It is ‘MeToo’ of a different kind (not the contemporary scurrilous version), the dogs are off the leash and the drum roll has begun. After losing the mandate in 2014, the growing irrelevance that the Congress faced which saw its role and space shrinking in the mind space of the electorate, it is attempting to claw back from the precipice. Learning quickly that sometimes in life one fights the current and other times one flows with the river, the Grand Old Party is now beginning to come to terms with new realities. The realities that the digital and social embrace have brought about makes one’s position tenuous if you don’t engage with it. The new rules of engagement are rigorous and involve technological interface. The Congress President Rahul Gandhi realised this as soon as he took over. The genius of Amit Shah’s style of soldiering and combat is to get down and dirty by engaging directly with party workers or Karyakartas, map and track the voters and essentially get deep down into the concentric circle so that you know the voters backwards and forwards. Furthermore, the granularity involves bringing the voter to the polling booth. And this two fold activity has been mastered with great acumen by Shah and his workers who have used the PM’s larger than life persona of a Hindu Hridya Samrat with great precision and potency.
This is the ‘MeToo’ culture that the Congress began to usher in. It went deeper and deeper into the giant concentric circle called India to connect with the voters. A booth programme was launched with the focus on voters, workers to produce resource optimisation. The Congress understands that BJP President Amit Shah is a pioneer in this format, he is considered a disruptor in this art of warfare for he has taken the Big Leader and his Big Messaging to new levels. The recent state elections thus was the crucible of combat where the Congress tested its new modules and models and came out unscathed in at least three Hindu heartland states. The copycat model is now working seamlessly across the land. For Amit Shah and former investment banker Praveen Chakravarty who handles the data analytics for the Congress party, the battle will now be fought across the 200,000 polling booths in a scientific data heavy hitting manner.
For the most part, elections are going local and what telly did historically, social media did in 2014 and beyond. Considered repugnant by the old guard in the Congress till recently, the proof of concept through the use of digital embrace and data analytics in the three northern and middle India states has changed the mindsets in 24 Akbar Road. An example of this granularity is say a visit live through the Congress War Room to Bher village in Rajasthan where there are only 2146 voters, a mere two booths, 321 households with nine Rams, three Chandras and one Mohd. Their family incomes, number of members, mobile numbers etc were quickly collated and then disseminated. Similarly in Nagaur again in Rajasthan for the Vidhan Sabha, a similar mapping was done. It was found that there are 26 per cent Muslims, 19 per cent Jats, 17 per cent SC, 10 per cent Brahmins and 10 per cent Mahajans. Names and numbers were collated and thrown into the big capsule, phone calls were made directly to many by the Congress President Rahul Gandhi himself, a connection was attempted to be established. Caste calculus and its formal decoding began. After an ignominious obliteration in poll after poll since the 2014 hustings, Operation Shakti was launched eight months ago.
Former Goldman Sachs Wall Street banker Praveen Chakravarty who worked with Nandan Nilekani in the past in UIDAI and then in Dr Manmohan Singh’s PMO emerged as the new centrifuge in Gandhi’s strategic plan. A data scientist, Wharton educated Chucky as he is known understood that old style electioneering was dead. As soon as Rahul Gandhi was appointed Congress president in November 2017, he roped in Chucky and by the time the Congress Plenary took place in March the following year, Chucky was on the Economic Resolution Drafting Committee. Immediately thereafter Operation Shakti was launched as a pilot project to connect with workers and voters and invigorate and educate them on the bipolarity of politics and the need for a refurbished Congress which had cut the umbilical cord with its own tendentious and dark past. The people were reminded that the Congress was the Big Tent, an amorphous body which could absorb one and all, and could be viewed as an all inclusive organisation. Now designated Chairman of the Data Analytics Department, Chucky is the instrumentality that Rahul Gandhi is using as a battering ram to unobtrusively enter people’s homes.
I caught up with Chucky to understand what the Congress was attempting for the BJP had them on the run till recently. As he says, “I was quite sanguine initially on this whole metamorphosis but when I saw the Congress President calling a worker by name and talking to him and the response that he was getting, I realised that the wisdom of the crowds could not be faulted, involve the people in everything which is the real offshoot of true democracy or peoplecracy. That is how 30,000 people were surveyed in Delhi to find out who should be Congress President for Delhi. In fact every candidate was selected in the three north and middle India states using this interface, including the CMs. The template being Wisdom of the Crowds a seminal book by James Surowiecki. New Yorker business columnist with boundless erudition explores the simple idea of large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant and better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions and even predicting the future. Data is available, my experience and expertise as a political scientist helped and one found over a six month period that data is pure gold and that is what one needed to plug and play into.”
Apparently, the Congress President is an extraordinary believer in the objectivity of data and the primacy of this being the gold standard to crack the election code. As Chucky says, “We have learnt a lot from these state elections - what worked, what didn’t - and have started transposing this learning for the Lok Sabha elections. Plans are now afoot to craft our campaign accordingly, this is work in progress and it it will be done after collecting ground zero feedback from multiple locations. It will be ground up in terms of choice of candidate, mediums of communication, issues at hand, the whole ball of wax. All my output goes directly to the Congress President only. He then gives direction on the way forward.”
The battle of 2019 will be fought across 200,000 polling booths and the issues will vary from place to place. For instance in the state elections, just to give a flavour, the Congress found that landless farmers and youth were livid over in DeMo in Bhopal. Upper caste wanted reservation somewhere else etc. Chucky studied at BITS Pilani and worked with IBM in Japan and at Microsoft on Windows 95 and did his Masters from Wharton before plunging into the high jinks world of investment banking only to move back to India in 2005. His belief is that there is no general election in India, it is a sum of parts as in 29 states go to the polls at the same time. As he added - National election is a myth. Our approach is to attack each state differently for every state has myriad problems. Our incessant surveys and people inputs have shown us that notebandi resulted in a scarcity of jobs, it transcended across class, gender, economic strata. It’s overnight announcement in that it became law as of midnight November 8 broke the back of the people in this country.
The Congress is buoyant on its Gabbar Singh Tax stratagem which it claims has worked. They will take on an incumbent in Narendra Modi, but a defiant PM whose people connect skills are unquestionable. Somewhere in this convoluted narrative, the Congress is expected to focus on the economy for it reckons that the economy is resembling a shipwreck. At the vanguard of the Congress electioneering campaign will be scarcity of jobs, pricing erosion for farmers, ever lowering demand for MSMES, another casualty of notebandi which will bring the focus back on the economy and how it is hurting people of all hues. Chucky also confirmed that another imperative was RBI which worked consistently with the voter as the GOP tried to pinpoint areas of economic weakness which included the emasculation of the venerable institution.
The Congress morale is upbeat as if it has been given an adrenaline shot, winning helps and three states are like sone pe suhaga. New elements have been introduced in the Congress campaign, there is freshness in its approach in the main people connect. The BJP won 62 out of 65 LS seats in the 2014 general elections in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh. Empirical data from these state polls reveals that they have lost 50 of these if a LS polls was to take place today. Of course, state polls, by polls and general hustings are fought on different issues. In parallel with the general elections, three important states will go to the polls - Andhra, Odisha and possibly J&K. Immediately after the national polls, Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand will go to the polls. The Congress won 206 seats in the 2009 polls to romp home as the single largest party, by December 2013, after various state polls, the total had been reduced to 106 if one was to collate assembly poll data. So, if the Congress ended up with 44 in May 2014, it was no surprise, for the erosion was rapid and severe.
Many pollsters and pundits reckon that this election may well be about the 300 Conundrum. That between BJP and Congress, they will capture 300 seats — 180 to the BJP and 120 to the Congress. But this discourse can change quickly and both the BJP and Congress can gain. But beyond 300, the numbers don’t add up for the two mainline parties which means that the bulk of the balance will be shared by the regional chieftains — TMC, SP, BSP, Shiv Sena, NCP, DMK, Left, Jagan Mohan Reddy, KCR, Naveen Patnaik, Lalu Yadav. How many of them will ally with the BJP remains in the realm of conjecture? What can be said with certitude is that BJP allies are in disarray and new allies will have to be found in Jagan Reddy and KCR. The BJP also believes that it will try and offset its losses in UP, Bihar and other states by penetrating Bengal and Odisha, latent untapped areas with 63 seats where polarisation will help in garnering seats.
It remains a tricky election, one that will go down to the wire and beyond and moreover it will be replete with surprises. In the eventuality that neither of the two mainline parties get to the half way mark, which now seems a certainty, new faces and candidates will emerge - Pranab Mukherjee, Yashwant Sinha, Nitin Gadkari - could be such names. That the Congress has got a sniff and is once again back in the hunt cannot be overstated. While Mr Modi will not relinquish power so easily and his master tactician Amit Shah will try his utmost to stay is equally true. But the Congress is resurgent while the BJP appears rattled.