EVEN AS MOST OF US are busy reading Karnataka as a bellwether state on the eve of 2024, refusing in our enthusiasm to draw the bigger picture from a smaller canvas to see a local election within its political and social space, the stump noise from the south says a lot about the content and quality of the fight. The campaign always opens a door to the castle of desperation the marooned challenger built in isolation. It also reveals the mind and method of the campaigner-performer with a repertoire of national tales, the arena being just another stage to play out the new India theme.
The Congress campaign, in Karnataka and elsewhere, is the story of resistance without a reason—except its own frustration at being made irrelevant in the race for the future, of being incapable of making an argument with authenticity. The Congress president, for so long a veteran supplicant and survivor in the court, is turning out to be a non-Gandhi who can’t resist the verbal inelegance of the Gandhi who still looms over him. What he has in place of counterarguments is the gutter vocabulary of an attacker intimidated by his target. He looks like someone who grows smaller as he, armed with nothing but a bagful of abuse, approaches the enemy. The elected president of Congress has not done anything that shows a cultural shift in the party’s battle for winning India. What it shows is its inability to battle for winning India, in terms of ideas or ideology. What it has, in abundance, is a confidence with which it mistakes ‘reaction’ for ‘formulation’. It’s a loser’s art. Kharge’s Congress reacts to BJP and forgets to say anything original that adds to the national conversation.
Congress’ promise to ban Bajrang Dal, a fringe organisation of Hindu fanaticism, is a good example of how the party allows itself to be trapped in manufactured parallelism, which is worse than whataboutery. The old secular chestnut of Islamic terrorism versus Hindu terrorism is at play again. A theological enterprise on a global scale with the twin missions of domination and annihilation—no matter the first will remain a fantasy sustained by blood, hate and scriptural misreading—is not the same as the local expression of religious kitsch, however incendiary it is. This comparative study in religious terror is ahistorical as well as dishonest. It all boils down to the limits of Congress’ communication skills at a time when the party needs them most. A princeling of instantaneous hokum and an old apparatchik fast discovering the joys of indecent soundbites are all that the party has got. Are we surprised this party can’t begin a conversation?
There is only one politician who sets the terms of the national conversation now, whether as campaigner or as prime minister. Maybe to separate the two is to misread power as wielded by Narendra Modi, who has already made Karnataka a necessary prompt for a national session on India. It has always been the story: a local backdrop adds a cultural twist to the Indian saga without altering the theme of renewal and reclamation. Before coming to Delhi as the prime minister of India, Modi was the chief minister of India, a distinction no one else before or after him could achieve. It was not the length of his tenure but the attitude of his power that earned him a stature larger than the office he held. Every re-election he fought and won was an occasion to talk India to a national audience from a local stage. It was all about beginning a conversation and managing it, about controlling the argument about the nature of the nation. The campaign was not about winning an election alone; it was also about preserving power as the only catalyst for change. Power is not the endpoint of campaign. Power is campaign.
And campaign is communication. Modi makes it as passionate as the politics he practises. As prime minister, he is certainly not the one who enjoys—or tolerates—interactions with the press. He has a lot to say, and it is likely that he doesn’t think whatever he has to say needs to be curated by the media. He is the medium as well as the message, and the finest example is Mann ki Baat, an intimate conversation between power and popular sentiment. Its novelty lies in the humanisation of power and the empowerment of those who otherwise exist beyond the media gaze. It is power as storytelling. It is power as campaign, unfiltered.
In the last phase of the Karnataka campaign too, it took a Modi to make a regional election starring anodyne chief ministerial faces and superannuated warhorses a compelling argument for India. In politics, it’s not for everyone that the national story is a campaign without a pause.