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A 5-term Congress MLA, K J George, has an advice for party in Karnataka: not power, focus on party

“We have a system in place. So I am not worried about my election… Congress members in this constituency have been working for the last five years,” says a confident senior Congress leader and five-term MLA K J George, sitting in the lobby of a hotel after filing nomination for his Sarvangana Nagar Assembly constituency in Bengaluru.

George’s statement hits the nail on the head when it comes to Congress problems not just in Karnataka, but nationwide. The former Karnataka home minister’s reference is to the party’s set-up in his constituency, down to the wards and 350 booth committees, working round the clock to implement the party’s programmes, playing a crucial role in voters’ day-to-day lives – a system now missing but for states such as Karnataka and Kerala when it comes to the Congress, coinciding with the party’s erosion across the country.

George’s constituents vouch for this. “Our MLA is there for the people of this constituency. His office helps whenever we need assistance — a health crisis, education opportunity or a job,” says Hariza, a local resident.

Mohammad Irfan, a social worker, lists George’s help in providing houses for slum dwellers, and shelter for street vendors and cobblers. A shopowner in Pilla Reddy Nagar, Narayansami, talks about the MLA’s efforts during Covid, including in ensuring rations for the poor. George’s team has brought out a 66-page progress card titled ‘Work Updates 2023’ on his tenure of last five years, mentioning healthcare camps for regular check-ups with screening facilities, centres for skill development, safe drinking water, effective garbage disposal and sustainable drainage, apart from remodelling of government schools etc.

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But there is one other thing that keeps coming up: George’s contribution in ensuring “peace and harmony”. Says Bhanu, a homemaker from Banswadi, “The MLA works hard and has stood by us at all critical times. He does not see the caste or religion of a people.”

Sarvangana Nagar has nearly 50,000 Christians, a significant number with roots in Kerala, including George, apart from 1.20 lakh Muslims, among its 3.60 lakh voters.

For Narayansami, George’s success in taking everyone along – unlike the BJP government at the state and Centre, he says, whom he blames for communal tensions, fuel prices and unemployment – is important. Even though his own nephew Ramraj, a BJP supporter, doesn’t see it that way, citing the “much better” roads in the neighbouring constituency.

A youth leader with the Congress since the time of Indira Gandhi, and a minister in different Congress governments from 1989, George believes the reason for the largely continuing goodwill for him is the robust grassroots organisation he has sustained. “The Congress should not worry about power, we should worry about the party — the organisation and workers. Unfortunately, the party only thinks about power politics and elections… That’s why you have to decentralise power,” he says.

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This absence at the grassroots, leaders such as George say, means the party has lost connect with the working class and does not even have the right people to fill the gap.

Unlike other states though, the Congress has enough fuel in its tank in Karnataka to hold on to its still-formidable support base in the state, despite the growth of socialist parties and the rise of the BJP — which is what gives George hope. Even in the 2018 Assembly polls, which left no party with a majority, the BJP won the highest number of seats but the Congress got more votes.

George A youth leader with the Congress since the time of Indira Gandhi, and a minister in different Congress governments from 1989, George believes the reason for the largely continuing goodwill for him is the robust grassroots organisation he has sustained.

The success of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra in the state was expected to further enthuse the party. However, in the absence of the aforesaid grassroots support, this appears to have fizzled out.

This is in sharp contrast to the BJP, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s entry into the poll ring is expected to trickle down quickly through the BJP ranks and infuse fresh energy, at a time when the party looks more in disarray compared to the Congress, with ticket distribution leaving many disgruntled and leading to several big-ticket defections.

Coming back to his point, George says: “The Congress has leaders across the country, what it needs to do is strengthen the state leadership. The AICC can’t exercise control beyond the PCCs. The writ of the PCCs should run till the district level, the district party committees should instruct the block-level units, and the block units should guide the panchayat-level units. This is the way you organise.”

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Should this be in place, George says, “There may be mistakes or shortcomings, but we can rectify these. You allow locals to control… In six months, the entire Congress party will be revived.”

Swapna Chandra Shetty, a ward president of Sarvgana Nagar, gives details at local level such as 21 active party workers in each booth, and 40 booths in each of the eight wards. George also organises classes and films shows on the Congress and its rich history, as well as schemes launched by party governments, says an aide.

The BJP has demonstrated the potential of a support base made of beneficiaries of government’s schemes — or what it calls labharthis — who are now a significant part of its election planning.

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Agreeing that strengthening the organisation is the only way for the party to keep its feet on the ground, Congress MP Hibi Eden from Ernakulam, Kerala, says it is this that has helped the party retain its space in the state where it faces both a combative Left and an aggressive BJP. Giving an example, Eden adds: “An MP or an MLA in Kerala knows how many kidney patients there are in their respective constituencies.”

According to him, “While the focus of the Kerala Congress is on participation at every level and making the organisation robust, the focus of the Karnataka Congress seems to be on a robust communication strategy.” Having a strong organisation also means that a few departures here or there do not mortally hurt the party, he says.

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Back at the hotel, George hopes the powers-that-be will heed workers like him, and change the focus to the party organisation. “This is a decision that has to be taken at the highest level,” he says. “AICC, Soniaji, Rahulji.”

© The Indian Express (P) Ltd

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