After the BJP’s massive win in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it’s time to analyse what went wrong for the Congress, which had launched its long-awaited Brahmastra, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, just a few months before the elections to take on the unstoppable Narendra Modi-led BJP in Uttar Pradesh, the state that dictates how the rest of the Hindi heartland votes.
Leading from the front, the Congress’ newly elected general secretary and in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra began her campaign with a roadshow in Lucknow. Her campaign then moved to include hundreds of public meetings, rallies and roadshows, including the innovative ‘boat yatra’, across the state. All of Priyanka Gandhi’s rallies and roadshows saw a sizeable crowd turn up, helping create a buzz that the Congress’ Brahmastra had boosted its chances to regain the Congress’ lost ground in Uttar Pradesh and in the rest of India.
On 23 May, here’s what happened: the Congress’ trifling vote share of 7.5 per cent in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections had further dipped to 6.3 per cent in 2019. Congress president Rahul Gandhi lost Amethi by more than 50,000 votes, and although UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi retained Rai Bareily, her victory margin had come down from 48 per cent in 2014 to 17 per cent in 2019.
The results show a sharp contrast between the crowds at rallies and the final vote share. It thus becomes important to empirically analyse whether the crowd at election rallies turn into votes, and if not then who are these people who show up to listen to the political leaders.
Election rallies are not a new phenomenon but what has changed with time are the methodologies, styles and the modes of communication used by the political parties. The Lok Sabha 2019 elections saw them organising padyatras (foot march), jan sabhas (public meetings), mohalla sabhas, roadshows and other such events to attract voters. Social media was extensively used to connect with the masses and inform them about the location and schedule of these rallies. Some of the biggest rallies and roadshows of prominent leaders made it to the front pages of all major national newspapers besides dominating ad space on TV news channels.
The size of crowd at an election rally, roadshow or padyatra are generally regarded as a measure to gauge the popularity of the political party and its leader, and where they stand in the electoral race. It is generally assumed that the people who attend the rallies are also going to vote for the same party. Lokniti-CSDS studied a few rallies from the 2019 election campaign. We randomly chose two rallies (one each of Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, both in western Uttar Pradesh) and two roadshows (one each of Congress and Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi).
For one of every four respondents in western UP, it was the first rally that they had ever attended. The survey also suggests that compared to the Congress, the BJP and the AAP relied more on technology, with one in every four respondents who turned up for the BJP’s rally and one in every three who attended the AAP’s roadshow did so in response to the message received on phone or social media. As it happened, the BJP was by far more organised than the Congress as a little less than half of the respondents had the information about the rally a week or two before; on the other hand, only about one-fourth at the Congress’ rally knew about it well in advance.
Are the crowds brought to the rallies or do they come on their own? The dozens of private buses outside the BJP’s rally in western Uttar Pradesh suggest this could be one of the foremost reasons that the party had 37 per cent people travelling more than 30 kms to attend the rally, while the Congress had only 11 per cent people travelling from that far. Moreover, 25 per cent of the respondents in western UP rallies believe that the majority of the people had not come on their own but were called or brought to the rally by the party. In the Congress’ rally, this number was as high as 30 per cent. It implies that one in every three people present in the Congress rally might not have even voted for the party.
To find out if their loyalty is more towards the party or its leaders, we asked the respondents if they had come to attend the rally for the party or to see or listen to the leader. In western UP, the loyalty of Congress supporters was found to be more towards the party with 57 per cent coming only for the party and 19 per cent for the leader. This gap was only 5 per cent in the BJP’s rally, where 40 per cent had come only for the party and 35 per cent for their leader.
Interestingly, we came across a family which had come only to see the helicopters and had taken their seats adjacent to the ground where Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi’s helicopter was to land, but due to bad weather the Gandhis could not reach the rally venue.
Do bigger crowds indicate a strong mandate in the party’s favour? We asked respondents if they would also attend rallies or roadshows of other political parties or leaders. Nearly one-third of the respondents said ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’. Comparing the rallies in western UP, the numbers were 23 per cent at the BJP’s rally and as high as 40 per cent in the Congress’. This larger proportion present in the Congress’ rally can be classified as floating voters. They are usually undecided about whom to vote for. The BJP’s performance in UP, where they won 62 seats, was better than the final tally of the Congress in the entire country. Thus, huge crowds in the rallies might just be deceiving, and don’t always turn into votes.
Sanjay Kumar is a Professor and currently the director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Views expressed are personal
Manjesh Rana and Amrit Prakash Pandey are working as researchers with Lokniti – A research Program of CSDS.