In Karnataka last week, the Congress scored a resounding victory in a fiercely contested election defeating the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) with a comfortable majority. The Congress won even though the ruling party had made its election campaign a referendum on the prime minister and on the state getting his blessing. That has been decisively rejected as the Congress managed to secure 135 out of 224 seats in the state assembly. The BJP, by contrast, won 66 seats. Importantly, it lost a crucial state in the south, depriving it of a pan-India status.
The Congress’s dramatic victory in terms of scale was somewhat dented by the jockeying for power between the two titans to bag the top post, but the eventual settlement between different stakeholders signposts the emergence of a new politics in the Congress party. It has set in motion major changes in state politics and in the functioning of the Congress. The political implications of these changes have been largely overlooked, especially in regard to the working of the Congress party. The latter is extremely important for the future of the Congress and opposition politics.
At the centre of this organisational change was the selection process of the chief minister based on discussion and deliberation. It was significant as political parties in India rarely decide on top jobs through a consultative political process. This was true of the Congress party also. For decades it functioned as a highly centralised party completely dominated by the Gandhis, starting with the emergence of a decisive leader in Indira Gandhi. This had far-reaching implications for the Congress which was gradually transformed from a loose coalition of ideologically diverse groups into a highly centralised party completely dominated by its leader. These shifts led to an institutional crisis that the party has faced since then. It has not been able to reorganise itself in the intervening years. The centralisation of power in the party remained the defining feature of Congress dominance, dispensing with all processes of intra-party democracy connecting the centre to lower levels in the system. The absence of democracy from top to bottom, together with the all-pervasive nomination culture, resulted, for the most part, in a weak, ineffectual, and strife-torn organisation that brought the Congress to the nadir of its power.
This changed with the election of Mallikarjun Kharge, veteran Congress leader from Karnataka, as the president last year. The significance of the election cannot be overstated because he was elected, not nominated. Parties in India generally don’t hold elections for top posts. These positions are often decided by nomination, and not election. For example, the BJP extended J.P. Nadda’s tenure again as its president till 2024, but there’s no clarity about the process followed in taking such decisions. Likewise, chief ministers have been appointed and changed overnight at the behest of the central leadership.
For the Congress, electing its first non-Gandhi president in 24 years marked a significant break from the past. Mallikarjun Kharge faced major organisational, ideological, and tactical challenges within the party and outside it. Establishing the authority and autonomy of the office of the president, while forging a healthy relationship with the Gandhis, was the foremost challenge. He seems to have managed a fine balance in this regard.
In Karnataka, Congress opted for a secret ballot for the selection of the chief minister, which was not unusual, but more significant this time because there were two powerful contenders. Top leaders of the Congress, however, made it clear that the party has to abide by the MLAs’ vote, which was evidently in favour of Siddaramaiah, a popular mass leader. At the same time, the party couldn’t ignore the formidable contribution of D.K. Shivakumar, a quintessential organisational man, to the party’s spectacular victory. Reconciling these seemingly irreconcilable ambitions required several rounds of meetings and discussions to convince the two leaders of the need for accommodation in the larger interests of the Congress. The delay in naming a chief minister was due to this complex process. Also, it was clear that Congress’s victory was not the product of any one factor or leader, it was the result of collective effort, and therefore several leaders can now rightfully lay claim to it. The party stressed that the two top claimants were top-notch leaders, and both ‘deserved to become chief minister’.
The negotiations yielded an agreeable resolution in five days, even as the media jumped to conclusions, declaring that the inability to announce the name of the chief minister within 24 hours was a betrayal of the mandate and it would irrevocably damage the Congress as in Rajasthan, ignoring that negotiations are a form of political engagement to facilitate “deliberative” democracy. Extensive consultations were held within the party and hardball negotiations took place with rival leaders and factions. Negotiation and compromise invariably face distinct roadblocks and so it did in the Congress. However, populist politics currently in vogue in our country, is obsessed with personalities and personality cults which has undermined politics and resulted in a crisis of party politics itself. There’s a correlation between the decline of political parties and the rise of populism which gives rise to strongman leadership in place of normal politics witnessed here and elsewhere.
Karnataka is the second state in which the Congress followed a consultative process of decision-making. For the second time within six months, a similar political process for the appointment of chief minister was followed. As in the case of Himachal Pradesh, the Karnataka chief ministerial issue was handled by Mallikarjun Kharge, and not by the Gandhis. Sonia Gandhi played a key part in brokering peace between the two leaders after the elections in Karnataka but that was in the penultimate stages of the negotiations.
Gandhis were important mediators, one might say the final arbiters, but ultimately it was left to Mallikarjun Kharge to reconcile the many conflicts and contradictions within the party. His deft handling of competing and conflicting interests has witnessed a significant shift in the power equations within the party. This is because Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi accorded primacy to Kharge, extending support, but making it clear that it was the sole prerogative of the Congress president to act as per the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) resolution on May 14, 2023. Rahul Gandhi was in favour of secret ballot, “because it is also a democratic way.” But the final act of this suspenseful drama was written by the incumbent Congress president.
Arguably, the Congress high command has managed to find a settlement that serves it well strategically and organisationally, as both leaders are crucial for sustaining the momentum for the 2024 general elections. Shivakumar will be holding two posts, which is against the declared policy of the Congress announced in the Udaipur Chintan Shivir, but letting him do so actually underlines the contribution of a robust organisation in the Karnataka victory; the lack of such an organisation in other states has been its biggest weakness so far. The political process in Karnataka indicates that the health of the Congress organisation is improving – albeit slowly.
The political negotiations have unblocked the democratic process in the Congress, it has shown that the model of collective and consultative decision-making can work at all levels. The Congress has an opportunity to exploit the opportunities offered by the decentralised political process going forward. Its election campaign and the process of selecting a new leadership suggest that it just might succeed in carrying the social and political model of Karnataka to other parts of the country. If the Karnataka model succeeds, Congress could gain political dividends in the general elections of 2024. It will be among the key factors determining the party’s future as general elections are just a year away.