India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi (R) Image Credit: Reuters and ANI/File

Studies show that around 25% of voters decide their vote in about 48 hours before polling. This makes election campaigning critical for political parties. Many of these voters also like to vote for whoever they perceive is likely to win, betting on the winning horse as it were. This is why the final results are often more decisive than the perceived mood a few days before campaigning ends.

In the last few days before elections, everyone is searching for the hawa, the direction of the wind. With today’s YouTube-driven vox pop culture, the public, politicians and the media are united in the singular effort of creating, spotting and defining the “hawa”.

Sometimes the hawa is so obvious that the election is a boring match, like the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. Sometimes the hawa is elusive to catch and apparent only in the results, like the Madhya Pradesh assembly elections in December.

The Question is, how is the hawa created? There’s a one-word answer: momentum. Campaigns with momentum tend to win elections across the world, whether it was Trump 2016 or Brexit or Modi 2014.

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Rising crescendo

Momentum doesn’t just happen. It’s not a mix of luck, media, capturing the public mood and your opponent’s mistakes. Momentum is planned through a series of non-stop campaigns. Every campaign must be followed by another without a break, and every campaign must look bigger, bolder, better than the previous one. It should be like the rising crescendo of a symphony.

It seems obvious when one describes it, but it is not obvious to the Indian National Congress. If you see the difference between the Congress and the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) styles of campaigning, the Congress is like a sleeping beast which suddenly wakes up a few weeks before polling day.

This is why a few weeks before an election the Congress suddenly starts looking stronger, and the election no longer seems like a foregone conclusion. The Congress starts looking stronger because it starts campaigning! This is true of many regional parties too, such as the Rashtriya Janta Dal in Bihar and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP, on the other hand, campaigns slowly but steadily, building momentum in a calculated way. This is why the BJP’s ratings suddenly seem to swell at the fag end.

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Modi’s Momentum

If we look at how the BJP’s Lok Sabha 2024 campaign has panned out, it has followed this momentum-building non-stop campaign model. The BJP is never not campaigning. When you study the sequence of these campaigns, you see an obviously planned effort at building momentum.

There was G20, then there was Viksit Sankalp Yatra, then there was Ram Mandir… if it feels relentless it is meant to be that way. With the G20 summit and the Ram Mandir consecration, the dates have been known for 2-3 years. We have known exactly when and how the Modi campaign will peak, and yet the Congress did not plan for this in advance.

You can add many more to this list. You will see how particular the BJP is about not even giving a day’s break between two campaigns. Breaks break the momentum.

When PM Modi returned to Delhi after the Ram Mandir consecration, he did not waste a day moving on from ideological campaigning to developmental campaigning. That very day he announced a new scheme for solar panels on residential rooftops.

Each campaign ticks a different box. Whether it’s Indian nationalism or Hindu nationalism or women voters or caste groups or women or first-time voters— each campaign targets a different issue or group. Like someone ticking the boxes.

Rahul’s fits and starts

It is much easier to campaign when you are in opposition, since you are not bound by budgetary constraints, anti-incumbency and so on.

Yet the Congress party fails to do non-stop momentum building. You see one or two big campaigns before an election, whether it is a state or a central election.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra was a rare national campaign undertaken by the Congress party outside of election cycles. It ran from 7 September 2022 to 30th January 2023. Even critics were forced to accept it had some positive impact for the Congress and Rahul Gandhi. ‘At least they’re doing something for a change,’ the critics conceded.

Its sequel, the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, began on 14 January 2024. So, for a whole year before the Lok Sabha elections, there was no big national campaign. The momentum built by the Bharat Jodo Yatra was wasted. The Nyay Yatra will end on 20th March, by which time Lok Sabha election dates will have been announced.

The road to Delhi

One big mistake the Congress makes here is that it puts all national campaigning in abeyance when there are state elections. The BJP does not do so.

The Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra, a central government outreach program to spread awareness about the government’s achievements, began on 15 November 2023, in the middle of a state election cycle. The idea was to insulate the BJP’s national image, national campaign, and the PM’s image, from any possible defeats in the state elections.

The Congress, on the other hand, hopes that state election victories will build momentum for the Lok Sabha. We have seen enough state election cycles to know that they don’t affect the Lok Sabha either way, and perhaps never did. Every election has its own logic.

After the Congress party loses a historic third successive Lok Sabha election in May this year, it may want to learn Modi’s momentum trick, the key to building a perception of strength.