Karnataka Congress Finally Wakes Up To Youth Voters

Karnataka Congress Finally Wakes Up To Youth Voters

With barely three months to go for Assembly polls, the incumbent ruling party has to keep on its toes to beat the BJP

The Congress party in Karnataka appears to have finally decided to focus its attention on the critical vote bank of young people, about a fortnight before Prime Minister Narendra Modi descends to launch his campaign in the state that is headed to polls in a few months.

Until now, the strategy group of the Congress, headed by AICC in-charge KC Venugopal, has been so focused in keeping the younger leaders of the party out of the decision-making that some of them were wondering if they would even have a say in party affairs with elections less than four months away.

But, last week, Venugopal and his deputies had a three-hour meeting with the “Rahul Brigade” – the younger leaders consisting of Krishna Byre Gowda, Minister for Agriculture, Priyank Kharge, Minister for Information Technology and Biotechnology, UT Khader, Food and Civil Supplies Minister, former youth Congress president and MLC, Rizvan Arshad and state working president, Dinesh Gundu Rao.

“We had a three-hour long meeting with Mr Venugopal and his team. We have discussed what we have done in government and what more is planned. We, obviously, cannot be discussing our strategy in the town square but we certainly have a strategy to attract the aspirational young,’’ said one of those who attended the meeting on condition of anonymity.

The strategy session took place soon after it became public that Modi will be paying his first election visit to the state on February 04 when he will be addressing the Parivarthana Yatra’s final rally in Bengaluru. The Parivarthana Yatra’s special bus had taken the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, BS Yeddyurappa, all around the state in the past 75 days.

Yeddyurappa spoke about the failures of the Congress government and that his party would be focused on development when voted to power. There was no reference, however, to the scams, including illegal mining that rocked the party’s government when it was in power between 2008-2013, with three Chief Ministers.

It is fairly clear that the party’s lone mascot for Karnataka would be Modi, as in all other state Assembly elections across the country. The perception is that he may not be as mesmerising as in 2014 but he would still deliver some home truths that would be unpalatable for the Congress.

“We should not live under the illusion that we can match him (Modi). Rahul Gandhi has improved tremendously, as we saw in Gujarat, but he still cannot match the capacity of Modi to communicate with the people,’’ said a senior Congress leader, again, on condition of anonymity.

Younger leaders in the Congress are quite confident that the Siddaramaiah-led government has done quite a lot for the younger generation and that the youth are aware of what it has done.

One member quoted the example of the skill development programme, announced in last year’s Budget that has registered a record 7.4 lakh applicants when there was a provision for just 5 lakh. The government bears the cost of training once the training centres ensure 100% placement.

The Information Technology Department has started providing ‘last mile connectivity’ through WiFi to the gram panchayats, seen as empowering rural youth also. Under the scheme that covers all the 2650 gram panchayats in the state, about 650 are already functional and the remaining are expected to be operational by February-end. The purpose is to ensure that technology facilitates employment opportunities at the grass roots level.

But, are these newly planned schemes adequate to counter the challenge the BJP’s main campaigner particularly when there are 53 lakh new voters, as in December last, in the state?

Said a senior Congress leader in an off-the-record response: “We agree they may not be. In addition, there is little doubt that Modi is capable of taking away 10%, if not more, of these votes. That is the challenge we face.”

Not all are disheartened, though. “It is not as bad a situation as it is made out to be. We have machinery at the booth-level to communicate what our government has done. And, the young people are very well aware of their parents’ bank accounts not being filled up and the lack of jobs, all that Mr Modi had promised,” said another leader.

Said Mahadeva Prasad, senior political analyst to The Lede: “There is no doubt that Modi will take away, at least, 70% of the vote of the young people.”

Prasad has a simple calculation. “There is a lot of communal polarisation that has already taken place. The past has told us clearly that the difference between the Congress vote share and that of the BJP is a mere 2%. If Modi can swing even 5%, if not 10%, then the BJP will cross the 36-37% mark in vote share.’’

But, he added, “if Chief Minister Siddaramaiah can consolidate the Ahinda (acronym for minorities, Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) vote bank, then the Congress can put up a tougher fight,” said Prasad.

Still, the question that some leaders are raising is whether the Congress is strategising a little too late in the day to attract the votes of the youth. “No, no. Those who met Mr Venugopal will be submitting a strategy plan on how to go about it,” said one leader.

The fact remains that Modi’s arrival and “capacity to distort information,” as one Congress leader quoting the Gujarat experience put it, has made the Congress strategists begin to work on a plan. Whether it is too late will be known when the EVMs are opened.

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