To Fight a Presidential-Style Election in India, Congress Must Find the Right Face

New demographic and social dynamics have helped turn India's parliamentary election into a US-style presidential race. But while the Democrats are busy figuring out who can take on Trump in 2020, the Congress is twiddling its thumbs.

Chennai: Karti Chidambaram’s campaign stump speech in Sivaganga touched upon the Congress’ Nyay scheme promise, but the crowd had barely heard of it.

Karti, the son of veteran Congress leader P. Chidambaram, recalled the 2009 loan waiver promise too, which had helped the Congress sail back to power then – but his audience didn’t make the connection.

Of course, Karti won convincingly – by polling more than double what his nearest rival polled – but that victory was driven by an anti-Modi and pro-DMK surge in contrarian Tamil Nadu.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Congress manifesto and themes stood in sharp contrast to Narendra Modi’s and the BJP’s right-wing stance. Yet, the Nyay scheme did not pull in the votes as it expected.

The Congress lost what was essentially a US-style presidential election. It had a legitimate platform, but the candidate and the campaign themes – the key ingredients of a US presidential campaign – performed poorly.

Personality contests

In the US, nearly a year-and-a-half before the 2020 elections, a bottom-up process of identifying the main challenger to President Donald Trump is underway.

In India, the president of the main opposition party resigned from his position after the party’s defeat but two months on, the Congress is still gripped by paralysis.

Senior leaders have begun murmuring about how the absence of clarity is demoralising the party. The Congress needs to find not just a new president for the party organisation but also, more importantly, who from among its ranks can take on Modi in a presidential-style campaign.

Also read: A Presidential-Style Mandate Does Not Augur Well for the Future of Parliamentary Democracy

Though leaders and their personalities have been important in Lok Sabha elections, parliament campaigns had rarely been personality contests. In the 2014 election, however, the BJP came to this hustings with a well thought out triad of candidate-platform-campaign, each element syncing with the other.

Its campaign was planned and executed projecting the candidate as an able administrator who had proved his mettle as the chief minister of the state of Gujarat – just as governors of states in the US run for president based on their record.

Against a supposedly weak government that had lost its way, Modi promised strong, purposeful governance. Just like the governor who vows to clean up Washington DC, Modi was the leader who didn’t belong to the Lutyens’ swamp in New Delhi.

Five years later, he still presents himself as an outsider to the Delhi political elite.

The personality Modi projects as a leader has been the key element in his campaigns and they have won him two national and multiple state elections in a nation whose political culture has been transformed by the underlying demographic change. The change is illustrated by how the average age of an Indian is 29, which means half of India’s population was likely raised when liberalisation had been set in motion.

The average Indian has no memory of the country’s socialistic past, when battling inequality was a key element of political talk. He or she gets the news from social media primarily, often consuming fact with propaganda.

Also read: A New India Has Emerged and Narendra Modi Is Its Voice

If globalisation brought together people from across nations, its national component brought Indians divided by region, language, ethnicity and caste closer. Internal migration is creating new demographics in India now.

Modi is the leader of an India that has reached a new degree of national cohesiveness. Despite a floundering economy, poor performance in job creation, and dodgy decisions on governance, Modi projected power, decisiveness and sure-footedness, at least visually. It appeared he could take on Pakistan. In contrast, Rahul could never shake off the weak and indecisive image that plagued the Congress in 2014.

Finding a challenger

Rahul’s platform and campaign were, however, quite bold in substance. He presented himself as the non-Modi. He had a loving and close-knit family unlike the loner prime minister. He was normal and therefore against the right-wing ideology that had given rise to Modi – according to his campaign.

The Congress manifesto took a pronounced leftward stance. For instance, unlike the BJP that promised help to the poor but insisted only the poor can pull themselves out of poverty, the Congress manifesto promised a massive dole of Rs 72,000 per year to the poorest 20% of India’s families to “wipe off” poverty.

While the BJP promised to expand its state-funded medical insurance scheme, the Congress declared its government would turn away from the insurance route and expand state-run healthcare. Barely a month after India and Pakistan engaged in aerial combat, Rahul Gandhi refused to bring national security into the campaign focus.

Unfortunately for him, not much of the the poverty angle reached the people, and the candidate himself carried little conviction in delivering the message. Rahul Gandhi is no Bill Clinton who could articulate complex policy positions in words that common folk could understand and be persuaded. Indian campaigns are executed over a few months and there was little time for the Congress to mount a US-style presidential campaign and gain traction quickly.

Also read: The Next Five Years Could Change India Forever

To take on Modi in 2024 would therefore require a long drawn out campaign programme focusing, among other things, on social media. Indians are now open to new leaders with national ambitions. They have shown that traditional entities like parties and election symbols are not as important as they were in the past. The time may have come for an insurgent campaign in India.

The fundamental problems of India continue to be crushing poverty that one in four Indians face, lack of opportunities, and gross inequality. The field is open for a genuine Left-liberal candidate who has the gravitas to articulate a national purpose that addresses these fundamental issues.

Rahul Gandhi has called for a radical transformation of the party to secure its future. But what is perhaps more important is whether the Congress has a candidate who can look and act presidential enough to challenge Modi.

M. Kalyanaraman is a print and broadcast journalist based in Chennai.