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Both Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi are harming their parties – because of the same reason

BJP and Congress have both found out what happens when political parties rely on the same face for a long time.

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Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi are both damaging their respective parties. A robust Bharatiya Janata Party and a frail Congress suffer from exactly the same weaknesses — over centralisation, extreme dependence on their national leadership and an unhealthy obsession with one dominant face. This may seem counter-intuitive, given how the two parties’ electoral trajectories have differed since 2014.

While the BJP has met with stupendous success at the national level with differing results in state elections, the Congress has collapsed nationally but received more encouraging mandate in states.

This was nowhere more apparent than in the recently conducted Maharashtra and Haryana assembly elections. The BJP produced a less-than-exciting show and the Congress ended up with more-than-expected numbers. And both tell us the same story — the need for the two parties to reduce their dependence on their top, national leader.

Because the BJP’s Narendra Modi, though loved and trusted by voters in Lok Sabha elections, can’t recreate the magic in states where the party has to put someone other than him in the front. The Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, meanwhile, lends himself to unfortunate mockery and hurts the party both nationally and in states. The Congress performs better in states where it has strong regional leaders, which isn’t the case with the BJP.

This image issue has reached a point where the BJP and Congress’ electoral fates, whether good or bad, now reflect the malaise that they have allowed to fester.

Also read: If BJP leaders could speak like Rahul Bajaj, this is what they would tell Modi & Amit Shah

Why Modi is hurting BJP

This could be more of a contrarian view, but Narendra Modi — while having achieved the feat of propelling his BJP to power at the Centre for two consecutive terms, with an even stronger mandate the second time – is actually hurting the party in the long run, and at a deeper level than is apparent.

Modi has emerged as the undisputed king in the Lok Sabha elections. There is no questioning his popularity or effectiveness as a mass leader, almost creating a cult-like following. But this identification of the BJP with Modi has become too intense. For voters, Modi is BJP and BJP is Modi. And so, when it isn’t about Modi, the voter doesn’t quite feel the same way about the BJP, finding little reason to vote for it.

Consider Uttar Pradesh 2017. Or Tripura 2018. Or even Assam 2016. These elections were fought with Modi as the BJP’s face; the frenzy was something else and journalists on the ground saw how the voters blindly voted for ‘Modi’, sometimes not even knowing who the candidate in their constituency was.

But elections in states where the BJP had a face other than Modi, the results were different. Karnataka had B.S. Yediyurappa, Rajasthan had Vasundhara Raje, Chhattisgarh had Raman Singh, and Madhya Pradesh had Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Not to forget, the BJP’s face in Delhi in 2015 was Kiran Bedi. The voters didn’t exactly seem thrilled about the BJP in any of these polls. They knew these weren’t about Modi.

The effect of Modi’s election rallies depended on whom the voter saw as carrying the BJP’s baton. In Uttar Pradesh in 2017, he addressed around two dozen rallies and worked his magic; in the three assembly elections in December 2018, Modi attended close to 30 rallies in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan but with strong state BJP leaders, it wasn’t about him at all.

Most recently in Maharashtra and Haryana, Modi campaigned adequately, but the voter knew the election was about Devendra Fadnavis and Manohar Lal Khattar, respectively.

The BJP has now basically fallen into a trap of its own making. The party has moulded itself around Modi instead of the other way round. Amit Shah, of course, adds to that overbearing central leadership factor. The bigger trap, though, is the states where the BJP has its own chief ministers – it can’t possibly go into the next election with Modi as the face. In Uttar Pradesh 2022, the BJP will be faced with this conundrum — how to sell Modi to the voter when Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is at the helm.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi shouldn’t stand in the way of Congress’ regional leaders like Amarinder Singh

Rahul Gandhi & the Congress

For the Congress, the failing is the same, but the results are different. The Congress is way too closely associated with the Gandhi family to be thought of as under any other leadership. As Congress president, Rahul Gandhi was the obvious face. But even after having ‘relinquished’ the post, he remains the face — the family scion and still active in politics (although as per his whim). His mother, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, is obviously not the leader of today or tomorrow and the role of sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra remains way too ambiguous.

Rahul Gandhi invites little trust from voters, almost encouraging contempt instead. The 2019 Lok Sabha election, which Rahul led from the front, is the best example of his ineffectiveness. But more importantly, it is an example of how he bogs the Congress down.

Rahul Gandhi addressed only four rallies in Maharashtra and two in Haryana. In the latter, veteran Bhupinder Singh Hooda took charge and the results were for all to see. Whether it was Punjab 2017 under Captain Amarinder Singh or Chhattisgarh 2018 under Bhupesh Baghel, the Congress’ supreme run in states was possible precisely because the top leadership was not leading the campaign.

So, when the voter thinks she is voting for Rahul, when the association is entirely about him, there is clear rejection. But when the voter has an Amarinder Singh or a Kamal Nath-Jyotiraditya Scindia or Ashok Gehlot-Sachin Pilot kind of leadership in mind, the Congress does not seem like a bad prospect after all.

For both Narendra Modi’s BJP and Rahul Gandhi’s Congress, the lesson is ultimately the same — the complete identification with one national leader and dominance of the ‘high command culture’ can damage the party. This could very well mean that with both Modi and Gandhi out of the scene, the fortunes of both BJP and Congress could also switch from their current state.

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  1. Fancy and prejudiced imagination to think that RG had no positive role to play in MP, CG and Rajasthan elections.

  2. After a long time, a very precise depiction of political scene in the country by thePrint, very well articulated the observations that are looming for both the national parties, reminds me of mamta banerjee’s statement that RaGa is Modi’s biggest USP. Till RaGa is there in active politics and addresses political rallies, no one can defeat BJP

  3. On a comparative basis, a Kuan ka Mendak is relatively not well off in the world than an younger world wide vistor. with wide exposures.

  4. I totally disagree with the author , when BJP was voted in for the first time , it was solely because of Modi , here was a leader , a moral champion with no wife or family in tow to share the spoils of office . He is perceived as a decision maker , a doer and hence even his mistakes are looked upon benignly.It is my arguable humble contention that no leader in India can survive on actual performance alone, he needs some mythical aura around him and Modi has that.So the BJP is justified in using him as their ‘brand’.
    What is true of Modi as a leader , the case is inverted for the congress leader .Here is somebody whose family , three generation of them and many friends with nebulous connections(quatrocchi) have shared the spoils of power . Of late the perception for the latest genetic inheritor is that he does not deserve the inheritance .
    My own feeling in all this is that if the economy does not improve and other problems surface , if the congress projects somebody like Amarinder Singh as the next contender for PM , the pleasantness of the surprise might just surprise everybody .

  5. I totally agree with the author, state BJP leaders should give corruption free administration, should not depend on Modiji they should also develop good image like Modiji. Problems like unemployment must be addressed, Pakistan bating will not give votes for a long time

  6. Modi is fast losing his magic. We now realise he is highly obstinate ruler with an authoritarian trait. Economy is slipping and the government seems to have run out of ideas. Warning signals for the ruling party.

  7. The Prime Minister has enormous governance and economic development related responsibilities. Ambassador K C Singh has in fact suggested that foreign travel be curtailed to a few engagements that cannot be avoided, allowing more time to deal with growing challenges at home. Extensive campaigning for state elections takes up incredibly precious time. 2. As for the other gentleman, the less said the better.

  8. I have always held the view that there isn’t much difference between Congress and BJP, except form Muslim appeasement policy of Congress and pro-Hindu stance of BJP. Like congress, Both suffer from “high command” culture. BJP also has its fair share of crooks and criminals.

  9. A well written article. Exactly this the reality of India’s political scene today. But I would like to go further, making of Modi as dominant leader in today’s India, Rahul Gandhi is the reason. Rahul Gandhi is the unofficial campaigner for modi. Instead of Rahul Gandhi even any other second rung leader would have been a good for for modi.

  10. It is important to note that wherever central leadership of BJP has given the freedom to state units for electoral ticket distribution, the states units have botched up.

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