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Of, for & by Kannadigas: How Congress used hyper-local campaign to topple BJP in Karnataka

For the first time in independent India, three members of the Nehru-Gandhi family campaigned in a state election to ensure a Congress victory in the Karnataka polls. This, along with a precise hyper-local campaign, resulted in the grand old party razing the BJP’s only citadel in southern India and consolidating their aim of a “BJP-mukt dakshin Bharat”.

Congress recalibrated its communication strategy in Karnataka and chose to be ‘vocal for local’, ensuring full spotlight on problems concerning the common people and making entire election a battle ‘of the Kannadigas, by the Kannadigas and for the Kannadigas.’

It was unanimously decided by senior Congress leaders at the very beginning that the party will not play to the BJP’s pitch – religion and nationalism – but rather create its own playing field.

Then, the party’s Karnataka chief, DK Shivakumar, CLP leader Siddaramaiah, manifesto committee chief G Parameshwaran and state in-charge Randeep Surjewala devised a unique but simple strategy – destroying the credibility of state BJP leaders, putting forward Karnataka-specific positive agenda and steering clear of ‘Delhi issues’ like the Adani scandal, China conflict and the attacks on democracy.

The grand old party started early, labelling the now-ousted BJP government as corrupt with campaigns like the ‘PayCM’ and the ‘40% sarkara’, while painting ministers and leaders as incompetent, goalpost-shifters and corrupt.

It then promised five guarantees – the Gruha Lakshmi, the Yuva Nidhi, the Anna Bhagya, the Gruha Jyoti and the Sakhi schemes – to maintain momentum during the run-up to the elections.

These guarantees helped voters understand what they will get from the Congress if it wins the state.


Thirdly, the Congress hand-picked local issues, where the BJP faltered and instantly connected it with the Kannadiga pride like the Amul vs Nandini row and accused the BJP of insulting the Lingayat community.

The Congress was able to do this when PM Modi and BJP election’s might were trying to shift the elections towards issues like the Bajrang Dal-Bajrang Bali row, the Uniform Civil Code, love jihad, etc.

The election results gave a new template to the Congress’s state leaders, particularly election-going states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Speaking with India Today TV, Rajasthan Congress in-charge Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa said people are no longer interested in issues that don’t directly impact their daily lives or village, district or state.

“When we go and interact with people, they discuss issues like employment, education and health. Karnataka is a shining example before us about how raising pro-people issues helps win elections, no matter how much diversion the ruling party attempts,” he said.

After the Karnataka results, Congress veteran Jairam Ramesh described how Karnataka was a ‘state election’ but the BJP wanted to fight it in the name of PM Modi and other emotive issues.

“It didn’t work for them. Six states will see elections soon. We will go on ground zero and raise people’s issues. The Lok Sabha polls will be fought differently,” Ramesh said.

There is a sense among Congress leaders about how democracy has matured over the years and people “split-vote” – people vote differently in Assembly and in Lok Saaha elections.

So, issues can’t be really the same. Moreover, in the absence of a strong state leadership in several states like Chhattisgarh, the BJP solely relies on PM Modi’s charisma but it can be easily countered by sticking to local issues. Recently, the Congress also won Himachal Pradesh, where it based its entire campaign on the old pension scheme – an issue locals care about. Other recent examples are West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.


According to sources, in Chhattisgarh, the Congress holds the firm opinion that the BJP’s state leadership is weak unlike in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, while Chief Minister Bhupesh Bhaghel is quite popular. Therefore, here the party will list its achievements and local issues to dilute the Modi magic.

In Madhya Pradesh, the grand old party believes that Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan is losing ground rapidly and anti-incumbency is on the rise. Hence, a positive state-specific agenda and a chief ministerial candidate can add to the party’s tally.

However, in Rajasthan, the Congress is in a tight spot. In this state, the party is dealing with an ongoing feud between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot, while the BJP has several strong leaders. The party is hopeful of bringing its two assets together and fight anti-incumbency. However, it might be tough for them to manage the narrative here.

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