Aakar Patel: Congress’ Seva Dal no match for RSS’ karyakartas

File photo of former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah 

Community mobilisation is not something most Indian parties are good at, but BJP is exceptional at it. It ensures last mile delivery - identifying voters, connecting and bringing them to vote

For many across India the results in Karnataka were heartbreaking. It was thought that this was finally a state where the Congress had the wherewithal to resist. Some of these people were those who might not necessarily be Congress voters but are wary or afraid of the BJP’s ideology. And so many non-Kannadigas were invested in the results, and they were disappointed.

On the other side, there were those who believe that this country is headed in the right direction under Narendra Modi and they will rejoice that one more state has agreed with them.

On the face of it, the result should have been expected. The BJP had done quite well in Karnataka in 2014, winning 17 of the 28 seats. It more or less has repeated that performance in 2018 and this shows that it is able to retain its popularity even when the Congress has the upper hand, as it surely did in this election.

Our job is to look as dispassionately as possible to see why this is the case. Why did the Congress lose an election despite having marginally higher vote share than the BJP? Analysis of this will focus on several things, much of which will be in the realm of speculation.

For example, we can no longer use with ease the phrase anti-incumbency because it does not seem to affect Bengal, Orissa and several BJP states in the north and west. I’d like to look specifically at one aspect of it and that is what the Americans call the ground game.

One reason why the final results of the Karnataka election were so delayed (by our modern EVM standards) was the tightness of the race in many constituencies. The margins were often only a few thousand votes. This is the difference that the ground game makes. Even where a party, in this case the Congress, is competitive, it can lose easily because it doesn’t have the infrastructure to convert support to votes. Where the party can put together enough local resource, as it was able to in Punjab, it will pull through. But everywhere else it will be punished for the lack of grassroots presence.

The grassroots workers of the Indian National Congress are organised under the Seva Dal. The organisation was founded a few months before the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was in 1925. The Congress party’s website lists the Seva Dal as its ‘frontal organisation’, along with the Youth Congress, the Mahila Congress, the labour union INTUC and the students’ union NSUI.

The confidence shown by chief minister Siddaramaiah in the hours before and after the election was not false bravado. He genuinely believed that he was ahead given all that he had achieved and the energy that he discerned at his party’s rallies. Where was the issue decided?

The grassroots workers of the Indian National Congress are organised under the Seva Dal. The organisation was founded a few months before the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was in 1925. The Congress party’s website lists the Seva Dal as its ‘frontal organisation’, along with the Youth Congress, the Mahila Congress, the labour union INTUC and the students’ union NSUI.

The link to the Seva Dal leads to a single page with the name of its current leader, Lalji Desai. There is no other detail about membership, numbers or activity. No reports of what it has been doing are to be found in the media. By all accounts it seems to exist only in name. What this means is that the local Congress leader, whether running for election to assembly, Parliament or corporation, must develop his own network of workers and volunteers.

Such people must be on call not just for all of the running around for constituents’ work that politicians must do but also shoulder electoral responsibility. The burden of maintaining this group of people lies on the leader and not the party. The withering away of the Seva Dal after independence has meant that the Congress party nationally doesn’t have the muscle that it historically had available to it.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on the other hand is the world’s largest non-governmental organisation. It has over 5 lakh active members of whom large numbers are involved in activities organised or supported by the Sangh. One of them is community organisation and mobilisation.

For the Bharatiya Janata Party, this is an asset of immense value. The karyakarta ensures delivery in the last mile. In an election campaign, after the speeches are made and the manifestos (mostly unread) are written and released, much of the work still remains.

In American politics this is called the ground game. It involves making an effort to identify potential voters, connecting and communicating with them and then bringing them to the booth.

This is not something that most Indian political parties are good at. It is something the BJP is exceptional at doing and this is because it has a volunteer body that is unmatched in any democracy. This spirit of volunteerism is to be found also among many of its middle class/upper class backers, many of whom joined the 2014 campaign (and many of whom will join the 2019 one).

One can think what one does of their ideology but it is undeniable that the supporters of Hindutva, across class, come with commitment and a sense of purpose. They make a difference.

There are many variables in any election. There is the charisma of the Prime Minister, the economic situation, the narrative in the news, the amount of money candidates are willing to spend, the coalition of castes that traditionally have backed the party and so on.

But setting up a core of volunteers and inculcating in them the idealism that politics requires is not discussed as being one of them. Possibly because this is an underlying factor and therefore assumed to be unchanging.

As was remarked earlier, the BJP has the ability to retain states it has ruled for 15 years, as it has shown in large parts of northern and western India. In two of those states, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, along with Rajasthan, the party is going to the polls in a few months.

The focus of 2019 and what is likely to happen there and all of the other reading of the tea leaves will soon shift there from Karnataka.

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