Karnataka was about the survival of India

In looking to their own basic survival, the people of Karnataka have saved India. They have saved democracy

A man waves the Indian national flag as he attends an election rally of the Indian National Congress on April 16, 2023 in Kolar, India ahead of the Karnataka Polls. (Photo: Getty Images)
A man waves the Indian national flag as he attends an election rally of the Indian National Congress on April 16, 2023 in Kolar, India ahead of the Karnataka Polls. (Photo: Getty Images)

Sujata Anandan

Years ago, one of my editors had told me, as I was graduating from a rookie to a reasonable starter, that India was a very complex country – I could not hope to understand it all on my own without help from the locals wherever my assignments took me. Then post-liberalisation when there was talk of foreign media houses entering India and news magnates who were owners of various news organisations egged journalists to protest, the same editor spotted me in a crowd of newshounds  shouting slogans.

He took me aside and asked, “Do you think any foreign news agency coming in will be able to adequately cover India without any help from people like you? They will need locals to understand the country or else will be defeated by the complexity of our nation, just as you might be defeated by Bihar or Tamil Nadu without help from local journalists there.”

Some years later I had a sense of dèja vu when a politician who was a Union home minister told me the same. From his perspective every state had different layers of castes and social hierarchies and no government could hope to keep the peace unless and until they decided to wet their feet among the people and had implicit faith in their local leadership to help them negotiate all the mazes and local  landmines. Then he added a codicil – “It is not just that as a home minister I should trust the local leadership. But the local leadership too should have faith in me. They should know that I will never betray them and that their interests are my interests.”

The results to last week’s Karnataka elections  brought home those  wisdoms to me in quite a different context, both with regard to the Congress and the BJP. I think Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra contributed a lot to the Congress’s stunning Karnataka victory. But it may still not have happened had the party’s local leaders not sealed their differences, closed ranks and put everything they had into their victory with their national leaders backing them full tilt, going where they asked them to go, meeting who they wanted them to meet, fighting a battle, literally, of life and death for not just Karnataka but the whole of India.

On the other hand, the BJP relied almost entirely on their central leadership, more particularly Narendra Modi who, in turn, made the election entirely about himself (they abused me 91 times – which, of course, Priyanka Gandhi could counter with the many more number of times he had abused her family). Or else he relied on equating Bajrang Bali with the Bajrang Dal which many Hanuman bhakts like me would have found so very off-putting as we all know the   Dal is nothing but a bunch of goons, murderers and mosque destroyers (I have it first hand from a Bajrang Dali that he and his team were atop the dome of Babri Masjid with hammers knocking it down in December 1992).

I wouldn’t go as far as to say Bajrang Bali rained his wrath on Modi or the BJP in Karnataka but one must appreciate the fact that India and its politics is very complex and varies from state to state, even region to region within a state in many ways. Bringing all those various differences into a cohesive whole is always the responsibility of any central leadership and no where was this more visible than in Karnataka.

It was not as though there were no differences at all among local leaders in the Karnataka Congress but we could see how they rallied round their central leadership who, in turn, deferred to their better wisdom and judgment on micro issues. The less said about the BJP leadership and ticket distribution the better.

However, the Karnataka results also brought to mind what the same Union home minister had told me all those years ago – dashing from east to west to north-east to south, to north and then to north-east again,  month in and month out to quell many outbreaks and turmoil among various people, he had come to the conclusion that at the end of the day just about every body wanted just one thing – survival.

“But survival, far more than an identity, depends on a livelihood. And basic to that survival-livelihood is roti, kapda aur makaan. Then come bijli, sadak aur paani. Only after all these needs are satisfied could they even begin to think about a political identity. If we fail to address those six basic issues, we are doomed.”

Soon after this conversation former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. Elections had to be suspended mid-way. When campaigning resumed Atal Behari Vajpayee arrived in Bombay for an election rally. One BJP corporator, who was later gunned down by unsavoury elements in the city, touched his feet and said, with great longing and anticipation, ”Saab, is baar hamein satta milegi, naa!”

I have never forgotten Vajpayee’s reply. “Tum yahan baithe satta ke sapne dekh rahe ho aur hum isi chinta mein doobe jaabrahe hain ki hamein kain vanvaas  nahin lena pade!”

Neither that BJP man nor any of the reporters around understood. When we asked, he explained. “The Congress manifesto is full of basic bread and butter issues of the people. As against that we talk only Hindu-Muslim, Mandir-Masjid. Admittedly, we were playing on sentiments and emotions of the people. But when a laadla neta like Rajiv Gandhi gets assassinated in such a brutal fashion, our sentiment gets overtaken by their sentiment. What are we left with to convince the people that we can see beyond the mandir-masjid to their basic needs?”

Predictably, the next BJP manifesto had bread and butter issues of the people written in but now the party is back to milking the communal divide and religious sentiments. In contrast, in Karnataka, it is clear, hungry stomachs, livelihood and basic needs that the Congress promised to address quite overtook the religious sentiments of people from all communities, given the micro numbers now emerging.

As the Union home minister had told me then, “Only when you have a full stomach would you have time to look at issues that are not basic to your survival.”

But I think the very survival of India was at stake at these assembly elections in Karnataka. In looking to their own basic survival, the people of Karnataka have saved India. They have saved democracy. We all live to fight another election, another day.

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