On a visit to Mumbai two days before the city would vote, I did the clichéd thing of talking to Nithyanand, my cab driver, on a slow ride from the airport into town. A second-generation Tamil migrant in Mumbai, Nithyanand is 32. I asked him whom he was going to vote for. He smiled: “Ab ki bar, Modi sarkar, sir!” He said he’d be voting for Rahul Shewale, Mumbai South Central’s candidate from the Shiv Sena, an ally of the BJP. The Marathi chauvinism of the Sena, which in its early days targeted south Indian immigrants, especially Tamils, in Bombay (as it was then known) didn’t seem to faze him although he admitted that his parents had suffered during those years. He said it was to Narendra Modi that his vote would go and that if things had to change and his future turn brighter there was only one man in these elections who could do that.
As it happened, on voting day, Mumbaikars did better than they traditionally do — the turnout was the highest in 25 years — and everyone said this was in keeping with the high voting in most large cities because urban Indians want to plump for change. A few hours after my chat with Nithyanand, Maharashtra’s articulate and well-respected chief minister, Congressman Prithviraj Chavan, told me how the BJP’s campaign had not only turned the polls into a presidential form of elections, pitching Modi as the PM candidate but it was also the first time that product marketing principles had been used in elections and that regardless of whether it created “a tsunami, a wave or a ripple”, there was a lesson in this for the future.
He is right. How successful Modi’s singular campaign is will be known less than three weeks from now, but the contrast between his and the Congress’ campaign couldn’t be starker. Modi revved up his campaign long before the election dates were announced. In six months, he’s addressed more than 400 rallies; the BJP’s advertising, all of it focusing sharply on one man, has been like a relentless series of carpet-bombings; there’s been copious use of hi-tech aids such as simulcasts of his campaigns using 3D holography and real-time feedback analysis from key constituencies; and, not to forget, an eager media has generously covered the blitz, particularly the TV news channels, which have lapped up feed from every meeting he’s addressed and telecast it live.
In contrast, the Congress’ campaign has been tepid. Its star campaigner and vice-president Rahul Gandhi can hardly match the demagogic yet arresting oratory of Modi, who skilfully customises his messages for the audience he’s addressing with appropriate tweaks depending on whether he’s at a Google Hangout or he’s speaking at a rally of Dalits. Gandhi is a poor public speaker and even though he’s addressed nearly 100 rallies since March 1, his oratory isn’t impressive. Questions have been raised about the BJP’s huge spends — on rallies, advertising and merchandising — and the sources of funds but the Congress’ promotional efforts have been low key, so much so that, at least in the beginning, it even opted for black and white print ads, which got lost in the clutter.
It is almost as if the two parties are fighting two different elections — one here and now and the other in the past. The BJP has been quick to adopt technology, modern marketing and new media tools to take things to a new level, while the Congress’ campaign has been retro-styled and old-fashioned. Elections aren’t won solely on the strength of rallies or advertising. The vast majority of people’s votes, like Nithyanand’s, are decided by who they think will make their lives better. But, if the BJP strikes success when the results are announced on May 16, it may well have changed the way elections will be fought in the years to come.