Narendra Modi has demonetised the ‘National’ in the Indian National Congress.
The grand old party has scored a duck in nine states and has won just one seat each in nine other states. Effectively, in 18 states, that is over half the states, the Congress has been reduced to a bit player. In the three states where it won polls in winter, its score is 2 in Chhattisgarh, 1 in MP and 0 in Rajasthan. In urban India it was defeated in seven of seven seats in Delhi, six of six in Mumbai, three of four in Bengaluru.
On May 18, 1936, Jawaharlal Nehru, addressing Congressmen, said, “We have largely lost touch with the masses and, deprived of the life-giving energy that flows from them, we dry up and weaken and our organisation shrinks and loses the power it had.” Half a century later, on December 28, 1985, Rajiv Gandhi asked, “What has become of our great organisation”, and cited the existence of “brokers of power and influence, who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy” as the bane of the Congress.
The observations rang true on May 23, 2019 as nine of its heavy-weights, each a former chief minister — Sheila Dikshit, B S Hooda, Harish Rawat, Ashok Chavan, Sushil Kumar Shinde, M Veerappa Moily, Naban Tuki, Mukul Sangma and Digvijay Singh — were trounced in the elections. If it were not for the DMK-assisted victories in Tamil Nadu, the Congress tally in 2019 would have dipped below the 2014 mark. The enormity of the Congress’ defeat is reflected in the magnitude of the BJP’s victory. The BJP won over 50 per cent of the vote share in 14 states — and bagged 49 per cent of the votes in Uttar Pradesh and Tripura and 40 per cent of the vote share in Bengal.
There were tactical and strategic blunders. The biggest blunder of the Congress campaign was the coining and usage of the slogan ‘Chowkidaar chor hai’ — stemming from the controversial Rafale purchase deal. As a Sikh businessman, a Congress supporter to boot, waiting in the lounge of a TV studio put it, Modi monetised every abuse that came his way and converted it into votes because nobody bought the idea that Modi was personally corrupt. Barring Congress spokespersons none of the senior leaders or the leaders of the alliance partners was willing to endorse or utter the slogan.
Never one to lose an opportunity, Modi converted it to his advantage, creating a common ‘Mai bhi chowkidaar’ identity for his followers. The four-letter barb consolidated and expanded public affiliation of the public for Narendra Modi. What could be more ignominious than the fact that the affiliation overwhelmed every kind of distress and anger which defined the political landscape? Congress should have known better. In 2008, following the ‘cash for votes’ scandal, attempts to paint Manmohan Singh as a party to the corruption failed. Even when the slogan was flailing, Rahul Gandhi persisted with it.
Agility is essential for victory in war. Post the formation of the BJP and its muscular stance on nationalism, the Congress has struggled on issues of national security – particularly when to shut up and when to speak. It praised the Air Force for the surgical strike but its leaders couldn’t resist airing conspiracy theories. It was silent for five years on surgical strikes done during its tenure and then suddenly decided to go public with a number without adequate backup.
The Congress, by design and accident, honed in on the issue of joblessness and agrarian distress as the cornerstones of its campaign against the Modi regime. It yielded dividends in the assembly elections — in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and handsomely in Chhattisgarh. The obsession to taint Modi, perhaps an attempt to right the wrong of the past, retribution for the ‘gali gali mein shor hai’ slogan during the Bofors days, derailed the campaign and the party lost the wedge and leverage to garner votes.
The grand idea of the party was the income support scheme called Nyay. It got lost in the maelstrom of sloganeering. The manifesto had some decent ideas — reservation of 33 per cent of jobs for women at the Centre, the skills training idea of an apprentice scheme funded by CSR funds, higher allocation for education and health, a better GST were all drowned in the obsession to chant ‘Chowkidaar chor hai’.
Electoral success demands last-mile connectivity. The Congress was voted out of power in Tamil Nadu in 1967, in West Bengal in 1977, UP and Gujarat in 1989, in Bihar in 1990, Tripura in 1992, in Odisha in 2000, and has been dependent on NCP in Maharashtra since 1999, and was out of power in MP and Chhattisgarh for 15 years — these states account for over 325 Lok Sabha seats. Yet the party has paid scant attention to rebuilding the organisation.
Market share in business or politics demands a product and dealerships. The Modi campaign, in its marketing and management of logistics, would have done a Philip Kotler and a Jeff Bezos of Amazon proud. Blending the glue of development, nationalism and aspiration with the Hindutva hardener, Modi has redrawn the political landscape. India knew imperialism, colonialism, communism, capitalism and socialism. Modi has introduced India’s voters to a new ism, Modi-ism.
In 2014, Sanjay Nirupam, a Congress candidate from Mumbai, summed up the state of that party by stating that “even if Narendra Modi had contested on a Congress ticket, he would have lost”. In 2019, a WhatsApp forward doing the rounds in Mumbai read: “If Rahul had contested from BJP, even he would have won.” It captures the decimation of the Congress equally succinctly.
The question is, can Rahul Gandhi find answers for the existential dilemmas of 1936 and 1985, which continue to haunt the Congress in the new millennium?
Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India