Congress leader Rahul Gandhi waves to people during Bharat Jodo Yatra at Kazhakuttom in South India Image Credit: ANI

The biggest flaw in the Congress party’s “Bharat Jodo Yatra” (Unite India March) is its name. It should have been “Naukri Banao Yatra” (Create Jobs March).

To win elections, a political party needs a core vote base and a swing vote of those who are not the core of any party. In 2014, Narendra Modi already had the core Hindu nationalist vote base. He added the swing voter with a campaign that centred around economic issues, promising to rid India of corruption and speed up its economic progress.

It’s the economy, stupid

In fact, every national election in recent memory has been fought on economic issues. In 2004, the Vajpayee-led BJP government’s slogan “India Shining” was countered by the Congress campaign that said, “Aam Aadmi Ko Kya Mila?” (What did the common man get?) The BJP lost the election, reducing its seats even in Gujarat, where it had gained after interreligious violence in 2002.

In 2009, the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai took place just a few months before the general elections. The BJP criticised the Congress for not undertaking a retaliatory military attack on Pakistan. Yet, the Congress only increased its numbers from 2004, mainly because of its economic performance, delivering growth with welfare measures such as a rural employment guarantee law and a farm loan waiver.

When the Congress party lost badly in 2014 and 2019, it still retained its solid 19% vote share, suggesting the core vote base is intact. What the Congress needs is the swing vote, and what the swing vote needs is for the Congress to persuade them that the Congress party knows how to create jobs and alleviate inflation woes.

As an ‘election tourist’ I travel across India and I’m awed by the ease with which BJP workers prevent swing voters from deserting the BJP. All they have to say is, ‘Do you really think Rahul Gandhi can create jobs? Do you really think Congress can reduce inflation?’ And that’s the end of the argument, not least because Congress barely has one demoralised worker as compared to 21 BJP workers in a polling booth. The message and the messenger are both absent.

This is also often true of ‘regional’ anti-BJP parties as well, such as the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, both reduced to the core vote base and unable to win swing votes.

How Tejashwi hit bull’s eye

At least since 2016, survey after survey has shown that unemployment and inflation are the top issues Indian citizens are concerned about. The two put together are usually over 50% in terms of the concerns expressed by the people.

People often wonder, ‘Why do unemployment and inflation not hurt the BJP in elections?’ Well, for one, because the opposition doesn’t offer voters an alternative plan to address these economic pain points. All that the opposition does is negative campaigning, bashing the BJP from morning to night.

In the 2020 Bihar state elections, Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav did a concerted, concrete campaign promising 10 lakh jobs if his party won. The response was so overwhelming that the RJD itself was surprised. Tejashwi Yadav doubled the number of rallies he was addressing every day. Alas it was too late: he had begun his campaign just two months before the election.

Yet the impact of that clear, coherent campaign was that even today unemployed youth in Bihar are speaking positively about Tejashwi. He has again become deputy chief minister after Nitish Kumar dumped the BJP and revived his alliance with the RJD.

Soon after this, I made a trip to Bihar, where I was surprised that youth across castes are speaking positively of Tejashwi. I even met upper caste youth who said they can’t vote for anyone except BJP but they hope Tejashwi becomes chief minister because ‘at least someone is talking about jobs’.

The “Bharat Jodo Yatra” is clearly about secularism Image Credit: ANI

The inchoate message of the Yatra

India’s unemployment rate is over 8% right now. This means, 8% of the population is actively looking for jobs but can’t find one. If Rahul Gandhi was doing a ‘Naukri Banao Yatra’, it could have added a few percentage points to the Congress party’s 19% vote share.

The “Bharat Jodo Yatra” is clearly about secularism. If the name doesn’t directly say so, you only have to see what they are saying in and through the Yatra. The same old song of love and hate. The people who will be moved by this narrative — and there will be many — already vote Congress or at least vote against BJP.

Of course the Congress will say it is very much talking about inflation, unemployment and other economic issues through the Yatra. Yes, it is. But then, there is nothing they are not talking about. The message is lost because it is not concrete, tangible, focused. What is worse than a Yatra to revive secularism is a Yatra whose message is not even clear.

The BJP once took a Yatra on a “rath” (chariot) with a clear message — we want to build a temple. In Andhra Pradesh, Jagan Mohan Reddy undertook a 2 year long Yatra with a clear message — 9 things he would do for the people if elected to power. Mahatma Gandhi once undertook a march with a clear agenda: to make salt in violation of British colonial rules.

Let them eat love

With the vague, inchoate “Bharat Jodo Yatra”, Rahul Gandhi is repeating his Rafael mistake. In 2018-19, he campaigned against prime minister Narendra Modi by alleging corruption in purchase of Rafael fighter jets. The masses wanted to know how the Congress could create jobs but Rahul Gandhi was telling them about defence purchases.

He did come up with a campaign promising a ‘minimum basic income’ scheme. This campaign was launched too late, and carried out so poorly that I saw a truck carrying an English poster about it in tribal Gujarat. People didn’t even hear about it, and those who did, wondered what it meant or how it was going to be executed.

It takes time to make your message reach 1.4 billion people. Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party are going to waste 5 months sending out a message that won’t address the biggest issues faced by 1.4 billion people.

People want jobs, and we will hear Rahul Gandhi speak for 5 full months that he wants to spread love.