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The problem with Congress: Finding its victories in BJP's loss?

The problem with Congress: Finding its victories in BJP's loss?

The strategy of the Congress' communication team cannot be for Modi government to falter.

( Before I begin this piece, it would be pertinent to note that all my life I have been perhaps the most devoted and ardent supporter of the Congress party, one who has worked for them without post or pay and would continue to do so even in the future. Hence, I believe in calling a spade- a spade. Whilst many who have the same passion for the Nehru-Gandhi's party will identify with my discourse here, I am equally aware that this piece, as has been done in the past, will be selectively quoted and emailed to the leadership of the Congress party by some insecure friends of mine to portray how I have 'betrayed' the party. It has never made any difference to me or my position although my friends have managed to bring the party down from 206 to 44. So to them, especially, I dedicate this piece because it's never too late to wake up and smell the Coffee)

As the Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand verdicts trickle in, it is pretty clear that the BJP's ambitious "Mission 44" in the northern state has failed miserably notwithstanding the enormous resources spent by the BJP and its face PM Narendra Modi's hectic campaigning in the region. Twelve rallies were held by the PM and yet the BJP was far away from its coveted 44 seats! Almost all of BJP's seats have come from Jammu and the single largest party in the valley- the PDP has got an overwhelming number of seats from Kashmir.

In an election that saw the highest voter turn out, braving the after-effects of the devastating floods, terror attacks and the cold, the people have sent out a message too- the Congress party is perhaps the only party that has picked up a sizeable representative mandate from across all parts of the state. Its tally may be 11 -13 but unlike the PDP and the BJP it is not restricted to one region and quite obviously one community. That despite such a polarized verdict, some BJP apologists still think it's a good idea for the BJP and the PDP to ally in the state, is quite bemusing. I wonder what their meeting point would be on Article 370, AFSPA and reservations for Kashmiri Pandits- issues that are central to both parties. It would also be interesting to see if the BJP- an obvious believer in a single party government given their 'anti-coalition politics' campaign in both states would now go back on their word and share power with those they were cursing until yesterday!

The verdict in Jharkhand holds a message too. Pollsters got it wrong. Some had predicted over 60+ seats for the BJP in the state. No denying that the BJP has just scraped through to half-way mark or once again, go back on its word and give the state that it has ruled for nine out of fourteen years, another round of political instability through a coalition government! What is also interesting is that the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, a barometer of the Modi wave, indicated the BJP would have won around 56 seats in Jharkhand back then. 7 months of Modi rule has brought that figure down to around 40. A drop of about 30percent which also coincides with the fall of the BJP's vote share in the state this time! So let me spell it out- the Modi wave is on the wane. It's perhaps the last few days of the honeymoon period. The BJP's performance over the last 7 months- on the economy or their unfulfilled promises or on issues affecting socio-cultural cohesion in India is taking a toll on Modi's image.

But the real question is - did the Congress capitalize on this to the extent it could have? The answer is a big NO. Of all the other diagnosis prime time TV talking heads make of what ails the Congress, the most obvious one and perhaps the easiest and most important one to fix, is its inability to market its achievements and control the narrative. This failed the party during the UPA-2 regime and it continues to plague the party even now. The BJP has for most part, in the last 7 months, continued all the good programs of the UPA (which by the way were terribly under-marketed by the party's communication wing and the government) and on all other commitments like Black money or anti-corruption have resorted to doing 'U turns'. Yet, the Congress' media cell struggles to shift the narrative to its side. Now, I do concede that certain sections of the media have been less than fair to the Congress but it cannot justify their lack of creativity to overhaul an under-performing communication department, below-par spokespersons and disastrous social media wing! Let me give you specific examples.

The Haryana elections were swept by the BJP and a major part of the credit goes to their misinformation campaign and certainly not to BJP's dismal performance at the centre. Robert Vadra was targetted in the media over 40 times in three months prior to the October polls, on stories that had no basis or even an iota of truth. These narratives supported by some sections in the media but emanating from the very same BJP that has not been able to pursue a single allegation against Vadra to its logical conclusion for over 6 months at the centre and over a year in Rajasthan, should have been taken down like a house of lies built on a pack of shaky cards, especially when Vadra has not one but three court verdicts in his favour! It wasn't. Now we see the BJP again resorting to this old trick prior to the Delhi polls with stories of missing documents linked to Vadra being planted again! The Congress' rebuttal, thankfully there was one this time, given that the story was a false one and the documents, put in the public domain by the Congress led government in Haryana itself, were traced in one day, was largely ignored and created little impact. The damage was done, reputations were sullied.

While the BJP is far more adept and scientific at approaching media, buying media space, organizing campaigns and over playing its achievements the Congress' media cell does not treat media perhaps as seriously. In Jharkhand, some of Rahul Gandhi's rallies had much huger crowds than Modi's rallies. His message was more sincere given that Congress is the least to blame in Jharkhand's politically unstable history. But did the Congress media cell convert Rahul's appeals into votes? I agree the local organization also plays a role but one cannot discount the impact of the media in energizing the cadre and the fence sitter. After all, in elections like ours, it's the First Time Voter and fence sitter that always needs to be wooed just as Modi's team does. All the complaints that Congress legitimately has with the national media could have been over-ridden with effective and scientific local media management in Jharkhand where regional media plays a far more important role. It wasn't done.

What worries me is that everyone blames Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi for their leadership. They are the same leaders who revived the Congress less than a decade ago and got it to power from 4 states to 14 states and back in the centre. The only reason the Congress party perhaps continues to survive, despite its terrible communication and organizational lacunae, is the Gandhi family leadership and its pan India appeal. I would argue that it is the weak communication strategy that has become a liability for the party and the leadership than the other way around.

The strategy of the Congress' communication team cannot be for Modi government to falter. It must involve pro-active engagement of the grassroots worker, psychological energizing of the voter, controlling the narrative on every platform and taking the leadership and ideology into every household with renewed vigour. Making friends and their children spokespersons, wasting energy in factionalism and kindergarten finger pointing, allowing vested interests to decide limited local media spending ( as opposed to BJPs huge war chest of funds) and to remain hopelessly inactive when the Gandhi family is targeted baselessly in the media will not help. Snatching consolation victories from BJP's defeats will not help. The Congress leadership deserves better.

(Shehazad Poonawalla is staunch follower of the Congress. He is a lawyer and lives in Delhi)