Karnataka Election Results 2023: Nandini Vs Amul — Any Takers On The Ground?

The Congress' Amul versus Nandini narrative ensured the BJP failed to get the momentum at a critical stage.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>The Nandini versus Amul controversy snowballed into a big issue in the Karnataka assembly elections. (Photo: BQ Prime)</p></div>
The Nandini versus Amul controversy snowballed into a big issue in the Karnataka assembly elections. (Photo: BQ Prime)

The Nandini versus Amul controversy snowballed into a big issue. Amul’s announcement regarding its entry into the fresh milk market was the trigger for the hullabaloo that was to follow. The fear was that the entry of Amul would threaten the dominant position that Nandini holds in Karnataka’s dairy industry. Leaders from both the Congress and the JDS jumped at the opportunity to score some political milage. The optics of the whole issue was important. DK Shivakumar and Rahul Gandhi made well publicised visits to Nandini milk parlours. They went on to suggest that Amul’s entry was not just an attack on Nandini but an assault on the people of Karnataka.

The BJP’s reaction to the issue clearly showed that they were pushed to the backfoot. Chief Minister Bommai gave repeated assurances saying Nandini’s position in Karnataka’s dairy industry was never in jeopardy. He also went on to add that the BJP is committed to supporting the Nandini brand. Reports also suggested quiet back-channel talks were held with Amul officials to delay the launch of Amul milk until after the elections. Interestingly, in BJP’s election manifesto, there was a special mention of free Nandini milk to every family that falls below the poverty line. The special emphasis on Nandini milk is important to take note.

The Congress taking on the issue so aggressively and the BJP’s immediate response from the backfoot, suggested that this was potentially a major issue which could impact the mood on the ground. Now, with the elections over and the Congress getting a decisive victory, it is important to revisit the Amul versus Nandini issue and analyse what impact it had. Before getting into the analysis, it is important to note that this particular controversy did not single handedly shift the elections in Congress’ favour. Rather, it gave momentum to a larger undercurrent against the BJP. The whole issue helped the Congress campaign in a few important ways.

First, the controversy came at a crucial phase in the election campaign. Even before this issue broke out, the BJP had already been on the backfoot. The Congress kept setting the agenda with its effectively designed 'PayCM' posters and the 40% sarkara campaign. The BJP’s fight was constantly reacting to these issues and trying to reverse the negative image built. Just over a month prior to the elections, the BJP hoped to kickstart its campaign and start setting the agenda. However, the Amul versus Nandini controversy and the Congress’ aggressive use of the issue ensured the BJP failed to get the momentum at a critical stage. The party and its state leaders were once again left to firefight an issue rather than setting the agenda.

Second, it helped the Congress keep its campaign focus on local issues. The dynamics of the campaign was such that a localised campaign, focusing on the state government’s performance, would provide the best dividends for the Congress. The Bommai government did not enjoy significant public popularity. While the BJP was trying desperately to keep the campaign around the central leadership, the Nandini versus Amul controversy ensured that local issues remain in focus. It automatically shifted the narratives around Kannadiga pride and the hardships faced by the state’s dairy farmers.

Third, the Amul versus Nandini debate helped the Congress bring in the regional versus national debate. Amul’s entry was projected as an attack on Kannadiga pride. Outside the Hindi heartland, the BJP’s biggest challenge has been in states with strong regional identities. When regional identities are strong, the BJP has at times faced challenges in fine tuning the pan-India nationalism to regional realities. This was visible in the West Bengal elections, where Mamata Banerjee was able to cash in on the Bengali regional identity. In Karnataka, the BJP had previously managed to stitch together a fine balance between the regional and national identities. When the Congress made Amul into a regional versus national debate, the BJP was pushed into a tough spot.

Ultimately, the Nandini versus Amul controversy came at a very uncomfortable time for the BJP. While it alone did not play a major role in the Congress’ stunning win, it contributed to the growing undercurrents against the Bommai government. At a crucial time when the campaign was picking up pace, the controversy kept the BJP on the backfoot. It did not allow the party to start setting the agenda. Importantly, the controversy put the focus back on local issues, something which played directly into the Congress’ hands. It was in the BJP’s best interests to keep the campaign focused the achievements of the national government and its central leadership. Finally, it ignited the debate between the regional and national identities. Until then, the BJP had managed to strike a fine balance between a pan-India national identity and a regional Kannadiga identity. The controversy upset this balance and put the BJP in an uncomfortable position.

Sanjal Shastri is an independent researcher who has recently submitted his PhD thesis at the University of Auckland. He did his masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.