Congress party’s allies in Assam — the All India United Democratic Front or AIUDF and the Bodoland People’s Front or BPF — have sent their candidates who contested the recent polls out of the state. Congress-ruled Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh will host them till 2 May when the results are out — or a bit longer, probably.
Congress, an underdog in Assam polls, is very optimistic about the results, evidently. It surely believes that mahajot, the 10-party opposition alliance, will either win or deny the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a majority in a hung assembly. Given how the BJP has repeatedly converted electoral minorities into majorities – in Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Manipur, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, to name a few – the fears of the Congress and its allies may not be unfounded.
A lesson for Rahul Gandhi…
A BPF candidate joining the BJP in the middle of the poll campaign must have jolted the opposition camp. Anyway, the fact that the Congress and its allies are expecting to win a state where they have been written off is, in itself, a surprise.
Regardless of the poll outcome on 2 May, the Congress party’s campaign in Assam offers important lessons for the Gandhi family in terms of their national political template. In a way, the Congress party’s challenges in Assam were the same as it has at the national level. The party’s poll strategy in Assam might or might not work, but the rationale behind it is sound enough for Rahul Gandhi to think of reorienting his politics.
Before coming to what the Congress did in Assam, let’s look at the cast of characters involved.
The man in-charge of the Congress strategy in the state was former Union Minister and AICC general secretary in charge of Assam, Jitendra Singh. Unlike in the past, when Central leaders came as paratroopers and stayed and held meetings in five-star hotels before flying out, Jitendra Singh rented a two-bedroom apartment in Guwahati and stationed himself full time for over three months. This is what BJP state in-charges usually do. Singh picked up his own Prashant Kishor (minus his bluster) for Assam polls — Chandigarh-based poll consultant Naresh Arora of DesignBoxed who was part of the party’s strategy groups in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan elections, too.
Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, who had proved his political acumen by unseating a popular CM like Raman Singh, landed in Assam with over 250 party workers from his state to train their party colleagues at the block and district levels in Assam. They held around 300 meetings with them, guiding them, among other things, about how to take the party’s message to every family at the booth level. Baghel also campaigned extensively.
A positive campaign
The core of the Congress poll campaign in Assam was a candid admission of its weaknesses as also the strength of the BJP. Congress strategists accepted the fact that running down Himanta Biswa Sarma, a popular leader and putative CM candidate, was of little help. After former chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s demise, the party had no leader who could capture the public imagination the way Sarma did with his image as a doer. There was no palpable anger against Sarbanand Sonowal government either. If at all, most households got some benefits from either the Central or the state schemes. Congress strategists chose not to make government-bashing the central theme of the party’s campaign. They decided to run a positive campaign centred on what they had to offer to the people.
One of the strategists told this writer: “The idea was to tell the people that fine, BJP has given these things (doles) to you but here are the other things we will give you if you elect us.” Basically, the Congress drew a lesson from the fable about Birbal drawing a bigger line when asked to make the other line shorter. What Rahul Gandhi has been trying all along is to make the other line (read Modi and his government) shorter by scratching it frantically.
Conscious that the people might treat its promises as election gimmicks, the Congress called them “five guarantees” and launched a campaign to connect the people with them.
For instance, one of the guarantees is to bring a law to “cancel” the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Congress workers went door-to-door to urge people that if they were opposed to the CAA, they should write their message on their traditional gamosas and give them to the Congress, which would be placed at an anti-CAA memorial. By the third week of February, the Congress had collected over one lakh gamosas. Similarly, to drive the message about its guarantee of five lakh government jobs, the Congress put up an online job registration, asking the youth to fill it up with their mobile number and email address and keep the ID saved. Close to two lakh people registered themselves for the promised jobs.
Remember the BJP’s ‘Ek Note, Kamal par Vote’ campaign in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election? On the campaign trail in Bihar, I had stopped by at a salon. While chatting, the barber had told me, “I gave Rs 5 to kamal (lotus) in the box. Now I am committed (to the BJP).” Looking at how the Congress went about connecting the people with its ‘five guarantees’, Rahul Gandhi must have realised why his slogan of NYAY (minimum income guarantee scheme under which the Congress promised Rs 72,000 per annum) failed to resonate in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
A collective face
In the absence of a face with pan-Assam appeal, the Congress sought to put up a collective face, launching fortnight-long ‘Let’s Save Assam’ bus yatras from four places — each led by CM aspirants, including Gaurav Gogoi, Sushmita Dev, Pradyut Bordoloi and Debabrata Saikia. These leaders were made to stay with party workers during the journey, not in hotels. “As a result, there was not a single report in local papers about infighting in the Congress all through the campaign period,” a party insider claimed. There were no quotas of candidates allotted to prominent party leaders. Half-a-dozen prominent leaders were informally made part of the screening committee, over and above those appointed by the high-command. If there were differences of opinion over a particular candidate, results of three surveys were taken out to overrule objections. The central election committee meeting to finalise candidates took place, for the first time, at the state headquarters, with Central leaders joining online.
The BJP made Congress’ alliance with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF a poll issue but the opposition party refused to join issue. There were no attempts to assert party leaders’ Hindu credentials, like Rahul Gandhi being a janeudhari Dattatreya Brahmin. Instead, the Assam Congress sent out a subtle message by sending its candidates to offer prayers in temples on the day of voting in Upper Assam.
The Congress party’s Assam campaign is in sharp contrast with Rahul Gandhi’s negative political strategy, marked by persistent attacks on PM Modi whose popularity remains undiminished and on his governance model whose approval rating gets validated in one election after another.
On 2 May, the Congress party’s poll strategy in Assam may or may not pay electoral dividends but it’s a template Rahul Gandhi may like to explore, given the consistent failure of his style of politics. He may want to try drawing a bigger line at the national level, for a start.
Views are personal.