Congress vs BJP in MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh: Different campaign styles

With all eyes fixed on the counting on Sunday, it is worthwhile comparing the distinctively different campaign styles of the two main parties in these three states

A Congress party election rally (photo: National Herald archives)
A Congress party election rally (photo: National Herald archives)

Tasleem Khan

The campaign for the five state assembly elections in 2023, where results are expected over the next two days, has been remarkably different than five years ago in 2018, especially in the three Hindi-speaking states. In two of these states Congress was in power for the last five years and in Madhya Pradesh BJP has been in power for 18 years and a half in the last 20 years. Both the parties had high stakes but their approaches this time were somewhat different.

It is safe to say that the BJP fought these state elections as a preparation for the generl election next year. The Prime Minister sought votes for himself and his policies; and made promises that he and other BJP leaders described as Modi’s guarantee. The attempt was clearly to cash in on the prime minister’s popularity and turn the contest between state leaders of the Congress on the one hand and the Prime Minister on the other.

As against this centralised and PM oriented campaign of the BJP, the Indian National Congress projected local leaders and local issues; it took pains to highlight people’s issues and gave vent to people’s aspirations. It was Kamalnath in Madhya Pradesh, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan and Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh who spearheaded the campaign and also took on the Prime Minister. A remarkable feature of the election was these Congress chief ministers and state leaders repeatedly calling out the PM’s misleading remarks.

The Prime Minister began his campaign by aggressively attacking the Congress for its alleged ‘Revdi’ culture of distributing freebies. He described leaders promising freebies as sinners and said that the country would be paying a heavy price for such populism. He also said that he recognised only one caste and that is the poor. By the end of the campaign, the PM was speaking of different castes (constituencies) of women, youth and the poor. Union home minister Amit Shah was promising an OBC chief minister in Telangana and the PM was wooing the Gurjars in Rajasthan. BJP had also started announcing freebies.

Unlike the BJP which looked listless and faction-ridden in the states, the Grand Old Party (GOP) appeared more cohesive than ever. It had sharpened its social media presence, its use of cartoons and comic strips in advertisements, its campaign songs and road shows were visibly far more energetic. It also sought to blunt the BJP’s accusation that Congress is against religion and especially Hindu religion with its leaders visiting temples and shrines. Rahul Gandhi did kar seva at the Golden Temple and visited Kedarnath, without making any attempt to publicise or politicise his visits, in sharp contrast to the Prime Minister who even posed as an avatar of Vishnu.

The BJP and the Prime Minister were also pushed on the backfoot by the Congress supporting the demand for a caste census. By the time the campaign ended, BJP leaders had changed their tune and from berating the demand had grudgingly begun talking of share in power according to the proportion of population.

That Congress was more systematic and was arguably better prepared was also evident. For each state five committees were formed to oversee the campaign; they were the core committee, campaign committee, manifesto committee, communication and publicity besides a protocol committee.  Party leaders were assigned to address the local media in districts and party spokespersons were clearly better prepared to respond to questions at live shows from anchors, the audience and also the BJP spokespersons. Despite the mainstream media ignoring the tremendously successful rallies and roads shows of Mallikarjun Kharge, Rahul Gandhi, Revanth Reddy and the Congress chief ministers, the social media was activated to reach the party’s message to the people.

That these measures were effective is borne out by the BJP rushing to the Election Commission with complaints over social media posts of Congress leaders, especially Rahul Gandhi. The Election Commission was forced to take notice of the word ‘Panauti’ (inauspicious) used allegedly for the Prime minister at a rally. If Congress succeeds in combating the anti-incumbency and the onslaught by central agencies—Income Tax, the ED and the CBI—in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh—these strategies would play a pivotal role.

If Chiranjeevi health insurance scheme in Rajasthan, guaranteeing free medical interventions up to Rs 25 lakhs, created goodwill for the Gehlot government, in Chhattisgarh the focus was on farmers and on the procurement price of paddy. So much so that the BJP was forced to pledge LPG cylinders at Rs 450 whereas in the rest of the country it is being made available at Rs 900 even after a pre-poll reduction of Rs 200.  

Even as the Prime minister targeted the Congress for its alleged corruption and dynastic politics, for possibly the first time Congress leaders responded in kind, aggressively countering the allegations. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra repeatedly said that she was proud to come from a family of martyrs and pointed out that no member of the family has held a ministerial position since 1991 when the former PM Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated.

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