The Congress has to rise from the low of 44 seats that it won in 2014. The question is what level can it rise to? From the viewpoint of the Congress, the first goal has to be to prevent Narendra Modi from continuing as prime minister – which means ensuring BJP gets less than 230 seats.
This means Congress needs to get to about 100+ seats, given that BJP and Congress win about 330 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha. The rest go to regional parties who may or not be allied with either of the two national parties.
The second goal is to ensure a non-BJP government, which will mean BJP has to fall to less than 200 seats, which in turn implies Congress must get 130 seats.
The third goal, and the one we will discuss here, is that the Congress gets 150 seats, which means the BJP has to go back to its previous high of 180 or so. It is only in that situation that Rahul Gandhi can lead a Congress government and become the next prime minister. So, what can make that happen?
There are the 10 cards that the Congress can play to ensure Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi.
1. Swatantrata card
Congress needs to create a new position for itself. Over the past three-plus years, the BJP has systematically tried to take over the loyal Congress vote banks of the poor, Dalits and tribals. BJP today is the new Congress. The Congress needs a new idea. And that idea cannot be a 30-page manifesto promising handouts to every segment like it did in Gujarat. It must have dawned on the political parties by now that no one really cares about the manifestos except the Opposition. The Congress also needs to replace the “corrupt” prefix that the BJP will keep attaching to it.
Elections are won and lost on one to two big ideas. The differentiated big idea that the Congress needs to co-opt is that of comprehensive freedom – Sampoorna Swatantrata. It should position individual, social and economic freedom as the building blocks to jobs and prosperity. It can link back to its 1947 freedom struggle role. But for that, it will need to shed the skin of socialism (which has now been taken over by the BJP). This is perhaps the hardest aspect of what the Congress needs to do. But it is not going to win by playing percentage politics.
2. Selection card
Congress should focus on the 200 seats of the 543 that it has the best chance of winning. Data can help identify these seats. This is where all attention should be given and where resources should be directed. There needs to be a micro-strategy for each seat, rather than a top-level national or even state-specific strategy. The goal should be to win 150+ of these 200 seats.
3. Symbol card
Even in the midst of its massive sweep in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections last year, 60% of the voters did not vote for the BJP. The message is clear: the Congress has to do to Narendra Modi’s BJP what the Janata Party did in 1977 against Indira Gandhi’s Congress. One Seat, One Anti-BJP Candidate. It will be still better if it is One State, One Anti-BJP Symbol. Of course, this is easier said than done – and the BJP’s game plan will be to prevent this. But given that many regional parties are wary of the BJP’s expansion which will directly hurt their local interests, it should be possible for the Congress to persuade other parties to put aside their rivalries for a single election. A BJP without Narendra Modi at its head will be far easier competition for the Congress and regional parties, and that can only happen if the BJP is restricted to under 230 seats.
4. SP+BSP card
No state is bigger in size and no state is more important than Uttar Pradesh. The number of seats the BJP will get is directly proportional to its competitors. Congress had allied with the Samajwadi Party (SP) in the previous assembly election. What it really should have done is also got the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) together. If the BJP has to fight against a united Congress, SP and BSP, it may not get more than 30 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats. If the BSP puts up its own candidates, the BJP could add another 25 seats easily. And if the SP decides to also go its own way, the BJP’s tally could be close to its 2014 tally of 71 (with an additional 2 seats from an ally). Of course, everyone knows this. The task for the Congress is therefore clear. UP can make a difference of 40+ seats to the BJP tally.
5. Stop card
The Congress needs to stop the BJP’s winning streak in state elections. Karnataka offers an opportunity. It needs to not only win the coming elections there, but also aim to win elections in at least one of the two big states later in the year – Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (this of course assumes that early Lok Sabha elections are not called). At the end of the day, only winning matters – and the Congress record in state elections has been very poor since 2014. Gujarat may have looked close, but at the end it is still in BJP hands. Increasing vote shares, winning by-polls is small succour. The real prize is to have more Chief Ministers – and for that the Congress needs to stop the BJP machine.
6. Six Lakh card
Winning elections is as about the leader and message but it is also about the organization. That is the ground force the Congress needs to put in place if it has to start beating the BJP in booths, seats and elections. A simple question that the Congress must answer: Who are the 10+ crore voters who voted for it in its worst-ever performance in 2014? This is the problem with political parties – they have no idea who their “customers” (voters) are. A national membership drive like what the BJP did in 2014-15 needs to be done, along with identifying party workers at every booth. A 200 seats focus means about three lakh (300,000) polling booths. Each booth needs a minimum of two committed workers to address the 250 families. This requires creating a cadre of about 6 lakh party workers across India, armed with data and tech to ensure persuasion and turnout.
7. Spin card
To beat Modi, Congress needs to focus on “Mission Moh Bhang” (public disillusion). It has to break the nation’s attraction with Narendra Modi. It needs to remember that Modi has never lost an election that he has led. In Modi, India has seen perhaps its smartest and sharpest politician in two generations, if not since Independence. There are weaknesses that can be exploited, but Modi, just like every great politician, is a master of the spin. The Congress needs to focus not on the individual, but his words and actions. Criticising Modi directly is like giving low full-tosses to Virat Kohli. They should have learnt this in the past 15 years! Congress needs a couple of its own Chanakyas (teachers) for this. Social media helps equalise the game somewhat in giving access to a pipe that bypasses a somewhat fearful and pliant mainstream media. But the content factory is what is key.
One way to counter the BJP spin is to publish a report card on BJP’s manifesto promises, along with commitments made in the five Budgets presented and various speeches made by the prime minister and other ministers. This should have been done every six months – as a sort of tracker on the performance of the BJP government. It is still not too late. People and governments tend to forget what was said in the past – it should be the job of the challengers to remind them all.
9. Street card
Congress needs to stitch together alliances with smaller and regional parties, but that will not happen until it is seen to be stronger. So, it needs to create a perception of strength. This means leading the opposition against the BJP on key issues. Social media can only be a start – it needs to take the battle to the streets. Without visible protests against the issues of the day (which are many), it will be hard to build momentum. This also helps with mobilising the ground force that the Congress so desperately needs.
10. Silence card
This may seem obvious, but in the heat of an election campaign, mistakes happen. And Modi’s BJP is very good at laying traps. Sticking to the message is critical and that means silencing all random voices and comments. A friend had once told me about how UK politicians answer questions – each one of them has two to three talking points, and irrespective of the question asked, they always bring the answer back their talking points. The campaign must be about two to three points, and everything must be linked to these points. Discipline imposed from the top is key to making that happen.
10+1. Trump card
In my view, the “trump card” for the Congress is to declare Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate immediately. Elections in India are now more presidential than ever before. Faces and personalities matter. This is a leadership moment. The earlier this happens, the better the prospects for the Congress.
A Congress 150 is not outside the realm of possibility. For that, Congress will need to do many things right, and ensure that the BJP is put under pressure so it makes mistakes. That the election is even considered open at this stage is because of errors made by the BJP in its first 200 days in not trusting new talent to come in and bring the structural transformation that the voters demanded. The need of the hour for the Congress is to think like a start-up and be entrepreneurial, just like Modi did in the run-up to the 2014 elections.