The Congress has made more than its share of mistakes in the run-up to the 2014 general elections. But possibly the most egregious is the barb thrown by Mani Shankar Aiyar at Narendra Modi ’s humble origins as a tea vendor, during the All-India Congress Committee session last month when Mr Aiyar predicted that Mr Modi could never be PM and offered him instead the opportunity to serve tea at the meeting.
Forget the fact that the comment was in bad taste: Neither side is likely to win prizes for decency and gentlemanliness in this campaign. Mr Aiyar’s comment made the Congress look elitist and out of touch with the poor. But worst of all, from the party’s standpoint, was the fact that it offered an open goal to the BJP.
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Mr Modi is nothing if not a canny politician with a pronounced killer instinct. Such a man is unlikely to miss the slightest opportunity handed to him, and he did not. Sure enough, he quickly positioned this as an attack by a feudal Congress on a candidate from a poor background.
More significantly, Chai pe Charcha hit the headlines. Like all powerful ideas, it is an exceedingly simple one. Mr Modi parks himself at a tea stall, and takes questions from people gathered at similar stalls across India, where large screens have been put up.
The organisers say that the exercise covers 1,000 locations in 300 cities and will reach 20 million people. In case the underlying message was at any risk of being lost, Mr Modi duly tweeted after the first event that the charcha had taken him down memory lane, to a time when he sold tea.
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Winning an election comes down to talking to people and bringing them on board. Candidates need to be accessible, and so do their ideas. Mr Modi is clearly at an advantage here.
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Communicating to large groups of people comes easily to him: He is a compelling public speaker who is in his element at rallies, and his people have taken to social media as the proverbial duck takes to water.
What Chai pe Charcha does is give him the opportunity to interact with smaller groups over a cup of India’s favourite drink. He is not holding forth, but engaging people in conversation. And it doesn’t hurt that the media hangs on to every word of these sessions.
Contrast this with some of the worthy but poorly articulated big ideas on the Congress side, and you understand why opinion polls are predicting a saffron surge. Of course, Mr Modi’s electioneering runs the risk of overdoing the rhetoric and symbols. Intelligent voters are waiting to hear more ideas on governance. But in the battle to capture the public imagination, he is far ahead.
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