The Lok Sabha election results came as a shock even to the most ardent Bharatiya Janata Party supporter. Political commentators of all hues failed to predict the magnitude of BJP victory. While the Left-liberal types were blinded by their wishful thinking, even the right-leaning ones expected caste arithmetic to go against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The pre-election prejudices continued to mar the post-election analysis too. While some blamed Congress president Rahul Gandhi for his failure to stop the Modi-Amit Shah election steamroller, some others harped on the invincibility of the Prime Minister in a presidential-style campaign. It’s time to take a deep breath and make an effort to understand why the Congress fared so poorly in the elections.
Are Rahul Gandhi and his “lack of leadership skills” responsible for the Congress party’s poor performance? If that is the case, how will one explain the poor show by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party? Both these leaders lived up to the image of tough campaigners during this election, only to cede ground to BJP. The analysts should come up with more plausible explanations for the poll outcome.
Here are some questions that need to be answered. Will Indian politics see an extended one-party domination like what existed in the 1950s and 1960s when the Congress dominated a field of small opposition parties? Is the loss in 2019 the end of the road for the Congress? Can a moribund Congress party machinery be revived? If yes, what should Rahul Gandhi do to build a new Congress that can challenge the BJP’s mean election machine? The revival of the Congress is very much possible, only if the party learns its lessons from how Narendra Modi and Amit Shah win election after election for the BJP.
Several political observers have likened the Congress to a pack of wolves that hunt together when they are hungry. The observation is not way off the mark. The Congress never had a strong organisation — it was always dependent on regional leaders who could bring money and muscle power to fight elections. The way politics is practised in India changed with the advent of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine in 2013. The BJP leadership claims that the party has 11 crore workers, an assertion that needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. But it cannot be denied that the BJP election machinery is the world’s biggest and richest in terms of resources. Several journalists on election duty reported that they could not find Congress workers in many constituencies in the Hindi heartland. Politics cannot be a part-time job, especially when you are competing with the BJP for a place in the sun. The Congress will need to build a strong party machinery if it intends to pose a challenge to Modi in 2024.
His critics say Narendra Modi shifted to campaign mode the day he took over as the prime minister in 2014. Modi may take this as a compliment, as he has given himself the task of winning elections for the BJP. Congress went into a deep slumber after its decimation by the Modi-led BJP in 2014, only to wake up late with its negative campaign against the prime minister. Modi and the BJP made short work of the “chowkidar chor hai” campaign. By focussing on Rafale, the Congress missed an opportunity to corner the government on issues such as demonetisation, GST, unemployment and farm distress. The BJP did very well in farmer-dominated constituencies, highlighting the Congress’ inept communication on a potentially election-winning plank. By the time the Congress came up with NYAY, it was already too late. The NYAY message was not effectively communicated to even party workers, forget the electorate. The Congress’ failure was highlighted by a powerful BJP campaign that focussed on Hindutva, national security issues and central government schemes. Rahul Gandhi and the Congress should take a leaf out of Narendra Modi’s election campaign manual if they are serious about winning elections.
The biggest drawback of the Congress election campaign was its failure to come up with saleable stories to woo the electorate. The Congress campaign themes, barring the ill-fated NYAY, were all negative. The campaign harped on Modi’s failure to deliver and how voters cannot trust Modi. Compare this with the BJP campaign that had stories aplenty — how Modi is in the process of delivering the goodies to the poor, how he taught Pakistan a lesson and how he raised India’s prestige among world nations. A successful campaign is all about good stories and there should be a story for everyone if you are looking to win elections. There is a lot for the Congress to learn from its opponent here.
There’s no denying that the BJP has better machinery, more money and muscle power than the Congress ever had. But these factors alone cannot win elections. The prime example is the Aam Admi Party’s victory in the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections. The BJP will dominate Indian political system for some more years to come. If the Congress wants to see itself as a challenger to the BJP, it needs to emulate the latter’s winning tactics.