Saturday, 28 May, 2022
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The ‘two lines’ lesson Rahul Gandhi can learn from Congress’ Assam campaign

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.

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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.

Also read: Modi-Shah’s chemistry-vs-arithmetic theory is in for a tough test in Assam polls

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.

Also read: Assam’s wave of ethnic anxieties now just an undercurrent. That’s what Modi-Shah achieved

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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.

Also read: 12 hrs on road, tracking Assam’s Muslim vote & childhood memories — a reporter’s field day

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.

Also read: Behind BJP’s rise in Assam, a quiet RSS push that began before Modi, Shah & Sarma were born

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.

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  1. the problem with the Congress is Rahul Gandhi – Sonia Gandhi – Priyanka Vadra. Nothing in this god forsaken party will change as long as this lot are in the party continuously. The should be forced out on a 5 year compulsory sabattical, – and if they are still welcome by then – and wish to participate in the party – and are able to – fine.

  2. With one stroke the present congress lead by Sonia can be wiped out. Margeret Alwa has recorded a blatant lie in her book regarding Rajiv 1991 tour itinerary to Tamilnadu where he was killed. This matter ls pending with the Union Home Ministry, Government of India since 25/12/2020.

  3. congress won in MP, Rajasthan, Chatisgarh, Jharkhand with its ally, and even in Bihar with its ally in 2015, and had string of defeats also. No denying. but the poor attempt by the author known for his visceral hatred for the Gandhis lack the decency to accept that all these victories were again under the leadership of Rahul . And he had the guts to take responsibility for the defeats. And the gujarati duoploy who are the darlings of the author snatched congress victories in Goa, Manipur and Mp and even in karnataka engaging its utterly contemptutous template of luring intimidation and threat to dislodge duly democratically formed govts to install its own. I am sure the author with his known sympathy for the duo will brand it chanakya neeti a synonym for manipulation and unethical ways. true he cannot match the rhetoric and connecting capacity of a fraudulent leader who has done nothing other than lecturing but alleast honest and sincere. he should continue to target Modi irrespective of losing or winning because Modi is now bjp. BJp minus Modi is zero. even without Modi rss ofcourse will resurrect bjp with all its might . but atleast for a decade if this autocrat is dislodged the nation can breath easy. see the rafale story unveiling. These journalists cannot sleep without talking, writing and attacking the family because whether the rss, bjp , its godi media or most of the journalists fear the family. and it is good publicity to attack because it is the fasion of the day and pays.

  4. I watched Sarma’s interview on a channel and was impressed (and I don’t even live in Assam). That man is PM material or at least a replacement for Gadkari when he exits the scene.
    I hope Assam is able to make the most of his skills whilst he is still in Assam. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move to the Centre after the next election in 2024 (he is only 52 years old now).

    • The one where he said there is no Corona and there is no need to wear masks and we can celebrate Bihu without curbs (speaking as Health Minister of the state)?

  5. Congress lao Assam bhachao.
    Congress is coming back to power with a landslide victory undoubtedly.

  6. DK has a sharp political mind but he forgets that Rahul cannot change his style now. Modi will finish him with barbs and make a fool of him. Rahul is now prisoner of his style. But if Priyanka takes over after May, it may be another thing and she can try something different. But the question of her credibility will come up.

    Assuming BJP does not win in Assam, credit will go to Jitendra Singh and not to Rahul. At national level, Rahul will continue as he is and the Assam experiment will there itself. if Congress loses Assam, all the blame will go to Jitendra and Rahul will feel vindicated that his approach is the best!

  7. Assamese people (all community) don’t recognise AIUDF and their leadership,,, they may get advantage in Bangladeshi Muslims dominant areas i.e.lower Assam,,but will almost blank in Upper Assam,,,and that was the main reason for Mr.Tarun Gogoi never allow the coalition with AIUDF

  8. why are you all journalists so insistent on giving lessons to rahul gandhi when he is not interested in learning.

  9. The sad part is that if the Congress party does well, Rahul and Priyanka will take the credit. Priyanka will think her picking tea leaves was responsible for victory!

  10. Except Citizenship( Amendment )Act, BJP is better than Congress for Assam. Congress has given an assurance to the people in Assam that it will drop CAA.But how?
    The Congress alliance is convinced that it will win in the Assam assembly election.Perhaps, the hope the Congress has been nursing might not become a reality.The local people in Assam do not support AIDUF party , an ally of Congress.The leaders the Congress in Assam are controlled are corrupt and inefficient.As such, Congress does not get support from a section of people in Assam.Assam needs a government that will oppose the CAA, and do works for the speedy development of the state.Assam does want a corrupt government too.

  11. 10-party opposition alliance wanting to come to power ………….. remember the joke of a state Govt in Maharashtra? You want to turn Assam into another joke?

  12. Don’t expect ₩Pappu to learn anything from anywhere. It is not necessary. It is enough if this country and especially Wynad learns something.

  13. Looks like many of the ‘journalists’ at The Print have made it their life’s mission to educate the one who according to them hasn’t yet seen the light. Maybe it’s time that they take their own advice, learn something themselves and change their own templates of wishing to see the yuvaraaj ascending the throne. It’s time they change their own templates and start endorsing candidates who are hardworking, passionate and experienced, rather then constantly giving sermons to an entitled wannabe whose claim rests only on an accident of birth.

  14. The fact that articles are still being written about Rahul Gandhi, that he is still being discussed, despite having done nothing of note in his entire political career, shows the influence of the deep state on media and that the end of this influence is very near

    The content of this article require no comment or response.

    Jai Hind.

  15. Mr.D.K.Singh, There is a proverb in Kannada which roughly translates thus: “Throwing pearls before an ass”. No use of giving advice to Rahul Gandhi. If he could not learn lessons from two electrol drubbings in 2014 and 2019, do you expect him to learn from his inferiors in Assam. No chance.

  16. Is quint BJP’s Dalal ? Congress and written off in Assam ? It was and is still the single largest party in terms of vote share in Assam’s assembly….. didn’t the writer know that ? Print for BJP is what quint is for Left 👍

    • True Print has been printing for last 5years that Congress is finished in Assam & it is all RahulGandhi’s fault. Now that Cong may win they have to sell story differently but still blame RG

  17. It’s easier said than done. People do remember that they had a great opportunity to do things for 15 years but did little. Also, even as execution capability/ commitment is suspect, corruption inhibiting execution is the big concern- as borne out by the 15 years in Assam or 10 years nationally. So while positive campaign is a good idea, re establishing credibility is a tough job. Leaders trying to connect with people on the ground level is great and needs to be sustained, so if not this time, at least next time. And yes, it’s definitely a better template than the one Rahul Gandhi uses.

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