It’s tough to understand the Congress gameplan. The party is facing arguably the toughest election since its inception where the fight is not to regain power but to stay politically relevant. And yet, despite the impression that it is ready to throw the kitchen sink at the BJP, it finds myriad ways of undermining its own chances and boosting that of its rival. It is a perplexing paradox.
Nothing else explains the way Congress has so far carried out its campaign for the Lok Sabha election. One understands the party has a crack data analysis team at its command and smart brains behind campaign management. Congress’s daffy moves are therefore doubly perplexing. One doesn’t have to be Sun Tzu or Chanakya to reckon that in a battle one must play to one’s strengths and target the Opposition’s weakness. The grand old party seems to be doing quite the opposite. Let us take a look at two examples.
The ‘chowkidar’ campaign
From the very beginning, Rahul Gandhi’s strategy was a flawed one. The 'chowkidar chor hai' (the watchman is the thief) might be a clever trolling of the prime minister’s slogan of being the nation’s 'chowkidar' but catchphrases can serve only to solidify and convey a popular perception, never to create a perception out of thin air.
Narendra Modi’s five-year tenure at the Centre has certainly given the Opposition opportunities to target the prime minister as he seeks another mandate, but corruption isn’t one of them. The image of ‘incorruptibility’ is Modi’s strength, not weakness, and Rahul’s strategy of targeting his strength in the battle runs a risk of ineffectiveness at best. It may even backfire on Congress.
It isn’t just the fact that the Rafale deal — which forms the centrepiece of Congress’s corruption charge against Modi — has been declared as ‘kosher’ by the CAG and even the Supreme Court. These institutional responses obviously influence public opinion. But many other factors also contribute towards shaping public opinion. Some of these factors are describable — such as Modi’s track record as a politician; his tenure as three-time chief minister of Gujarat; the fact that economic offenders who fled the country and wheeler-dealers who are fugitive from the Indian law are being dragged back by the collar from foreign shores; implementation of disruptive steps like the demonetisation that became a morality tale in public perception; bringing of much-needed laws such as the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) that turned around sick units and addressed mounting bank NPAs.
Then there are factors that are indescribable but equally contributive towards the perception of Modi as an ‘incorruptible leader’ — the austere lifestyle of his family members, the fact that he left family life to embrace the life of a ‘pracharak’ and ‘paribrajak’ before entering politics that plays out with the theme of renunciation in popular perception. An amalgamation of these factors — reality and perception — have contributed towards building an image of an “incorruptible leader” who is "out to root out corruption” not indulge in it.
Faced against this perception, which is interchangeable in politics with reality, Congress’s charge has fallen flat. Modi remains an outlier among prime ministers who managed to maintain his personal popularity throughout his tenure and even at the fag end of his term, surveys point out that he continues to bust the charts.
The latest CVoter-IANS survey that collected data till 14 March shows Modi’s approval rating at 56 percent. His nearest rival Rahul Gandhi’s popularity lurks way below.
According to the current TimesNow-VMR opinion poll, the NDA is slated to retain power with 283 out of 543 seats, UPA’s figure is projected at 135 and others 125. The poll projects an uptick in Modi government’s popularity since the presentation of the budget and Balakot strike.
Applying all necessary disclaimers, the trend shows that Rahul’s corruption charges against Modi and incendiary rhetoric such as calling for jailing the prime minister in Rafale deal case — are finding no takers. Not just opinion polls, this is evident through other sources as well.
Modi’s campaign slogan ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’, is a good example of how slogans work. At one level it kills off Congress’s ‘chowkidar chor hai’ catchphrase because it invites people to identify with the leitmotif of a ‘watchman’, at another level it creates a new constituency of workers, wage-earners, labourers, sanitation workers by imbuing their labour with dignity. People identify with a slogan when it either reflects a popular perception or carries a modicum of aspiration. While Modi’s slogan ticks the boxes, Rahul’s doesn’t.
It helps explain why, as India Today has found out after a light data crunching, BJP’s ‘chowkidar’ is ousting Congress’s ‘chowkidar’ from trending ranks. The article points out that “#MainBhiChowkidar received around 1.5 million mentions on Twitter, followed by #ChowkidarPhirSe which was used for about 3,00,000 times. The #ChowkidarChorHai received hardly 1,63,000 mentions, which is almost 10 per cent of the number of times #MainBhiChowkidar got mentioned.”
A lot of this trending has to do with the BJP’s social media team, but that is also true for the Congress which boasts of no less efficient a system. Therefore, it points towards an unfavourable conclusion for Congress. Rahul’s effort of portraying Modi as “corrupt” is not working. He should course-correct.
The Congress president and even his sister — touted as the smarter one — seems bent on making the same mistakes. Rahul tried to troll Modi’s slogan again while Priyanka Gandhi Vadra suggested ‘chowkidars’ are for “rich people”.
This essentially misses the point. Modi’s slogan taps into his image and dismisses Rahul’s charge as a ‘slur’, and by inviting people to identify with it (helped by the message of inclusiveness) makes it difficult for the Congress to use the word ‘watchman’ as a pejorative. Congress doesn’t seem to have got the memo.
Game of alliances
The second example of Congress’ calamitous campaign is the mess it is creating while trying to stitch up alliances. Congress’s dilemma is understandable. It is torn between the need to build the party’s torn structure ground up, and the need to remain in the power game. Its reduced numbers mean that it can’t demand obeisance from regional chieftains. It must adjust itself to a new role where it is little more than an appendage to powerful regional leaders who want alliances on their terms.
Congress finds the new reality difficult to accept, and it is either driving too hard a bargain or being ignored as some Opposition forces find it less than useful for their designs. The BJP has been accused of being a too dominating outfit that doesn’t know how to take allies along, but it has appeared nimbler in stitching pre-poll partners than Congress, and despite its commanding national position seems more willing to sacrifice seats for allies than Congress.
In Bihar, a key state for Congress, talks are on the verge of breaking down. At the time of writing, the RJD has asked Congress to be happy with 8 seats instead of 11, or be prepared to contest all 40 on its own. According to reports, RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav isn’t happy with Congress’ "greed".
In West Bengal, the Congress has dismissed overtures from the Left in joining hands against the ruling Trinamool Congress because apparently, it involves “compromising with its dignity”.
The Left Front, in return, has said that it can’t accept Congress’ “unjustified demands”.
Meanwhile in Delhi, while Arvind Kejriwal is ready to tie up with Congress, the grand old party’s local unit led by Sheila Dikshit has dismissed the idea. Dikshit, the former Delhi chief minister, has written to Rahul, clarifying that an alliance with AAP will be “harmful” for Congress.
The picture that emerges is of a party that is misfiring in its electoral campaign by playing to the rival’s strength instead of weakness and making a mess of tactical alliances that could prove all the difference between vote share and seat share. The BJP would be glad.