Making sense of the Karnataka verdict

The BJP focused on its middle-class, upper-caste, Hindutva-led vote share. Why then did the Congress still win?

On a bus ride during the Karnataka campaigning, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi offers a woman commuter his seat. Gandhi heard women discuss transport issues, budgets and the career aspirations of young people (screengrab from @RahulGandhi/Twitter)
On a bus ride during the Karnataka campaigning, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi offers a woman commuter his seat. Gandhi heard women discuss transport issues, budgets and the career aspirations of young people (screengrab from @RahulGandhi/Twitter)

Aakar Patel

The Indian National Congress won Karnataka though the Bharatiya Janata Party held on to its vote share.

The Congress added 5 per cent to get to just under 43 per cent and the BJP lost just 0.2 per cent to get 36 per cent. How did the Congress increase its popularity?

It can be many things, but ‘anti-incumbency’ is not among them. Why not? Because the BJP retained the level of its popularity and attracted the same number of voters as it did in 2018 (in fact, more, given the population increase in five years). There is a reason for this and we will come to that later. But, if not anti-incumbency, then what?

There are two things the party itself says were important. The five schemes they promised and the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Let us focus on the former.

The five schemes are:

  • 200 units of free electricity per month

  • ₹2,000 to every woman head of a household

  • unemployment benefit for two years of ₹3,000 per month (to graduates without a job) or ₹1,500 per month (for diploma holders)

  • 10 kg of free rice per person to families identified as being below the poverty line (BPL households)

  • and free bus travel for all women in state buses.

These were the main ones, but there were others.

ASHA workers, who are the frontline health workers in rural areas, would get a fixed salary of ₹5,000 per month. Mid-day meal cooks and anganwadi workers would get an extra ₹2,400 to ₹3,500 a month. Police personnel on night duty would get an extra ₹5,000 a month, plus an extra month’s pay.

While the rest of us may not have known about this, it’s unlikely that many of these people, particularly those working together, would be unaware.

There are 65,000 anganwadis in the state.

There are 1 lakh policemen.

If a woman is a household maid in Bangalore, she will get from now on ₹2,000, ₹1,200 (the cost of a monthly bus pass) and 10 kg of rice, besides the electricity. This is a substantial sum and will make a difference to her life.

Economic analyst Aunindyo Chakravarty has pointed out that the state’s average per capita monthly income is ₹22,000, but it is quite unequal. Over 60% of the population makes only ₹13,800 per month. Consider what these guarantees mean to such people.

And we have to most importantly consider also what the meaning of these schemes is, and it is of course that—contrary to what the Union government is saying—we have a problem. The problem can be defined in terms of the questions for which these five schemes are (for many people) the answer.

The government can dismiss India’s fall in the hunger index, but clearly the idea of free grain is meaningful to a substantial part of the population.

There are two indicators on unemployment in India. One is compiled by the government. The other one, by the private firm CMIE, says that India has high unemployment, which has not gone below six per cent in five years, but also a poor participation rate: People who are unable to find a job, or a job of the sort that they want (graduates do not want to be delivery boys and taxi drivers) stop looking for work entirely.

Even the government data here says that graduate joblessness nationwide is 15 per cent.

The participation of Indian women in labour is one of the lowest in the world. This has several reasons, including social, but safe, regular and inexpensive transport is surely among them.

To accept all of the above we would have to conclude that hunger, poverty and unemployment are serious issues in India in 2023.

But this is not what the government is saying, and in fact it rejects data and opinion which claims there is a problem.

Which part of the Modi government’s narrative of Amrit Kaal (Golden Age), Vishwaguru (global leader) and all the rest of it responds to the things that seem to have brought Congress success?

The BJP and its supporters sneer at what they say is the culture of revadi. That is demeaning to the individuals who are recipients but the term is used nonetheless. It is fundamentally wrong to call these things ‘freebies’.

Humans do not want to see themselves or be seen as being helpless. In civilised nations, these things and many more are called entitlements, because they are.

The poor are entitled to these things from the State.

The readers of this paper and what we call the middle-class will not be enthused by the idea of queuing up for free rice or by 200 units of free power. These are not things we vote on.

Indeed, to return to where we began, one reason that the BJP held on to its vote share, was that its base is loyal because of ideology. And this base is stronger in urban areas and with the middle-class and upper castes, as we know.

This lot is the one for whom the Vande Bharat trains (executive fare for Mysore to Chennai ₹2,295) trains are being launched, providing solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist.

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