If you go to the Twitter or Facebook handles of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its main opposition party, the Congress, you will notice many similarities.
Both of them promote their top leaders with a singular effort: Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the BJP’s case and Wayanad Lok Sabha MP Rahul Gandhi in the Congress’ case.
Both of them speak on national issues with eye-catching graphics and videos.
There is, however, one difference: at least 75% tweets by Congress criticise BJP, whereas at least 75% tweets by BJP propagate the work the BJP-led governments are doing for the people.
The only positive tweets by Congress — tweets that talk about what Congress is doing for the people — are retweets of its chief ministers in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
BJP's social media messaging
You do see some negative tweets from the BJP: excerpts from Amit Shah’s rally in Kerala, attacking Congress and Communists alike, or PM Modi’s comment criticising Rahul Gandhi for condemning his government from London.
But mostly, the BJP tweets more about its own rallies, work, effort, ideas, promises, and proposals, than against opposition parties.
If there is one excerpt from a Modi speech in Karnataka, where he is speaking against Rahul Gandhi, there are two excerpts from his own speech where he is speaking about his own achievements: a new IIT in Dharwad, and contributions to infrastructure development in the state.
You can see this across all communication channels by the BJP. The ratio is carefully calibrated. At most, it reaches 1/3rd negative. It seems much more than that, because negative comments make headlines. Z criticised Y seems legitimate news, but ‘we started a new hospital’ doesn’t. Fair enough.
But liberals and opposition leaders also tend to obsess about the BJP’s negative comments without noticing that most of the BJP’s communication is positive. For the most part, the BJP is constantly telling the people of India what it has done for them, what it is doing, and what it proposes to do next.
The news media has moved on from the Adani stock market scandal, but a tweet by the Congress says it has called for a nationwide protest on the issue. Meanwhile, we don’t know if Rahul Gandhi is still lecturing in London.
A positive opposition?
Some would say it is an opposition party’s job to criticise, and a government’s job to propagate its achievements. Sounds about right.
But since this model hasn’t been working for the Congress party, they should study how the BJP does this. In 2013 the Congress-led UPA2 coalition was falling like a pack of cards. It would have been easy for the BJP to just criticise the Congress and return to power.
Yet the Narendra Modi campaign of 2013-14 was almost entirely positive. It was known as the “Achche Din” campaign, the promise of the good days. That was one reason why the BJP in 2014 made history by winning the first single-party majority since 1984.
The BJP does go overboard with negative campaigning when it is up against regional parties in the states. They try to play the anti-establishment champions. As we saw in West Bengal in 2021, it often doesn’t work for them either.
What do the people want?
Every party has its core supporters, thanks to factors like ideology, caste or religion. It is swing voters who make parties win or lose elections. Voters who are willing to switch to whichever party’s offering them a better deal.
In terms of leadership, the Congress party’s face Rahul Gandhi is not good enough. Even the Congress doesn’t declare him their Prime Ministerial candidate. In terms of party organisation, they don’t have one. Who is the voter to call on to get a ration card if the BJP has one worker for 50 voters and Congress has one for 5,000?
If there is one way the Congress could offer voters a better deal, it is through narrative. The Congress — and this is true for most opposition parties at the state level too — seems to have only one agenda, and that is the BJP.
The swing voter’s agenda is jobs and cost of living, better education and health, more rural roads and economic activity. What does the Congress party say to them all day? Modi is bad, Modi is bad, Modi is bad.
Sometimes it seems the Congress is more about Narendra Modi than Rahul Gandhi.
Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra was essentially a negative campaign, against the ‘politics of hate’. As was his campaign around the same time 5 years ago, with the Rafale purchase issue. Rafale didn’t get them any votes, nor will Adani.
Lack of conviction
Of course, the Congress can give you countless instances when they ‘speak’ on issues but the problem is that they do so negatively. What doesn’t come through is how the Congress can create jobs or reduce inflation or turbocharge economic growth or compete with China.
The absolute lack of any positive campaign by the Congress party — with the exception of a half-hearted promise of minimum basic income in 2019 — is astounding. It’s as if the party once led by Mahatma Gandhi is openly admitting they have no ideas left for India.
Whether Modi’s ideas are good or bad, at least he has ideas — is how the swing voter thinks. At least he knows what he’s doing. At least he’s trying, and so on.
The Congress party doesn’t even seem to be trying to solve the people’s problems. If anything, they’re losing even more votes by scoring self-goals on the nationalism front.
Criticising Modi from London may be intellectually defendable but is politically foolish. The same is true for tensions with China.
Next time when you hear a Modi speech, try to measure how much time he spent on negative comments versus positive comments. It’s quite revealing.