There are no certainties in politics. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah were defeated in Delhi and Bihar in 2015. They couldn’t capture power in Karnataka despite being the single largest party in 2018. They embarrassingly lost many by-polls they should have won easily. Just a few months before the Lok Sabha elections, they lost some key stronghold states in the Hindi heartland.
They could have lost the 2019 Lok Sabha election too, if only they had a smarter opponent. It is clear that the mantle was on Rahul Gandhi, as Modi made the election mercilessly presidential. If people wanted Rahul Gandhi as prime minister, it would have lifted the fortunes of regional parties too, with the prospect of a UPA-3.
Here are four key mistakes Rahul Gandhi made.
1. Positive campaigning
The big picture of Rahul Gandhi’s campaign was negative—the slogan we heard the most was “Chowkidar chor hai”. Compare this to Modi’s campaign as opposition leader in 2013-14. It was about promising “Achhe din”, about making things happen, solving problems, showing people big dreams.
Voters want to know from opposition leaders what they would do in power, how they would do it, and how they would be better at solving the people’s problems.
There were enough problems: the failure of demonetisation, the slowdown in economic growth after GST, the suffering of farmers due to low returns and rising unemployment. But Rahul Gandhi failed to make himself the answer to these problems. At best, he highlighted the problems, and even that was done so poorly that it didn’t make people turn.
If Rahul Gandhi had spent five years coming across as a problem solver rather than just a critic of Modi’s policies, people wouldn’t have been asking who’s the alternative.
2. Building trust
Travelling in this election I asked people why they weren’t voting for the Congress despite the promise of Rs 72,000 a year per family. The answer invariably was lack of trust. They didn’t believe it was possible. Congress workers told me that wherever they went telling people about the NYAY scheme, they were asked where the money would come from, and they themselves didn’t know the answer.
If implemented, the NYAY proposal would completely end poverty in India. The Congress estimated the scheme would affect 25 crore people. Whether or not the proposal was sound economics, it should have been made the poor flock to the Congress over-night.
The proposal was announced too late in the day—just a few days before the first phase of polling. Considering the Congress is weak in resources, and is generally poor at communicating with the masses, it should have announced the scheme much earlier. It is true that hardly anyone heard of the slogan “Ab ho ga Nyay” but many had heard of Rs 72,000. They just didn’t trust Rahul Gandhi to deliver it.
Modi made so many tall promises in 2014 that the Congress had labelled him ‘feku’. Yet, people voted for Modi’s tall promises in 2014 because he sold them trust: I’ve done it in Gujarat, he said, calling it a model he would replicate for the entire country.
People voted for Modi despite rising unemployment because they thought, on balance, that Modi was more likely to be able to create jobs than Rahul Gandhi. BJP-voting unemployed youth in Bihar told a reporter as much.
Rahul Gandhi could have built public trust in his leadership by contributing (or publicly appearing to contribute) fresh ideas in Congress-ruled states like Punjab. He could have sold trust by explaining *how* he plans to solve problems. This could have made Modi look a less credible leader by contrast, as he struggled to show the results of his 2014 promises.
3. Responding to public mood
In a democracy, the role of the opposition is to become the voice of the people. Politicians design their election campaigns after gauging public mood.
The Lokpal movement was wildly successful in 2011 because public mood was against corruption. It forced the UPA-2 to enact a Lokpal bill. For five years PM Narendra Modi made excuses to not appoint a Lokpal and nobody cared because people didn’t see corruption as the top issue anymore. People tend to worry more about corruption when inflation shoots up.
Arvind Kejriwal did not go from being an NGO activist to Delhi chief minister because of the Lokpal movement. To defeat both the BJP and the Congress in Delhi and emerge victorious, AAP leaders told me, the party carried out a survey to understand the biggest issue for the people of Delhi. It was rising and inflated electricity bills. He made electricity his central campaign and won handsomely. Similarly, the Modi campaign in 2014 focused separately with separate slogans for all the top issues people worried about, such as inflation, black money and women’s safety.
In 2019 these issues were missing, as the top concern was jobs. Yashwant Deshmukh of C-Voter tells me that in his tracker surveys, employment had started showing up as a rising concern in mid-2015, even before demonetisation. Instead of making jobs his central campaign, Rahul Gandhi went after corruption. By doing so, he was attacking Modi on his strong point (corruption-free image), letting him off on his weak point (unemployment).
It would have been easy for Rahul Gandhi to tell people that demonetisation and GST were behind job losses – as the CPI(M) did in Coimbatore and defeated the BJP there. Instead, Rahul Gandhi made Rafale the central pitch.
4. Permanent campaigning
When Rahul Gandhi hugged Narendra Modi in Parliament last year, he won the day. Rahul has been building the abstract binary of love and hate for some time. With a visual to portray this binary, Rahul had finally managed to convey the point. It was during a no-confidence motion that the opposition was losing. With one gimmick, Rahul Gandhi turned a loss into a victory. He should have launched a whole Gandhigiri campaign, asking Congress leaders to give hugs or send flowers to BJP-RSS leaders across the country, especially when they made sectarian or controversial remarks.
Rahul Gandhi’s supporters rightly complain that the media has mostly become a Modi propaganda arm. But even the pro-Modi media was unable to ignore Rahul’s hug.
He needed to do a lot more things that pro-Modi media could not afford to ignore. He needed to produce visuals to overshadow the Narendra Modi image factory – visuals that communicated his ideas. Instead, when he went for the Mansarovar Yatra he produced clumsy images looking like a happy tourist rather than a Hindu pilgrim. He also takes frequent foreign holidays and even when he’s in India, he ‘disappears’ from media limelight for days on end. Modi, by contrast, makes sure you see him doing something or the other every day as part of his permanent campaign strategy.
To impress upon people that he was worried about unemployment and farmers’ distress and the falling revenues of small businesses, Rahul Gandhi should have come up with ways to communicate through images, symbols, and media gimmicks that can’t be ignored like a dead cat on the table.
Views are personal.