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The New Year began with hectic preparations by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to fight a series of elections in the next 15 months, including the big battle for the Lok Sabha early next year.

With the electorate becoming younger—currently 40% of our voters are below 30 years of age—and traditional party loyalties clearly on the wane, sound campaign strategies and smart tactics can make a big difference in winning elections. In this context, the Congress and the BJP are poor in evolving successful campaign strategies as their leaders are often far removed from grass roots realities.

Indian elections are increasingly becoming US presidential style contests, where the image of the leader becomes the key in winning elections. In the US presidential elections, everything that the presidential candidates do, everything they say and promise is based on a strategy that is devised through intensive research and polling activities.

But in India, even top political leaders lack such strategic insights and inputs. They are not just arrogant but arrogate to themselves all the knowledge, only to repent later at leisure. The results can be catastrophic, often leading to an end of political careers or a defeat in elections that could have been otherwise won. The Congress party’s loss in Gujarat and the BJP’s performance in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections are symptomatic of this arrogance and poor understanding of electoral dynamics.

Often, parties blunder through elections with things they should not have said or done. To buttress my point, I list here some major blunders that parties have committed in recent years.

India Shining

If there were an award for the worst strategic blunder in Indian elections, the BJP’s India Shining campaign of 2004 would surely qualify for it. The BJP leaders responsible for the campaign never looked beyond the dazzling stock markets and the metropolitan cities to see the stark economic reality and livelihood concerns of millions of people. The party’s high profile, slick advertising campaign highlighted the growing disparities between the rich and the poor and between urban and rural areas, stoking dissatisfaction and anger among the deprived sections.

BJP leaders plunged into an early election with this catchy slogan believing the party was going to win 300 seats on its own. The party ended up winning just 138 seats. The basis for such outlandish optimism is beyond comprehension and bereft of any field-based evidence.

Maut ka saudagar

The now (in)famous phrase “maut ka saudagar" (merchant of death) hurled by Sonia ‘ben’ Gandhi at Narendra Modi may have turned out to be a good title for a Bollywood potboiler, but sounded the death knell of the Congress in Gujarat.

Sonia’s unwarranted comment led to a huge backlash and gave a handle to Narendra Modi to hook the Gujarati voters. One indiscreet remark took the entire Gujarat election campaign into an unfavourable terrain for the Congress.

More than the defeat itself, what has apparently hurt and shocked Sonia Gandhi is the widespread belief in party circles that her speech has led to the party’s defeat in Gujarat elections. The imprudent remark has damaged Sonia Gandhi so much that her own party leaders are speaking in hushed tones about her lack of political acumen.

Rahul’s day out

Rahul Gandhi was billed as the hope of the nation by dynasty enthusiasts, but he turned out to be somewhat of a spoiled political brat with his rash, thoughtless political statements in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election campaign. With these statements, Rahul not only further destroyed his party’s flagging prospects in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, he also severely damaged his fledgling political career. That ‘discretion is better part of valour’ is the hard lesson that the Gandhi scion has learnt from this episode.

‘Chak De’ campaign

The Congress’ ‘Chak De Gujarat’ (buck up Gujarat) campaign in Gujarat had no takers as the campaign theme had negative connotations. The Congress party’s attempts to convince the people of the state that Narendra Modi’s government achieved little in five years was in complete contrast to the people’s perception that the Modi government did more in five years than what the Congress achieved in 50 years.

For election campaigns to be successful, these have to be rooted in a reality as perceived by the people and not on issues that are closer to politicians’ preferences or ideology. Raising non-issues has the potential to land parties with a certain defeat and raising issues that militate against voter beliefs—as in the case of “maut ka saudagar" phrase—can lead to an unmitigated electoral disaster.

Lest strategic blunders smash their careers, it is time our veteran politicians understood the importance of devising sound electoral campaigns based on voter sentiments and feedback. A bit of professional help and an open mind will go a long way in averting campaign disasters.

G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development and Research Services, a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at ­

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