Congress leader Rahul Gandhi addresses his party workers Image Credit: ANI Archive

The average Indian politician wakes up in the morning and starts attacking his or her opponents. Whether they’re in power or in opposition, whether they’re tall mass leaders or drawing room dealmakers, the sport that they truly enjoy is to condemn the opponent.

Ask an Indian politician about their faults, they’ll attack the opponent. Ask an Indian politician about their plan to solve the people’s problems, and they’ll attack the rival party.

It is interesting that sometimes negative campaigning seems to produce electoral benefits, and at other times it does not. Is there a method in the madness?

Negative grabs attention

The media, and even the common public, have a role to play in the excess of negative campaigning. If a politician calls his opponent a thief, it’s a headline. Mic-waving reporters then go to the opponent and ask for his response. He calls the other guy a crook. It’s all good masala, good fodder for another mindless TV “debate”. The TV editors will say their ratings show the public loves it, too.

Now if the same politician says he has a plan to create millions of jobs, news editors will not see that as a headline. They’ll say why should we do the politician’s PR? This is just how news works: dog bites man is not a story.

If you hear a 45 minute speech by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he might spend 40 minutes speaking about his government’s achievements in various fields, but those five minutes he spends speaking against other political parties is what will make headlines and hashtags.

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While negative campaigning may be an easy way to get attention, this attention does not always translate into votes. When it comes to voting, at least the swing voter wants to know which politician can deliver them the best in terms of development, governance and economic upliftment. These rational issues have to be communicated to voters in an emotional way, and the attention economy won’t help you.

All politicians promise jobs and freebies, the voter cynically shrugs. It is one thing to make a promise, another thing to make the voter trust that you are the right leader to deliver on the promise. Which is why smart politicians spend most of their time on positive campaigning, not letting the negative headlines overtake their core message.

Modi’s balancing act

Critics of PM Modi might say he and his Bharatiya Janata Party spend too much time attacking an already-weak opposition. The truth is that the BJP’s message is 60-80% positive. You can check this on any BJP social media handle: most posts will be about the government’s achievements and plans for development. Note that this is communication from the party, and it will be true (albeit to a lesser extent) even among state-level BJP social media handles even where the BJP is in opposition.

There are times when the BJP has made the mistake of going more negative than positive, and has lost. One such example was the 2022 West Bengal assembly election.

In 2013-14, as the Congress-led UPA government was supremely unpopular, the Modi campaign could have won easily by being negative, by simply attacking the government. But he chose to be positive, promise “Achche Din” or the ‘Good Days’. Perhaps this helped him get a full majority and end the coalition era.

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The Congress party, recent record shows, also does better when it focuses on positive campaigning. In most, if not all, of its state election victories since 2014, what has stood out is the specific promises, from farm loan waivers to cash transfers. Despite positive messaging the Congress could fail, because maybe the public thought the BJP was better at delivering on promises. But when the Congress is weak on positive messaging, it seems to have no chance of winning.

Winning from a position of weakness

One pattern that this election tourist has observed is that when a party is in a position of strength, negative campaigning helps. So if the BJP is far ahead of Congress and it attacks Congress, the message seems to resonate. The public seems to nod in agreement that the Congress is weak, inefficient, corrupt, nepotistic or whatever.

But when the BJP attacks a strong party, such as the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal or the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi assembly elections in 2020, the public seems to consolidate further in favour of the strong party. The public seems to feel that an Arvind Kejriwal giving free electricity to the poor or a Mamata Banerjee giving all kinds of schemes to women are being unfairly attacked.

This is true not just for the BJP, but for all parties in most situations. When you are David, the stone you throw at Goliath needs to be one of positive campaigning.

This is why no amount of Modi-bashing seems to work for Rahul Gandhi. Whether it was Rafael in 2019 or Adani in 2024, Rahul Gandhi’s message does not resonate with voters. It may be harder for him to get attention with positive campaigning, because it’s not going to be easy for Rahul Gandhi to convince voters that he knows better than Modi how to create jobs or reduce inflation. But that is the only way he can get the swing voter.