The outcome of the Karnataka assembly election opens up a path to 2024. Let us call it the “base of the pyramid politics”. The hopes of reclaiming our republic rest on how successfully we reimagine and re-energise this seemingly well-trodden path.
By now most analyses of the Karnataka election have drawn attention to four social components of the vote for Congress. I had used the eedina.com pre-poll survey data to draw attention to the sharp class slope in voting preferences. Exit poll-based analysis by India Today My-India Axis team confirmed this reading: while the BJP led over the Congress among the thin slice of better-off voters, the bigger bloc of poorer voters showed an overwhelming preference for the Congress. There is no clear evidence to ascertain whether this represented a new shift this time or a continuity of an older pattern.
In terms of caste, there is little doubt that the “Ahinda” social bloc (Backward, SC, ST, and minorities who are well above two-thirds of the population) stood firmly with the Congress. The Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey, still the most authentic post-mortem report on any election, confirmed that. While it is not clear if any significant proportion of the much talked about Lingayat vote shifted to the Congress, it is clear that there was greater consolidation of SC, ST, and Muslim votes for the Congress this time. I had documented that there was a class effect within every caste or caste bloc.
The election outcome also points to two other dimensions overlooked in the earlier analyses. Voting pattern of rural and urban constituencies as well as direct post-poll survey confirms that the Congress enjoyed a massive lead – over 10 percentage points – among rural voters, while it was neck and neck with the BJP in the cities. This was in sharp contrast to last time, when rural/urban split did not matter. Similarly, the India Today exit poll reported a sharp gender divide – Congress had a 5 percentage point lead among men but an 11 percentage point lead among women voters – than recorded earlier or by other polls.
In sum, caste, class, gender and locality – all point in the same direction. The privileged vote more for the BJP, while the underprivileged lean heavily towards the Congress. In all these four respects, Karnataka outcome is a triumph of the base of the social pyramid. If the opposition can replicate this in other states, we are looking at a change in power at the Centre in 2024.
Before someone jumps to point this out, let me say that this is not new. The Congress getting greater support from women, villagers, Dalit, Adivasi and poor is as old a story as research on voting behaviour in India. The BJP consolidating the top of the social pyramid is not that old either. I remember writing about the BJP’s ‘new social bloc’ in 1999. That article in Frontline summed up the political sociology of the BJP’s electoral victory: consolidation of the top of the social pyramid in caste and class terms, and selective co-option of some slices from the otherwise fragmented bottom of the pyramid.
This is broadly the approach the BJP has followed since then. On gender and rural-urban divide, the BJP has worked very hard and successfully to neutralise its disadvantage. It has courted some OBC (usually lower and smaller OBCs), select SC (usually the mahadalit), many Adivasi communities, and even some micro groups among Muslims (Bohra, Shia, and now Pasmanda) to reduce its disadvantage. As for the poor, it has adopted the labharthi (beneficiary) route of direct targeted delivery with a political quid pro quo.
The new base of pyramid politics has to have a new coalition, a new strategy and a new vocabulary. This is not about “bottom” of the pyramid, but its “base”, India’s aadhaar. The people at the base are not just recipients of doles but producers of goods, services and knowledge. These are entrepreneurs, wealth creators and nation-builders. Therefore, the agenda of this politics has to reflect not just on what they lack, but also on the skill, wisdom and aspirations that they possess.
That is why the opposition needs a politics of base of the pyramid to counter the BJP’s top of the pyramid politics. This is not the politics of the bottom half. Since we are dealing with four dimensions of under-privilege, all but a handful Indians are part of the base of the pyramid in one sense or the other: at least 80 percent are SC/ST/OBC/Minority, at least 66 percent are poor who get monthly ration, about 65 percent still live in villages, and 48 percent are women. If we allow for cross-cutting and overlapping of these dimensions, the proportion of urban, upper caste and non-poor Hindu males is around 2 percent of India’s population.
The base of the pyramid politics thus reaches 98 percent of the voting population.
Three models to avoid
Those who seek to reclaim our republic, defend constitutional values and revitalise democratic institutions must focus on this base of the pyramid. But they must carefully steer away from three available models for doing so.
This cannot be merely a stronger version of the labharthi politics of the BJP. In the last instance, labharthi is a master-subject relationship. It does not see the beneficiary as an active right-bearing citizen. The base of the pyramid politics must recognise that these are not just labharthi but purusharthi (if we read the word in its original gender-neutral sense), active citizens who are committed to work hard to earn a dignified living. These are producers of goods, services, and knowledge.
The base of pyramid politics cannot be an old Congress-style “Garibi Hatao” politics. It has to be the politics of khushhali, well-being for all. For one thing, a significant section of the poor – small farmers and urban low salary earners, for example – do not like to be called garib. Secondly, gone are the days when this slogan was sufficient to mobilise the poor. Now, the poor expect concrete deliverables. Thirdly, you cannot target the poor as an undifferentiated class. Promises that work with the landless labour won’t work with the land-owning farmers. Rural artisans need a different approach than the urban service class. Finally, in this post-Mandal era, caste dimension has to be mixed with class.
Nor should it be an old-style class politics of the Left. It has to be multi-dimensional, not limited to organised factory labour or to the economic class in general. It is unnecessary to use the language of class contradictions and class struggle, unless it is a generic reference to producers vs rent-seekers (kamere vs lutere). The base of the pyramid politics is about creating class coalitions among workers and peasants, or the entire rural-agrarian sector. Nor is it necessary to tie this politics to the advocacy of the public sector. Besides, bottom of the pyramid politics must not become bottom of the barrel economics. It has to worry as much about how to generate wealth as about how to distribute it.
The new base of pyramid politics has to have a new coalition, a new strategy and a new vocabulary. This is not about “bottom” of the pyramid, but its “base”, India’s aadhaar. The people at the base are not just recipients of doles but producers of goods, services and knowledge. These are entrepreneurs, wealth creators and nation-builders. Therefore, the agenda of this politics has to reflect not just on what they lack, but also on the skill, wisdom and aspirations that they possess. While the basic survival issues and needs have to be addressed, the focus should now shift to forward-looking aspirations for education and dignified livelihood and quality of life issues like health and environment.
This has to begin with a short-term strategy in the run-up to 2024 that builds on recent developments. The expose on Adani Group has already prepared the background for this new politics. The media may have faded this out, but this issue is percolating to the people in a way that the Rafale deal controversy did not. The demand for caste census is also helping to foreground the issue of distributive justice. The farmers’ movement has laid the foundations for political integration of the entire rural society. Anti-alcohol movements (or the sub-optimal policy of prohibition) have placed this long standing pain-point of women on the national agenda. The challenge is to convert all these possibilities into a concrete agenda for 2024.
Politics of the defence of our constitutional values and democratic institutions need not be defensive politics. Base of pyramid politics offers an opportunity to give this a radical and pro-active turn.