NEW DELHI—Almost a month after the Lok Sabha election results, the Congress still hasn’t figured out exactly what led to its spectacularly disappointing performance. While party leaders expend energy trying to convince Rahul Gandhi to stay on as president, its Data Analytics department and head Praveen Chakravarty have received a large share of the blame.
Now, conversations with key party functionaries suggest that the blame game within the party is slowly shifting from the data analytics team to the core committee which ran the campaign. The reasons cited are many: mistranslation of important words in the party manifesto, handling of the campaign by people unfamiliar with Hindi, disagreements over the official campaign slogan and tensions between key functionaries.
Speaking anonymously with HuffPost India, party functionaries who were given specific tasks during the election campaign—and thus have direct knowledge of the workings of specific aspects about it—shared multiple instances of friction between senior leaders, apart from mentioning some key mistakes committed during the Lok Sabha election 2019.
Taken together, the instances cited by the party functionaries and their candid reflections about the campaign show that the Congress party fought the election as a divided house with most of its key leaders failing to deliver good results. That it continues to be riven by disagreements weeks after losing the election so badly is a reflection of how the top leadership of India’s main opposition party is yet to come to grips with the loss.
Multiple stories have pointed out the Congress’s over dependence on the numbers arrived at by its data department may have had a big impact (read here, here and here). But that wasn’t the only reason.
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One party functionary who was closely involved in the campaign in a specific role told HuffPost India that the responsibility lies with the core committee.
“This is because the core committee is the central nervous system of a campaign. It coordinates and executes every aspect—publicity, strategies, rallies, media and social media management, surveys & data analytics, leveraging party frontals for specific tasks etc.”
This Delhi-based functionary said that, though the Congress President is officially the chairperson of the core committee, he also serves as the face of the party. And because he is “busy” being the voice of the party, the core committee’s task effectively falls on the next in command. Therefore, in this particular person’s reckoning, senior leader Jairam Ramesh, who as the convener of the core committee was the “next in command”, and his colleagues in the committee, including leaders such as AK Antony and P Chidambaram, are accountable for the defeat.
One of the most talked about aspects of the Congress’ election campaign was the party’s manifesto. Its emphasis on liberal ideas despite a hypernationalist campaign led by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was widely noted.
However, the manifesto also attracted substantial controversy for promising to amend the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Prime Minister Narendra Modi latched on to it and, in at least one of his public rallies in Uttar Pradesh, claimed that the Congress wanted to protect terrorists and act against the armed forces.
Another party functionary with first-hand knowledge of the manifesto drafting process told this reporter that Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Gowda, who was mandated to lead the drafting process, strongly disagreed with Jairam Ramesh and Chidambaram on including the promise to amend the AFSPA and scrap sedition law. It was the latter’s idea to include the two promises in the manifesto, the party functionary said.
“Gowda’s point was that these issues are so easy to twist. There is already an example of the JNU slogans controversy where claims have been made based on doctored videos. Thus, in a context where the BJP is running its campaign on the plank of national security, by including these promises, Congress shouldn’t make it easier for them to twist what we are promising, though he agreed with the promises per se. But he was overruled by Jairam Ramesh and P Chidambaram as well,” the party functionary cited above said.
The friction between Gowda and Ramesh at the time was serious enough for the former to claim in an official complaint that the latter had “taken over” the manifesto-making process.
HuffPost India reached out to both for comment. Jairam Ramesh had not responded to an email questionnaire at the time of writing. In his response, Gowda asserted there were no differences between him and Jairam Ramesh, and that he did not make any official complaint. On the contrary, he claimed, he had good relations with both Jairam Ramesh and P Chidambaram. “I have always received guidance from both of them,” he said.
But it wasn’t just disagreements between leaders that marked the manifesto-making process of the Congress party. There were serious errors in translations prepared by an in-house team that proved to be embarrassing. The party first prepared an English manifesto which was subsequently translated in multiple regional languages.
The party functionary mentioned earlier cited an instance of a translation error. When the promise to scrap the sedition law was written in the Hindi version, the translators used a word often mistakenly used by the right-wing for sedition—“deshdroh” (treason)—instead of the word used in law—“rajdroh” (sedition). The differences matter because there are different connotations for both words. This was just one among many errors and corrections which had to be made after printed copies of the manifesto arrived.
Hurried decision about slogans
According to another party functionary who saw this process first-hand, the main slogans of the Congress for the election campaign— “Ab hoga nyay” and “Hum Nibhayenge”—were finalised without testing how they worked on the ground.
In meetings held for discussing these slogans, chairperson of the Congress party’s social media department Divya Spandana apparently raised concerns.
“They started working on the slogans late. Divya, and a few others who attended these meetings, raised concerns and asked if these slogans were tested on the field as well as among focused groups before being finalised. It appears Nikhil Alva and Sam Pitroda had already made the decision to use these slogans,” the party functionary said. Divya Spandana could not be reached for comment.
Further, this person claimed that neither Alva nor Pitroda were fully fluent in Hindi, a disadvantage when it came to taking the party’s message to people in Hindi-speaking states, which form the bulk of the seats and voters in India.
Incidentally, Pitroda had caused a controversy during the campaign when he said “hua to hua” (what has happened has happened) in response to a reporter’s question about the 1984 riots.
While the “Ab Hoga Nyay” (There will now be justice) slogan played on the Hindi acronym of the minimum income guarantee scheme that attracted some attention during the poll, it appears to have not resonated as widely as expected by the Congress leadership. In fact, the BJP sought to hijack the slogan and make it about the controversial terror-accused MP from Bhopal Pragya Thakur. The party functionary quoted above claimed the slogans were thought of hurriedly because the publicity campaign led by former cabinet minister and Rajya Sabha MP Anand Sharma had been delayed. When reached for comment, Sharma vehemently denied this. He claimed that this inference was based on a two-month old “mischievous” WhatsApp message that had been circulated in Delhi’s political and journalistic circles. In the former Commerce minister’s reckoning, the Congress campaign started on time, even before the BJP started its own election campaign.
HuffPost India has seen the contents of this WhatsApp message but is not reproducing the claims as they could not be independently verified. However, it is true that Congress functionaries are unhappy with the work of the publicity committee during the election. For instance, an MP with a specific role in one of the election-related committees set up by Rahul Gandhi, told this reporter, “I was upset that publicity was not up to the mark. People in charge of publicity need to introspect.”
Social Media Campaign
A party functionary who played an important role in the social media campaign said there was friction between Jairam Ramesh and Divya Spandana. This friction, a section of party functionaries believe, was one among the multiple causes why the Congress party’s campaign was not effective enough even on social media. This is significant given that the ruling BJP had extensively used social media for propaganda purposes and was effective in popularising narratives of its choosing.
According to this party functionary, campaigns were “imposed” on Divya Spandana’s unit and this caused friction. This person cited an example to make their point. Jairam Ramesh and his team asked the social media team to run a video campaign titled Bhakt-Charitra. Though it was supposed to be a campaign against hate speech, misogyny and other things associated with elements in the ruling party, the counter spin given by the BJP to the campaign probably diluted any possible impact, party functionaries believe.
“This was not thought out politically and gave the BJP handle to claim that we are mocking Hindu sentiments,” the party functionary quoted above said. At the time of writing, Jairam Ramesh had not responded to an email which had a question concerning the Bhakt-Charitra campaign as well.
To be sure, a section of voices within the party applauded the role played by Jairam Ramesh during the election campaign as well. For instance, Ruchi Gupta, in charge of the Congress’ students’ wing NSUI, said, the senior leader had only been helpful to her during the election campaign.
However, what is noteworthy here is that, voices within the party are getting vocal about problems in the election campaign beyond the Data Analytics department. In doing so, they are not defending the Data analytics department, but instead, pointing to other factors which appear to have been ignored in the current focus on the failure of one group and, more importantly, the question of who will lead the party without a proper reckoning about what it did wrong in one of the most crucial general elections for Indian democracy.