Rahul Gandhi (R) says that PM Narendra Modi is rattled by Congress' manifesto Image Credit: AFP/ANI

Election manifestos are those promises and paperwork that catch as much voter attention as a parched dictionary. This time though, things are different especially when it comes to the Congress manifesto and funnily enough, the party has the BJP to thank for it. The release of its ‘Nyay Patra’ in the first week of April has conversely fascinated and revitalised the BJP.

Like clockwork, daily, there is a reference to either the Congress or its manifesto — which leans heavily into welfarism and social justice — and as BJP leaders predictably diss it, they make sure that ironically far from going into oblivion, it holds centre stage. At the same time, the BJP is moving further from sharing its own achievements with the voters, there is almost negligible talk of its own manifesto.

For a party widely expected to come back to power for a third consecutive term, this dependence on Congress to frame its narrative is flummoxing. In the 2014 elections that brought Narendra Modi to power for the first time, Ache Din (good days) was as much a buzzword as it was BJP’s India Shining moment.

Five years later, on the back of nationalism fronted by the ‘surgical strike’, the promise of Ram Mandir construction, and the abolition of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, the party was back in power.

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Circumventing the election commission

But with all this done and dusted, the slogan Modi ki Guarantee is missing the resonance of the past. Promises to tackle black money and corruption briefly made the headlines and were superseded by these words from the prime minister, ‘Jinko koi nahi poochtaa, unko Modi poojta hai’ — those who are ignored, Modi worships.

There is a pattern. Either the speech writer changes every few days or there is a strange attention deficit malaise in a party whose biggest strength is that it is forever in election mode. But the only narrative it is consistently holding on to in these polls is — inadvertently — dictated by the main opposition party.

The BJP has been in power for ten years, yet its campaign trail does not reflect the party’s accomplishments, all talk of Vikas and the vision of Viksat Bharat are guest appearances. For the party’s hard-core support base economics alone isn’t convincing and needs an emotive issue.

So, passionate speeches on faith and minorities are the yin to the yang of a Congress manifesto that has been appropriated as a weapon. Also, by firing under the garb of Congress’s name, the ruling party smartly circumvents the election commission.

Modi’s initial reaction was that the Congress manifesto resembles the thoughts of Jinnah’s party in pre-partition India. Next, he accused Congress of wanting to redistribute wealth to a particular community going back in time to a comment made by the then prime minister Manmohan Singh on minorities.

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Seizing this moment

“The Congress manifesto says they will seize the gold and ornaments of sisters and mothers and distribute it among those who have more children and infiltrators … They will not even spare your mangalsutra (sacred necklace for married women).” Priyanka Gandhi’s response was to cite how her mother Sonia Gandhi sacrificed her mangalsutra for the country — she was alluding to the assassination of her father Rajiv Gandhi.

The recent statements target the local voter, but they are contrary to India’s image. Incidentally, candidates asking for votes in the name of religion or caste is a blatant violation. But the BJP’s focus on the interplay of Congress and minorities remains unabated, does the party know more than the pundits and the people?

So far, the Congress-led INDIA alliance has been no threat to the BJP’s march for a third successive election win. Its only contest has been with itself and the 400 number in Parliament.

Yet, with no central theme and an eagle-eyed emphasis on what Congress does, says, and doesn’t say, the ruling party seems to be playing defensive. Two phases in the lengthy seven-phase Indian election are over and low polling in both — with the second phase further sliding from the first — indicates a lack of voter enthusiasm.

From 70 per cent in the first phase in 2019 to 65.5 per cent in 2024, below-par voting most political pundits say, indicates the absence of a wave although there are no concrete studies on it.

The much-hyped abki baar 400 par slogan (We will get 400 seats this time) of the BJP has also quietly gone on the back burner. The remaining phases will take place as humid summer months gather momentum in India and heatwave consumes its cities and towns which could further voter lethargy.

The Congress meanwhile finds itself at the receiving end of some much-unanticipated attention. Can it capitalise on the momentum organically or will its history of self-goals — Sam Pitroda’s comments on inheritance tax, the recent case in point — push it back from seizing this moment? The BJP may still be the uncontested front-runner, but for the first time in a decade, is it also on the back foot?