The Congress’s campaign in the 2007 Gujarat election was a high-voltage affair because the party saw it as an opportunity to dethrone Narendra Modi. It thought that the voters would reassess Modi not just on governance but his image, as portrayed by his opponents. That, the Congress calculated, would persuade the voters to go against Modi.
The Congress had failed to understand how an average voter saw that battle: the Gujaratis saw Modi as someone who was braving a vindictive Centre, a fiendish Congress, obsessive NGOs, a prejudiced media, a capricious legal system and vested interests, even as he dealt with attempts within the BJP and the parivar to trip him up. All this pushed his voters and they became a part of his campaign (remember the Modi mask?)
But 2012 was a relatively low-key election. Unlike the last time, when the opponents managed to create an impression that the results could go either way, this time, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. That explains the lack of high-voltage mobilisation and why the Congress kept its three main leaders largely out of the campaign. Taking Modi head-on would have only strengthened Modi.
Since there could not be much speculation on the result, the only alternative was to work to bring his tally down. But then that was not possible by doing something that could give Modi momentum. Hence, there was no head-on challenge, no secular grandstanding, no direct references to him in the campaign material.
The Congress ran its best-funded and slickest campaign in Gujarat. With over 24 TV films running in regional and national networks, the Congress seemed to be fighting Modi not just in Gujarat but all over India. It was nothing short of a paranoid rival’s acknowledgement of Modi’s imminent transition to the national stage. The frequency of those films made the message sound like a rant. The top three of the Congress were missing from these films, their mug-shots absent from the billboards and newspaper publicity.
Instead, a model, who brought alive the memories of the hectoring housewife Lalitaji, was seen delivering the Congress’s message. The films borrowed imagery and ideas from the BJP’s films. On the other hand, the BJP’s campaign had two themes: first, about Modi the visionary leader and his 10-year governance record, and second, about the questionable record of the Congress governments in Gujarat and at the Centre. The challenge for the BJP campaign was to turn the polls into a referendum on Modi instead of allowing it to dissipate into localised contests. Technology too played a role: the 3-D projection of his speeches addressed half a million voters every day.
Even great sprinters need a pacer to help them achieve the best timing. In this poll, with no hope of winning, the Congress did not want to be that pacer and help Modi better his earlier mark. But opting out of the race was not an option. Their awkward campaign reflected this dilemma.
Sushil Pandit has been responsible for Narendra Modi’s media campaign since the 2007 elections.
The views expressed by the author are personal.