In hindsight, losing three Hindi heartland states in last December's Assembly elections proved beneficial for BJP and problematic for Congress. If the exit poll numbers hold, then Narendra Modi will most likely take oath as the Prime Minister for the next five years even as dark clouds hover over Rahul Gandhi's political future.
Modi and Amit Shah have been paranoid about avoiding the mistakes which earlier NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee made. Boosted by comfortable wins in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Vajpayee advanced the Lok Sabha elections in 2004. The rest, as they say, is history.
While Modi-led NDA surely didn't plan to lose three states in the run-up to Lok Sabha elections, the fact that it did drove away whatever bit of complacency that may have crept in. The BJP went back to the drawing board, announced a raft of measures such as income support for farmers, reservation for the economically backward, gave middle class more tax relief and tried to address the loopholes.
At the other end of the spectrum, it is now clear (assuming exit polls are pointing towards a broader trend) that Congress drew all the wrong lessons from its wins in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The results may have also lulled the Congress chief into a false sense of security and raised an exaggerated notion about his own success. It would be cruel to blame him. Rahul has spent the better part of his political career witnessing the diminishing footprint of Congress. While the coterie around him and the ecosystem at large have been careful about not letting the blame fall on his shoulders, Rahul's political acumen has always been subject to dogged question marks.
Not just critics or the BJP, even UPA allies and regional chieftains have been sceptical about Rahul's competence as a leader. For instance, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee or Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao have openly been dismissive of his proficiency.
Therefore, when the Congress president finally presided over wins in three Hindi heartland states and lost Gujarat by a whisker, it is likely that a degree of overestimation in his own abilities took place. Rahul started believing that Modi's ouster is inevitable. Media, that several times in the past has launched him as the next best thing after sliced bread with their "Rahul comes of age" stories, did their bit in whipping up the hype. We were suddenly led to believe that Modi, at last, has a challenger.
Hindsight offers a 20/20 vision. It now appears that this overestimation caused more harm to Congress than any campaign by BJP ever could. To begin, one thing that you do not do while targeting your opponent is playing to the opponent's strength. In his five-year tenure as the Prime minister, Modi displayed a few areas of vulnerability. Though inflation was kept under tight control resulting in relief for consumers, it conversely meant dent in income in farm sector. The rural distress is real and resulted in massive discontent among farmers.
As an editorial in December 2018 edition of The Hindu notes, "Retail inflation dropped to a 17-month low of 2.33 percent in November, as compared to 3.31 percent in October, primarily due to the fall in the prices of various essential food items. Food prices fell by a huge 6.96 percentage points compared to a year ago and, at minus 2.61 percent ... The fall in inflation is obviously good news for consumers¦ But it is bad news for the producers of basic food items who are located in the distress-affected rural parts of the country, with falling farm incomes also impacting landless labour and rural demand."
This was an opening that the Congress could have exploited but it required razor sharp focus and creative messaging. Congress forgot that campaigning in 2019 cannot follow the 70s model where homilies about eradicating poverty and saving farmers would be enough. Besides, a message may make some impact if it is effective, consistent and offer a solution.
Congress made two fundamental errors in campaign strategy. One, it played to Modi's strength. Two, it bet its bottom rupee on a negative campaign, trying to stoke anger against Modi. It had nothing to offer by way of a solution or vision except for a minimum income guarantee that came too late and was never carried home. Negative campaign may only work in situation where there is a massive discontent against the incumbent.
Surveys after surveys, in fact, have shown that Modi's popularity never wavered and instead reached greater heights, than it did in 2014, post-Balakot airstrikes. Under the circumstances, how prudent was it for Congress president to target Modi's personal integrity?
In an interview with a magazine, Rahul had made a telling comment. On being advised by his advisors that Modi's greatest asset is his image of incorruptibility, he apparently decided to attack that image and "tear it into shreds". The parameters that Rahul relied on to assess the effectiveness of his "strategy" of targeting Modi's image is unclear. But the Congress president was pleased as punch with his "chowkidar chor hai" slogan and announced before the world even before the elections were complete that "Congress has dismantled the idea of Narendra Modi."
It shall soon be conclusively clear whether Rahul is a genius but exit polls (if accurate) show that Congress president's strategy has spectacularly backfired. Applying appropriate disclaimers on exit poll results, the electorate seems to have been unimpressed by Rahul's repeated jibes of corruption against Modi on Rafale deal sans even a morsel of proof. It is a daft strategy to level corruption allegations without proof to back it up, it is foolish still to do so against a leader who enjoys a high degree of public trust.
The third basic mistake that Rahul committed was to assume that the Gandhi surname still carries weight. He may not have understood that 45 million first-time voters in these Lok Sabha elections have no foggy notions about the dynasty. They hate entitled dynasts and in Modi have found an embodiment of their belief that hard work and aspiration bring success. Modi, the consummate politician, understood this and tailored his message to the millennials to differentiate his brand from competitors.
Rahul, on the other hand, played the victim card when attacked " reminding voters about the "sacrifices" made by his family. While his argument may be legitimate, it failed to cut much ice because the Gandhi surname does not evoke any sense of nostalgia among this demography. When Rahul and his sister Priyanka talk of "hurt sentiments" over BJP's strategy to target the Gandhi family, they appear as crybabies than leaders out to lead. These are classic signs that Congress is out touch with reality but in a party that still retains an inherently feudal structure and 'high command' culture, no one was around to point at the emperor's nakedness.