I Worked On Congress Campaign In Rajasthan. Here’s Why We Lost

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I worked as a campaign manager for the Congress party in the 2023 Rajasthan assembly elections. I want to put on record some observations about the fascinating politics of this state.

Our greatest challenge this election was not the Bhartiya Janata Party, formidable as they are. Our greatest challenge was the inherent belief among a large section of voters that the government can, will and should change every five years. The saying is, we must turn the roti or it will burn.

We tested this in a survey. A whopping 73% of respondents said they had heard of the term “roti palatna“. A very large number of respondents – 29% of them – felt the tradition was so important that even if a government does well, it should be changed. When you can win or lose an election by 1-2% vote share, 29% of people telling you that no amount of good governance can make them vote for you is a unique problem.

This is not the same as “anti-incumbency”. From February onwards, our daily tracker survey consistently showed us that Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his government had very high ratings – surveys in the media before the elections found the same. Gehlot was consistently the favourite choice for Chief Minister across parties. People were happy with the Gehlot government, but the roti always turns.

I was determined to change the tradition. We may have failed to do so, but we came very close.

Data gives us some sobering nuance to the tradition of alternation.

We see that when it is the BJP’s turn it usually wins big, both in terms of seats and vote share. When it is the Congress’ turn, it usually just scrapes through.

The charts below show you how the BJP’s lead over the Congress was increasing over election cycles in the 2000s, in both seats and vote shares, but the 2023 assembly election has pushed against the trend.

राजस्थान के कार्यवाहक मुख्यमंत्री अशोक गहलोत (फाइल फोटो)
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A 2% vote share difference makes it a close contest – as indeed everyone felt it was. This was a much closer defeat for the Congress than Chhattisgarh, where the vote share difference was 4.04%, or the 8.17% margin in Madhya Pradesh. In terms of seats, too, this is the Congress party’s best ‘losing’ performance since 1993.

Mehangai Rahat Camps

A year ago the election did not look close at all. The public was either unaware of many government programs and schemes or often misled into believing that popular Rajasthan government schemes such as Chiranjeevi were central government schemes.

In February, the election year budget of the government announced unprecedented social security schemes. Rajasthan became the only state to give subsidies on LPG cylinders so the poor had to pay only Rs 500 for them. By making the first 100 units of household electricity bills free, and free electricity up to 2,000 units to the farmers, the government effectively made the electricity bills of most citizens zero. With the Chiranjeevi scheme, Rajasthan also became the only state in the country to offer free Rs 25 lakh health insurance to 80% of the population. Then there was Rs 10 lakh accidental death insurance, an Annapurna food packet, free smartphones for women, urban job guarantee, increased MNREGA work days and so on.

On our informal advice, the chief minister decided to have the people register for these schemes in camps from April onwards. These were called Mehangai Rahat Camps, and people were given “guarantee cards” for each scheme they chose to enroll in. The camps completely changed public sentiment in the state. Non-stop campaigns by the government thereafter kept up the momentum. The ratings in our daily trackers soared. The government stuck to its positive narrative around schemes and social security. The BJP was on a back foot to the extent that it had to clarify it wouldn’t stop the very schemes it was opposing with the charge of fiscal irresponsibility.

After election dates were announced, the party campaign was slow to take off, and this caused a break in momentum, again reflected in our daily tracker. But we more than made up for it in November, when our campaigns made the ratings reach the April-May levels after the success of Mehangai Rahat Camps. You don’t have to take my word for this: a post-poll study by the Lokniti program at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies says as much.

Lokniti researchers note that the Congress campaign was more effective than the BJP’s in earning the votes of those who decide their voting choice at the last minute. They also found that Congress managed to reach more voters than the BJP through phone, SMS, WhatsApp, and even door-to-door campaigning. It also found that the party’s Seven Guarantees Yatra campaign reached 54% of voters. Our ‘Seven Guarantees’ campaign managed to get a crore registrations through missed calls.

Why We Lost

All of this begs the question, why did the Congress lose? Three reasons: First, as mentioned earlier, was the tradition of ‘roti palatna’ which ensures the ‘hawa‘ is naturally against even a popular incumbent.

Second, around 50 Congress MLAs faced very high MLA-level anti-incumbency. Far too many voters liked Ashok Gehlot but did not like the MLAs. Again, this has been reflected in our data for months. Unfortunately, the party was unwilling to change too many sitting MLAs for fear of rebellion. This was a strategic choice, and one cannot presume that changing the candidates would have been enough to make people forgive what they saw as the MLA’s poor performance over the last five years. This was no rule for all MLAs, but it was true for enough of them to lose the election. This is why the Congress has lost 19 seats by a margin of less than 5,000 votes. Some candidates did not believe they could win, even when we told them it was close, and this reflected in their efforts.

Third, the BJP has eaten into the vote shares of independents and small parties, not the Congress. In fact, the Congress vote share increased, even if by a negligible 0.23 percentage points. While the BJP was ahead of the Congress by 2.16% points, its total vote share increase since 2019 was 3.61 percentage points. While the Congress did a good job of retaining its voters, the BJP managed to acquire some new voters too.

In a democracy, the opposition plays an important role. This is why it matters that the party that loses the election should also be strong. The Congress’ narrow defeat will ensure it remains a strong opposition, preventing Rajasthan from becoming a ‘dominant party state’ like Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh.

(Naresh Arora is an accomplished political strategist. He has worked for the Congress party for Haryana, Assam, Karnataka and Rajasthan Assembly elections)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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