How Eddelu Karnataka coalition punched holes in BJP's communal agenda
Telugu legend NTR holds the record for coming from nowhere and running away with an election. He founded Telugu Desam in March 1982 and became the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh nine months later, winning an absolute majority.
The Eddelu Karnataka (‘Wake up, Karnataka’), a coalition of 112 organisations, pulled off a similar feat in the state, though on a much smaller scale.
The coalition formally came into being on March 5, two months before the assembly elections in May. It still does not have a president or any office bearer and its key activists are wary of projecting any leader or organisation to underline the collective nature of the effort.
After the elections were announced, thousands of its volunteers spread out across the state with the sole mission of defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which eventually saw the saffron party falling from 104 seats in 2018 to 66.
A windfall for Congress
Speaking at a felicitation function, Satish Jarkiholi, a prominent minister, said that according to his own surveys, the Congress had won a windfall of 10 per cent votes thanks to the Eddelu Karnataka effort. “Several factors determined the outcome of the election. But the additional unsolicited votes brought in by the Eddelu Karnataka made the winning difference,” Jarkiholi said.
Psephologist Yogendra Yadav, who was involved with the initiative, said that in 102 constituencies where the Eddelu Karnataka worked, the BJP tally fell from 60 seats in 2018 to 31 and the Congress tally went up from 31 to 62 seats. According to Yadav, the vote swing in favour of the Congress in these constituencies was 7.5 per cent, above the 5 per cent shift in the rest of the state.
“In the constituencies where the ‘A’ team of 30–40 volunteers worked, the swing was 9 per cent,” he said.
Eddelu Karnataka activists downplay their impact on the election. They say the major credit for the result goes to the BJP for alienating most sections with its anti-people policies. They point out that the Eddelu Karnataka did not materialise out of thin air. The major organisations behind the initiative had worked together for decades. Many were part of the Komu Souharda Vedike, a pan Karnataka organisation that has resisted communal campaigns of Sangh Parivar for over 15 years.
However, even for the battle-hardened organisations, 2023 turned out to be a memorable year as they packed enough power to make an electoral impact for the first time ever. A conversation with several activists pieces together an account of how the Eddelu Karnataka challenge emerged to take on the BJP, its bete noire.
To start with, the Eddelu Karnataka was a response to the surge in right-wing politics in the state. After coming to power, the BJP launched an aggressive Hindutva campaign that became a huge issue for minorities, Dalits, sections of backward and even dominant castes. “The escalation of the Hindutva campaign triggered resistance as it became a question of survival for many,” said documentary filmmaker Deepu (Pradeep KP) of Pedestrian Pictures.
A huge anti-incumbency factor arising out of inflation, charges of rampant corruption and poor governance further added to the sentiment against the BJP government. Ashwini Madankar, who led the campaign in Kalaburagi district, said it was not difficult to mobilise votes against the BJP as people were already upset.
The pressure of the situation made many organisations sink their differences and agree on a common agenda. An activist, who describes himself as a Frankfurt school Marxist, said, “I never thought I would ever campaign for the Congress, not even in my wildest dreams.”
A different game plan
The leaders of different organisations had come together well before March 2023 to find effective ways to counter the Hindutva campaign. They had noted that whenever the Sangh Parivar raked up a sensitive issue, minorities would react emotionally and protest, unwittingly providing a sharper target and an opportunity to scale up the hate campaign.
So, the coalition learnt to deflect the provocation and respond creatively without helping the Hindutva proponents to further polarise for votes. “We were playing into their hands, we had to break the pattern,” Noor Shridhar of Karnataka Jana Shakti said.
After the hijab controversy broke out, the coalition with the active participation of Muslim organisations decided not to hit the streets in protest. Instead they organised an inter-faith Saha Baalve (Living Together) convention in May 2022 in Udupi, the ground zero of the controversy. The convention drew a huge crowd, who marched for peace and harmony, without making any reference to hijab. The issue eventually fizzled out.
The scrapping of reservation for Muslims just before elections and the murder of a Muslim man, Idris Pasha, for alleged cow smuggling were seen as political baits to instigate large-scale protests. “We did not fall into the trap and decided to resist through the courts and the ballot,” Noor said.
Instead of limiting the public attention to communal issues, the coalition started identifying problems that affected the livelihood of the people and started highlighting them to build an alternative agenda. It campaigned on price rise, unemployment, corruption and communalism, and also brought to light issues – the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) issue, for instance – that were affecting farmers, workers and other sections.
The new challenge caught attention of the top BJP leaders. State president Nalin Kumar Kateel was heard urging his party workers not to talk about minor issues such as ‘road, gutter and drain,’ and instead prioritise “love jihad.”
New strategy for the election
The next big shift came in the way the coalition, now under the banner of the Eddelu Karnataka, approached the May election. Elections were familiar territory and many organisations like the Raitha Sangha had been contesting regularly. Some of them had joined hands in 2019 to hold 36 rallies in 20 districts to create voter awareness.
“We knew all that effort made no impact on voting. We had to take a radically different approach as this was a make or break election,” said an activist, who had worked on many voter awareness campaigns in the past.
A workshop for 150 delegates from 20 districts was held in Bangalore on March 5 and in subsequent district-level sessions more volunteers were inducted. The teams were taught to identify voting patterns at booth level and mobilise key communities and influencers. “Some of us had this expertise and could train others. We also brought in some experts. The work was not really new,” an activist said.
They decided to focus on 102 constituencies, where the winning margin was less than 10,000 votes. As many of the participating organisations had good presence in these constituencies, they were confident of mobilising votes. But they were unsure of finding resources to work in all of them and decided to focus on 40 odd constituencies initially.
But the response from everyone concerned was so overwhelming that in a span of 40 days between March and April, 250 training workshops happened, and a team of over 20,000 volunteers fell in place, making it possible to cover all the 102 constituencies. “When we opened the online registration of volunteers, the response was so huge we could not even contact many applicants,” claimed one of the workshop organisers.
“We did not start with any blueprint and were overtaken by the response. We learnt on the job,” he added.
No splitting of the votes the core mantra
The volunteers took three simple messages to the people: increase the voting percentage, do not split votes and know why you have to vote against the BJP. The second mantra of not splitting the votes became the main strategy. The constituency-level committees built consensus on candidates with the best chance of defeating their BJP rivals and brought around everyone to back him or her. In Kalaburagi, many voters were not keen on backing a sitting Congress Muslim woman MLA as she had been inaccessible during her first term. The Eddelu Karnataka volunteers managed to persuade the voters and ensure her victory.
The volunteers also helped a Kannada news website, Eedina, carry out a massive election survey with 41,000 samples. The survey sensed the electoral undercurrent accurately and predicted 132 to 140 seats for the Congress.
Tackling vote splitters
Parties like to split the votes of their opponents and the Eddelu Karnataka volunteers worked overtime to persuade candidates, who would have divided the anti-BJP votes, to step down. The candidates, who were made to withdraw, included both professional vote cutters and those eager to build a political career. As many as 56 candidates yielded and where some of them refused Eddelu Karnataka brought down their vote share.
In Varuna, a general constituency, JD(S) gave ticket to a Dalit candidate to split the pro-Siddaramiah votes. Though the candidate refused to withdraw, he lost his deposit with just 1037 votes.
The secret sauce
When it comes to winning, electoral muscle trumps strategy. The Eddelu Karnataka had the backing of highly respected intellectuals and organisations working with farmers, labourers, women and other impoverished sections. But it was the unflinching backing of organisations representing different communities, especially Muslims and Christians, which became a game changer. “They brought in the votes and we clicked,” said a key activist.
The coalition has a long history of working with minority organisations to resist Hindutva campaigns, but it had never thought of mobilising their votes. The Muslim votes have traditionally gone to different parties, even the BJP, following local cues. But in this election, about 85 per cent of the community voted for the Congress in a consolidated manner.
An activist described the participation of minority organisations in the Eddelu Karnataka as a ‘win–win’ deal. “The coalition became a major political player with their support. The minority organisations became part of a larger collective and denied the Sangh Parivar a chance to isolate them,” he said.
He insisted that the Eddelu Karnataka coalition is more than a tactical alliance and all the constituents have agreed to a common agenda. “It was a collective decision to not launch massive agitations in response to relentless provocation from the Sangh Parivar,” he said.
Catalyst not melting pot
The Eddelu Karnataka worked more as a loose network than a melting pot of different organisations. Many sent a few key members for the workshops, who took the learning back, and trained others in their organisations.
Some organisations, which shared a common ideology, decided to support from outside without coming under the Eddelu Karnataka banner as they wanted to keep their independence. “Many Dalit organisations ran a parallel campaign on similar lines. They had decided to back the Congress while we were open to supporting anyone who could defeat the BJP,” said a strategist. But in many constituencies, they still worked as one team.
Jarkiholi’s Manava Bandutva Vedhike, a secular and anti-superstition body, attended some meetings but later on decided to support the effort from outside.
A new political force
The campaign had a visible impact in shifting Muslim and a large section of Dalit votes to the Congress. It also brought together several like-minded district-level organisations, which are wary of the right-wing politics.
Activists said that they succeeded in not allowing the BJP build up a communal narrative and polarise voters. A 100-plus team of senior journalists, academics, content creators and social media experts worked together to build counter-narratives quickly and disseminate it through social media and community channels. Though the Sangh Parivar tried hard to rake up sensitive issues, all of them had lost steam by the time the elections approached.
The secular constituency stands vastly strengthened in Karnataka, said activists. “The APMC issue was taken up by all organisations not just farmers association. Likewise, communal issues will be fought by all, not just minority organisations,” Noor said.