Why did the opposition find no takers in the 2019 elections?
Narendra Modi won a second term as the Prime Minister of India and returned to power with an even bigger mandate than he had won in 2014, crossing the 300 seat target that BJP president Amit Shah had set for the party before the elections.
BJP and its allies of the NDA together mustered up 353 seats in Lok Sabha elections which is only 8 seats short of the 2/3rd majority mark in the Lower House of the Indian Parliament.
The results have baffled the political pundits, especially those who are not fans of Narendra Modi and BJP. The exit polls which came out a few days before the elections were received with vehement contempt and almost a sense of mockery by the same people. Even the pollsters who conducted these surveys became a target of abuse for the anti-Modi brigade and were labelled as corrupt and on Modi’s payroll. However, it would be wrong to say that the results didn’t (pleasantly) surprise the BJP and Modi supports too.
The media and pundits got the pre-election analysis completely wrong and completely failed to see the strong wave of support for Modi in the masses.
Any win, in any field, is a result of two factors – what the winner did right and what his opponent(s) did wrong. What BJP did right, from toilets in villages to electricity in all villages to having great election machinery and sharp and precise poll strategy under the leadership of Amit Shah, to above all. having Modi factor on its side, have been discussed at length post the elections.
Lets us look at what the opposition got wrong and why its campaign and slogans failed to impress the voters.
Corruption as the main issue
The slogan heard during the campaign more than any other from Rahul Gandhi was “Chowkidar Chor Hai”. Rahul Gandhi wanted to convince the people of India that Narendra Modi is a corrupt politician and deeply involved in scams, especially during the purchase of Rafael aircraft from France.
The UPA govt. that lost in 2014 was tainted with scams and was widely seen as the most corrupt govt. India has seen since independence. By continually targetting Modi on corruption Rahul Gandhi and the Congress wanted to take away the moral high ground that the BJP has enjoyed in the minds of the voters since 2014.
There was an inherent paradox to the Congress fighting elections on the issue of corruption, given Congress’ own dodgy track record, and making corruption the main election issue, was not the wisest choice.
The message in an election is important but so is the credibility of the messenger. Congress as an anti-corruption messenger failed to cut any ice with the voters.
The ‘Modi is corrupt’ campaign completely lost whatever flimsy steam it had built up once Rahul Gandhi apologised to the Supreme Court for having attributed the “chowkidar chor hai” slogan to the Supreme Court.
Speaking to the media after filing his nomination in Amethi, Rahul Gandhi had said, “Supreme Court has said Chowkidar ne chori ki hai”.
The reason Rahul Gandhi had to lean on the Supreme Court for the Chowkidar Chor hai assertion was that coming from him and the Congress, “Chowkidar chor hai” was failing to make a mark on the public and wasn’t being taken too seriously.
So Rahul Gandhi brought in the Supreme Court, with a sense of, see even the Supreme Court says Modi is corrupt. Ab to maan lo (At least now believe it). However this was a lie, and the Supreme Court had said no such thing.
Naturally, the Supreme Court pulled up Rahul Gandhi for this and he had to apologise. After this apology, Rafael was effectively finished as an election issue.
Modi = Hitler Campaign
The opposition continually labelled, either directly or indirectly, Modi as the second coming of Hitler. Former Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah during the campaign described Modi as “Second Hitler”, National Conference President and former J&K Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah too did the same during one of his rallies in Khayar.
Godwin’s law on internet debates/arguments states that is an internet debate goes on long enough, then eventually someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or his deeds. On some forums that is considered the end of the discussion and whoever resorted to the Hitler analogy first is said to have lost the debate.
This ‘X’ is Hitler is a well-known phenomenon, where the desperate try to reduce the object of their dislike to Hitler, and has been called Reductio ad Hitlerum or Argumentum ad Hitlerum or Ad Nazium.
Largely the comparison is made on the ground of ‘X’ does ‘this’ and Hitler also did ‘this’, therefore ‘X’ is Hitler. For instance, Hitler was against smoking tobacco and X is against smoking tobacco, so X is Hitler.
Farooq Abdullah in his Khanyar speech said, “Like Modi says—Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikas—, Hitler too, used to say the same things back then in Germany.”
Terms like ‘fasciwadi’ (Fascist) and ‘fasciwad’ (Fascism) were not uncommon references made to Modi and the BJP on TV debates by the opposition spokespersons. That the opposition had to repeatedly fall back on an argument that is usually the last resort of those losing an online debate shows how bereft of ideas they were during the campaign.
This was an election campaign of the most vibrant democracy of the world, not some typical internet debate, and the opposition could have surely done better than to have Modi = Hitler, as a serious election issue.
More than the few overt instances outlined above, there was constant subliminal messaging to this effect from the opposition on this. They said that the election is about the idea of India. Ashok Gehlot, the Rajasthan CM said that if Modi wins there won’t be any more Lok Sabha elections after 2019. The opposition constantly tried to raise the issue of ‘institutions being in danger’.
The message that the opposition constantly tried to give out was that Modi is this demonic Hitler like figure out to kill democracy in India.
The picture on the ground was completely different. As recently as December 2018, BJP lost the election in three key states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and the transfer of power happened as smoothly as possible.
There was no violence, no crying foul over EVMs, no protests, nothing. Isn’t that what democracy is all about, respecting the will of the people! BJP quietly accepted the verdict and bowed out of office.
If anything it was the opposition that was involved in activities that seemed to threaten the democratic values of India.
Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy, an ally of Rahul Gandhi’s Congress Party, recently went after cartoonists saying, “What do you think of politicians? You think that we are so easily available to be mocked? Who has given you powers to present everything sarcastically? You think we’re jobless? Do we look like cartoon characters to you? Whom are you trying to favour by belittling us among the masses? I feel the need to bring in a law.”
Where does this fit in with the “idea of India.”?
Mamata Banerjee the West Bengal Chief Minister, and one of the potential top contenders for the Prime Minister’s post if Modi was defeated, jailed an individual for making a meme of her, and circulating it online. Is this protecting democracy and democratic values?
This wasn’t the only instance of the WB CM going after dissent. In 2012 Mamata Banerjee jailed Prof. Ambikesh Mahapatra for forwarding a cartoon which made fun of the WB CM, to his friends.
We all saw the pictures of widespread violence was unleashed in West Bengal during polling. Is that protecting democratic values? Is what protecting democracy looks like?
The opposition has made constant attempts to discredit Indian democracy by constantly questioning EVMs and the voting process, ever since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014.
In light of all this, the message from the opposition that Modi was the one who was a threat to democracy was hard for the voters to buy.
Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi running away from the fight
There may have been political and strategic reasons for Rahul Gandhi choosing to contest from Wayanad, but the optics around that decision were less than flattering for Rahul Gandhi and the Congress.
Rahul Gandhi seemed to run away from the fight in Amethi after having been given a run for his money in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 by Smriti Irani of the BJP.
Similarly, Congress shot itself in the foot by initially hinting that Priyanka Gandhi could contest from Varanasi against PM Narendra Modi, and then backing out.
While no one from the Congress party actually said on the record that Priyanka Gandhi would or could contest against PM Modi, but enough hints were given out to that effect to whet the appetite for a heavyweight clash.
For instance, when her party workers asked her to take the political plunge and contest an election in 2019, Priyanka Gandhi in response asked her workers whether she should contest from Varanasi?
Naturally, this set the speculation through the roof, and when she was pressed on the issue by the media she later said “You will find out. If my Congress President tells me to contest, I will be happy to contest.”
After all this when it became clear that Priyanka Gandhi would not contest against Modi, the optics were again against the Congress Party, and Priyanka Gandhi was seen to have backed out fearing electoral defeat.
If Priyanka Gandhi didn’t mean to contest against Narendra Modi then the possibility of Priyanka Gandhi contesting against Modi should never have been teased by the Congress, to begin with. Secondly having teased it and built up the hopes in her workers of a high profile clash, Priyanka Gandhi should not have then backed out.
Contesting and losing would have been a far better decision than what eventually transpired. Both top Congress leaders were deemed to have run away from the contest, which naturally didn’t win them favours with the voters.
Nepotism and Rahul Gandhi’s credibility
Nepotism has been a hot topic of debate in the media in recent years, largely in the context of Bollywood and its footprints can be seen on the political landscape of the country.
In politics, it goes by the name of Dynasty. Congress is by no means the only party which is run like a family enterprise. There are the Thackerays in Maharashtra, the Lalu family in Bihar, Mamata Banerjee and her nephew in WB, the Badals in Punjab, DMK in Tamil Nadu, etc. The fact is both within and outside of NDA there exists Dynasty politics.So why then do the Gandhis bear the brunt of the critics of dynasty politics more than any other party?
The answer is that people eventually want to see merit come to fore and are willing to give even those coming from an elite background the chance to shine. If that merit remains eclipsed by the family name despite repeated opportunities, then that person is rejected.
Be it Bollywood or Politics people want to see consequences for failure. If an actor doesn’t do well, or they don’t like his work, he will be rejected and will stop getting films.
Rahul Gandhi’s party has seen a horror run in elections since December 2013 and in whatever sporadic success the party has seen in that period, the contribution of Rahul Gandhi has been questionable.
Congress’ win in Punjab was seen as being down to Capt. Amarinder Singh, while the wins in Chhatisgarh and Rajasthan were seen as having more to do with discontent against the incumbent govt. than anything else. Every election besides a select few has seen the Congress be defeated and defeated resoundingly in many.
Rahul Gandhi’s handling with kid gloves after electoral defeats did not impress the public. Rahul Gandhi was seen to get undeserving credit after whatever few electoral successes the Congress have had, while others got the blame for the failures.
The Congress may try, but the Voters know why an election was won or lost, and where the credit lies. The voters always know. You cannot fool the voters.
Almost everyone either has a boss at work or knows someone who does, who steals his workers’ credit and passes on to his team the blame that lies at his door. These traits signify the worst kind of leadership, and in their overzealous efforts to shield Rahul Gandhi from blame, the Congress harmed Rahul Gandhi’s image.
Rahul Gandhi was always responsible for all the Congress’ victories and never responsible for any of its multiple and continuous election debacles.
Sycophancy is not ideal in a democracy and while the voters don’t like it, but at least they understand the existence of sycophants around a successful leader. Sycophancy around an unsuccessful leader, purely because of his family name alone, made Rahul Gandhi’s leadership almost undesirable.
Ab Hoga NYAY (Now Justice will be done)
The first questioned that popped up in the voters’ mind was why wasn’t justice done till now? The Congress has after all been in power for a substantial chunk since India’s independence, and during most of that, it was an ancestor of Rahul Gandhi who was the Prime Minister.
Was Rahul Gandhi saying that they all failed to do justice? And secondly in that whole family across all those generations, is Rahul Gandhi the most capable person that he will accomplish what all his far more illustrious ancestors could not and finally deliver justice.
The wording of the slogan should have been chosen more carefully and even then there would have been the question of Rahul Gandhi’s credibility as a messenger.
When Rahul Gandhi says he will do X and Y for the voters, they don’t believe him. His leadership has no takers.
Additionally, the way NYAY was advertised was very poorly executed. Most of the rural voters who would be the chief beneficiaries of NYAY didn’t know anything about it, while most of the urban voters who would be the ones to bear the tax burden of this plan, did.
The Congress so frequently shot itself in the foot on the issue of nationalism that by when the elections rolled around, it had shot both its legs off and thus had no leg to stand on. The Congress and the opposition, in general, was always seen to side with those aiming to harm the nation, instead of siding with the nation.
Congress was overzealous in siding with the accused in the JNU agitation and could have made the point about freedom of speech and expression without actually sharing the stage with the accused.
If you share a platform with those who chant ‘Bharat tere tukde honge’ (India you shall be broken up into pieces) then you lend credence to the agenda. The anti-nationality of these slogans can be questioned, but I think we can all agree that it was definitely not a pro-national slogan.
I am sure even the most ardent of BJP supporters will refuse to believe that the Congress truly believes in the message of splitting India apart in pieces, but no one liked the fact that a mainstream political party was giving credence to slogans which had made every Indian’s blood boil.
When one saw the Congress and other opposition leaders on the same platform as those who chanted the slogans, one couldn’t help wonder how the slogans did not make their blood boil.
These sloganeers deserved to have been ignored and the best punishment would have been to let them remain confined to anonymity. However, because the Congress jumped on their side, these dissenters became public figures.
Congress could and should have handled its role in the whole episode better.
The Congress and the opposition repeatedly placed themselves on the wrong side of issues of national security. Be it questioning the validity of claims of surgical strikes conducted post-Uri attacks or questioning the claims of Air Strikes conducted by the Indian Air Force in PoK on terror camps.
For the first time since Pak supported insurgency became an issue in Kashmir, India had taken pro-active steps to hit back at Pakistan in their own house, and at a time when the Indian govt. had reset and rewritten the terms of engagement with the enemy, and the move was being celebrated by the people of the country, the opposition was busy questioning the army and asking them to show proof of their valour.
It was a ludicrous stand to take, to say the least. The opposition went so wrong on the issue of nationalism and national security that today BJP’s (and NDA’s) position as the vanguards of nationalism is unchallenged in the minds of the voters.
Is it any wonder that Modi and BJP made it the chief election issue.
Negative Campaigns No Longer Win Elections
There was a time when negative campaigns worked, and you could convince the voter not to vote for your opponent, and thus by default voting for you.
Negative campaigns no longer work, and merely telling the voter why he should not vote for your opponent isn’t enough. You now also need to give the voter reasons why he must vote for you.
The US presidential elections of 2016 was a great example of this when the Democrats focused on Donald Trump the person and not on his issues. They said, he was a womaniser, a misogynist to downright calling him and his voter base stupid and thought that was enough to win them the elections. We all know what the results were.
In the context of India, BJP committed the same mistake during the Bihar assembly elections of 2015, when their entire strategy was focused around telling people not to bring Lalu Prasad Yadav back to power and reminding the voter of the ‘jungle raj’ that existed during his 15-year rule in Bihar.
BJP never really laid out a roadmap of what they would if voted to power, and their negative campaign found no takers in Bihar. The result was a rout against the BJP, and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s party got the most seats in the assembly elections.
The opposition made the same mistake in 2019. The message from the opposition was the Modi is a tyrant, he is corrupt so don’t vote for him and we can go back to the way things were before Modi was Prime Minister. What they forgot was that going back to the way things were, was not very attractive to the voters.
If the voters liked the way things were in 2014, why would they have reduced the Congress to 44 seats and the Mahagathbandhan to 5 out of 80 seats in UP and voted Modi to power in the first place.
The focus should have been on telling the voters how they will make things better than 2014 after voting Modi out. However, there was a deafening silence from the opposition in that regard.
Even on the issue of unemployment, Congress failed to lay down a concrete roadmap. Congress merely quoted figures and said they will provide X no. of jobs. But how? Merely quoting figures seemed as if they were pulling out whatever number came into their heads. It made the announcement seem insincere.
Congress should have gone to the voters with a concrete roadmap and plan to explain how those jobs would be generated and what they would do differently from 2014 when unemployment was an issue too.
Absence of Issues an Endorsement of Modi’s work
I would like to end by discussing a silent factor that led to Modi’s win and that is the absence of traditional ever present electoral issues. Some staple issues that the opposition has raised in every election were conspicuous by their absence.
Electricity in the villages has traditionally been a key election issue in all elections. The absence of this issue lent credence to PM Modi’s claims that all villages in India now have electricity.
The issue of lack of roads in villages has been another staple election issue that was completely missing from the debates during this election. This lent credibility to Nitin Gadkari’s claims that his ministry has built more roads and at a faster pace than ever before in India.
Petrol-Diesel prices were never an issue in this election. If you look at history then at the start of April 2014 the petrol prices were Rs 72.26 and the petrol prices at the start of April 2019 were Rs. 72.86.
However this is not the full picture, and petrol prices did rise to a high of Rs 84 per litre in October 2018.
To fully understand the issue, it needs to be stated that shortly after the UPA 2 took over, in July 2009 the Petrol prices were Rs 44.72 and when UPA 2 left they had jumped to 72.26.
UPA 2 saw an increase in petrol prices by Rs 27.54, while the most Petrol price jumped during Modi’s tenure was by Rs 12 and even that was reigned in to return to what the prices were when Modi took over by the time his term finished.
(All petrol prices mentioned refer to Delhi petrol prices).
In general, the price of commodities, food products, etc. was not an election issue. The absence of such staple issues from the political discourse silently reinforced the voter’s belief that Modi was doing a fine job.
This coupled with the other issues outlined above led to the Tsunamo that India witnessed in the general elections of 2019.