Karnataka Elections 2023: Selling love not hate

The Congress victory in Karnataka is a strong message against majoritarian politics. Can this winning strategy knit together a divided nation in 2024?

Congress workers in Mumbai celebrate as their party sweeps the Karnataka elections, 13 May 2023. (Photo by Satish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Congress workers in Mumbai celebrate as their party sweeps the Karnataka elections, 13 May 2023. (Photo by Satish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Ashok Swain

The Congress party has achieved an impressive victory in the Karnataka Assembly elections. The election result has not only freed the southern part of India from the clutches of India’s ruling party at the Centre, it has also conveyed several powerful political messages and directions that can be crucial for India’s political trajectory in the years to come. Notably, the country’s general election is scheduled to take place in the first half of 2024.

For nearly a decade now, Indian politics has been dominated by the BJP, which prides itself as a Hindu nationalist party and promotes majoritarian politics. With the rise of the BJP, the country also witnessed the decline of the grand old Congress’ electoral landscape.

The defeat of the Congress in the last two general elections had raised doubts over whether India would remain secular. Questions were also raised over the strategy of Rahul Gandhi, the party’s leader, taking an openly confrontational position against the majoritarian ideology and majoritarian politics.

The Rahul Gandhi strategy: Secularism first

Many political pundits were advising the Congress to play down its secular politics and act like some of the regional parties, which have adopted the policy of ideological coexistence with the BJP.

The Congress also witnessed several of its top leaders leaving the party and joining the BJP after blaming Gandhi’s anti-majoritarian positions, which they felt could make them unelectable.

Gandhi has been disqualified from his Parliamentary membership, his security cover has been downgraded, his government accommodation taken away, but he continues to advocate that the country’s politics should be about love and respect, not hate and violence.

In his words, he is opening a shop to spread love in the market of hate (Nafrat ke bazaar mein, mohabbat ki dukaan khol raha hoon) in India.

When Rahul Gandhi undertook his Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March) of over 4,000 kilometres in the autumn of 2022, many doubted the usefulness of that exercise since it had no electoral agenda.

While almost all wanted to swim with the populist tide, Gandhi kept his focus on criticising the RSS, the mothership of Hindu nationalist forces. He didn’t budge from his ideological conviction that secular, inclusive politics is the only way forward for a diverse, multicultural country like India.

Secularism, democracy and inclusiveness

In my ‘Right is Wrong’ column, I had earlier written that the success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra had, to a certain extent, changed the political narrative of India, and that people could be mobilised under the banners of secularism, democracy and inclusivity even when the country was going through a majoritarian tsunami.

Karnataka has been the laboratory of the RSS for years, and the BJP has been the dominant force in the state for at least 15 years. In the last election, it had the most seats. The party has been ruling the state for the last four years.

During these four years, the BJP did everything to promote a majoritarian agenda in the state. The hijab ban was introduced in staterun schools and colleges. The state commemoration of the birth anniversary of a celebrated Muslim nawab—Tipu Sultan, who was known for his battles against colonial forces—was cancelled.

A vote for tolerance

While the ruling BJP party adopted a full-scale majoritarian mobilisation for the election, there was general apprehension about whether the Congress, as its challenger, would take a cautious ideological approach for fear of upsetting the majority community, which is 84 per cent of the state population.

But the Congress’ state unit followed Gandhi’s path and seldom lost focus.

When the Congress party’s election manifesto promised to ban a majoritarian militant outfit, the Bajrang Dal, many analysts even commented that the party had overplayed its hand, arguing it would result in religious polarisation and the BJP would gain from it.

However, in Karnataka, the Congress won more than double the number of seats that the BJP has won, even though the state is overwhelmingly Hindu, whom the BJP considers its vote bank.

The election results show that the voters in Karnataka did not fall for majoritarian politics but voted for a government that believes in tolerance, inclusiveness and secularism.

What Rahul Gandhi demonstrated in his successful Bharat Jodo Yatra, Karnataka confirmed: At its core, India still believes in a democratic, secular framework.

There is no doubt that the result of the Karnataka election shows that the Congress must hold on to Rahul Gandhi’s no-holds-barred opposition to majoritarian politics.

It is only a matter of time before the Congress party takes back power from the BJP.

ASHOK SWAIN is a professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, Sweden. An earlier version of this article was first published in the Gulf News

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