate can wean anti-BJP votes at the local level towards the Congress, as much as welfare schemes and targeted poll promises.
The prospects of the JD(S) have improved ever since the launch of HD Kumaraswamy’s Pancharathna Yatra and that is Congress’ new headache.
“We expect a ‘Bandwagon effect’ this election with people knowing for sure that Congress is coming to power,” a senior member of Congress’ election committee said.
The JD(S), other leaders of the party believe, is aiming at denting that ‘bandwagon effect’.
“If JD(S) crosses 15 percent vote share, we have a problem. Only if we are able to get 42 percent vote share will that translate to 120-plus seats. A lot of that will depend on Congress’ pitch to Vokkaligas,” a senior Congress leader from the community said.
While the Congress is anticipating a blitzkrieg campaign by the BJP, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as its vote-catcher making passionate appeals like he did in Himachal Pradesh as well, leaders are confident that the Modi-appeal has only dwindled since 2019.