Much like Rahul Gandhi, Jagan Mohan Reddy of Andhra Pradesh reached a political nadir in 2014.
It was an election he should ideally have won, riding on the sympathy wave following his father’s death in a helicopter crash in 2009 and the manner in which the Congress high command in Delhi clipped his wings when he rebelled. He was arrested over corruption charges and spent 16 months in jail.
But he was seen as a corrupt dynast, an arrogant young leader who listened to none. In contrast, in that 2014 election, his opponent Nara Chandrababu Naidu projected himself as the experienced leader, exactly what Andhra Pradesh needed after bi-furcation. Jagan’s Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) also suffered from a weak, moribund party organisation.
Matters got worse after the election, as many of his party MPs and MLAs defected to Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Jagan even lost a prestigious bypoll in a YSRCP stronghold in 2017 despite camping there for 12 days.
From such a low, Jagan went on to become the chief minister with his party securing a 4/5ths majority in the assembly and winning 22 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats, in less than two years. In contrast, the Congress under Rahul Gandhi is almost at the same nadir as it was in 2014. Here’s what Rahul could learn from Jagan.
- Structured campaign: Jagan Mohan Reddy carried out a campaign for two years that was designed and structured two years in advance. With the exception of Rafale, Rahul Gandhi didn’t seem to have a plan in the last five years. He was seen running from one state election to another, sometimes doing a farmers’ agitation and at other times talking about love and hate. But mostly he jumped from one topic to another, responding to the agenda set by the Narendra Modi government and the BJP. A structured campaign takes into consideration one’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats and plans for everything in advance. Jagan’s yatra, for instance, was designed to shed his arrogant dynast tag by making him work hard on the ground and mingle with people.
- Hear the people: Before Jagan Mohan Reddy started his long Praja Sankalp Yatra, Prashant Kishor-led Indian Political Action Committee carried out a massive survey across the state to figure out the biggest issues that concerned most people. Nine issues were chosen, described as Jagan’s Navaratnalu. Women wanted prohibition, so it was there. Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, decided that corruption and poverty alleviation were the biggest issues, so he campaigned around Rafale and Nyay.
- Positive campaign: Narendra Modi’s greatest strength is his image. So, Rahul proceeded to “rip that strength to pieces”. The results show he didn’t quite succeed at that. Jagan Mohan Reddy, in contrast, didn’t spend most of his energy in destroying his opponent Chandrababu Naidu’s image. Instead, he carried out a positive campaign. For two years, he and his party made sure every voter in Andhra Pradesh heard of the nine things Jagan Mohan Reddy would do to improve their lives after becoming the chief minister.
- Starting early: The NYAY campaign was launched a few days before polling began. Congress alliances were being discussed till the last day of filing nominations. The big anti-incumbency campaign, Rafale, was launched in Modi’s last year in power. Priyanka Gandhi’s debut in mass politics was announced weeks before the election. The Congress has made a habit of doing too little, too late. In contrast, Jagan Mohan Reddy started his campaign two years before the 2019 elections.
- Consistency and persistence: Rahul Gandhi did a campaign in Uttar Pradesh around farmers in mid-2016, and then abandoned it suddenly. The result was that the BJP announced a farm loan waiver in its manifesto and won the day. Rahul couldn’t even take credit. Similarly, Rahul Gandhi and the wider opposition stopped mobilising public sentiment against demonetisation just because it didn’t work early on. When Jagan Mohan Reddy started his yatra in 2017, the response in the first three districts was underwhelming. But gradually it picked up, eventually looking like a mass movement. Results take persistence, something Rahul Gandhi did learn with Rafale.
- Creating cadres overnight: Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSRCP barely existed on the ground. In contrast, Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party had a very strong organisation. He took pride in his booth management. Jagan appointed a campaign coordinator for every booth who would be given the assembly ticket if s/he could get 20 workers per booth. Against the impossible target, they managed an average of 10. The lists of booth workers were verified by I-PAC, and workers were given verifiable campaign tasks. Where they failed, the coordinators were changed. Incidentally, Kishor had tried doing the same for the Congress in Uttar Pradesh in 2016, but the party didn’t follow through.
- Mobilise existing supporters: The Congress party had nearly 11 crore voters in 2014 but did little to enthuse them, or use them to spread the word about the Congress’ ideas, ideals or promises. Jagan Mohan Reddy’s campaign saw party workers reach out to existing supporters and make them a part of the ‘YSR family’. Lakhs of supporters were identified and used to create a positive public mood for Jagan.
- Digital ecosystem: A massive digital ecosystem was created for the YSRCP by I-PAC. Party workers were asked to add at least 200 people from every booth to a WhatsApp group. Videos and images from Jagan’s yatra would be amplified through these WhatsApp groups every day, making it irrelevant whether and how the mainstream media was covering the yatra. Through booth workers, a call centre and online campaigning, an army of thousands of online volunteers was created. People were called to do the smallest of things to show support: like a page, share a post, share a video with friends, and so on.In contrast, the Congress hasn’t been able to create much of a digital delivery pipeline, even as it has learnt the importance of online messaging.
- Lay traps for the opponent: Jagan Mohan Reddy knew that Chandrababu Naidu would play the Delhi card when he sees he is in trouble. So, when Naidu played the card, positioning himself against Modi to demand the special category status for Andhra Pradesh, Jagan started protests on the issue and asked his MPs to resign. This left Naidu with no option but to leave the NDA. The Delhi card thus played out in 2018 itself, and not closer to the election. Rahul Gandhi similarly needed to lay traps for Modi. The hug did come close to that, but it was a one-day wonder. Pinning Modi down to campaign in Varanasi by making Priyanka fight against him, for instance, could have been one such trap.
- Media-bashing: The Sakshi media group is aligned with the YSRCP, but most of the media was seen as pro-TDP. Jagan boycotted them all, calling them practitioners of yellow journalism, a reference to the TDP’s official party colour. Like Modi and Trump, many politicians have shown that delegitimising the media helps them create and sustain their own narrative. The Congress complained of the media being pro-Modi, but it didn’t have a strategy to counter this. The Congress boycotted a few channels, but senior leaders gave them interviews anyway.
Views are personal.