If ever there was a conclusive leadership showdown in Indian elections, it was in the 2019 Lok Sabha battle between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) scored a landslide victory with the BJP alone reaching the majority mark as it did in 2014, Modi won this battle hands down leaving the Congress president in the dust.
What was worse for Rahul Gandhi was his loss in Amethi, which was once the Gandhi family fiefdom in Uttar Pradesh. In 2014, Modi won a landslide mandate on a combination of factors—anger against the Congress and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Modi’s promise of achche din, his personal charisma and image as a development icon, and the BJP’s organizational might. Rahul Gandhi, who became Congress president just ahead of the Gujarat assembly polls in 2017, could share the blame for the Congress debacle—the Congress won its lowest-ever tally of 44 in Lok Sabha elections in 2014—with Sonia Gandhi and then prime minister Manmohan Singh as well as the Congress leadership in various states. However, in 2019, Rahul Gandhi has lost comprehensively to Modi and the leadership battle has ended in a whimper.
In contrast, by trouncing Rahul Gandhi and the Congress one more time, Modi has not only won the personal leadership battle but has reached, if not bettered, the popularity levels enjoyed only by Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru and grandmother Indira Gandhi. Incidentally, it was Indira Gandhi in 1971 whose incumbent government came back with a simple majority. Modi has achieved this feat after 48 years, a point he made with remarkable confidence at his press conference on 17 May.
Throughout the 2019 campaign, Modi, like in 2014, continued to set the agenda that the Congress president followed and reacted to. Modi was also adept at exploiting the opportunities Rahul Gandhi and other Congress leaders gave by their statements or strategic mistakes. The BJP star campaigner also skillfully addressed one of the serious handicaps the NDA faced in this election—local anti-incumbency against a large number of candidates. Modi designed and worded his campaign in such a way that he was able to tower over the NDA candidates and voters voted for him and not the candidates. In comparison, Rahul failed to superimpose his image as the Modi challenger.
Subhash Chandra, a Mumbai-based political analyst and chief executive officer of CrowdWisdom 360, a predictions company, pointed out the contrast between the leadership styles and appeals of Modi and Rahul. “Modi comes across as an authentic leader who genuinely cares for the well-being of the nation. Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, comes across as someone who is kind and understanding. But the real tie-breaker is that Modi has the credibility of a doer and Rahul has no such track record, which does not inspire the swing voter to vote for the Congress," Chandra said.
A senior Congress leader in Maharashtra and a former Union minister conceded that Modi had “delivered a massive blow" to the Congress president.
“Truth be told and credit where it is due—Modi has won this battle hands down. I honestly did not think Modi would come back with these numbers though I was sure of the NDA’s return. It is simply incredible how voters have reacted to Modi in two back-to-back elections and we at the Congress must undertake a thorough introspection," the Congress leader said requesting anonymity. He said Rahul has squandered a “great opportunity to seriously challenge Modi if not defeat him after the Gujarat elections in 2017".
“He and the Congress had a terrific momentum after we nearly defeated Modi in Gujarat. We carried that momentum into the three state elections in 2018 and Rahul ji was actually better than Modi in at least Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. But he made some serious mistakes of strategy and long-term vision immediately after we won those three states," the leader said. He identified three mistakes.
“Rahul ji misread the mandate in the three states as a vote against Modi when it was not. In Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, it was the promise to waive off farm loans and remunerative price for paddy (in Chhattisgarh) that did the trick for us. The BJP paid the cost for internal squabbles in Madhya Pradesh. But Rahul ji wrongly thought that it was a clear vote against Modi and scaled up his personal attacks on Modi. Two, criticism over the Rafale deal extended to a general refrain against all corporates and associating Modi surname to all fraudsters was a serious blunder. Third, he did not act against the likes of Sam Pitroda and Mani Shankar Aiyar despite their callous remarks against the middle-class and Modi," the Congress leader said. He added that the minimum income promise or Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) was seen as “povertarian" by the aspirational middle and lower middle classes. Another strategic “leadership mistake", the Congress leader said, was the flip-flop over fielding Priyanka Gandhi from Varanasi.
“We made a complete mess of it by giving multiple signals. In hindsight, it looks like a big fiasco because had she contested, it would have shown the Congress’ intent to fight Modi right in his constituency," the Congress leader said.
A Maharashtra BJP leader and one of the newly elected MPs, who did not want to be named, admitted that he himself was surprised by the result. “This was obviously Modi ji’s election and we always fought it like one. He clearly had the momentum and there was a silent wave. But I did not expect close to 300 seats for the BJP. I think there lies Modi ji’s genius. When he made that remark against Rajiv Gandhi, I thought he had gone a little too far. But the Congress party’s reaction made Rajiv Gandhi’s corruption an election issue and that’s when I figured out why Modi ji made that statement. I also thought that he did not have to attack Nehru-Gandhi family so much but then he was doing it to remind the people of the Congress party’s record on poverty alleviation, corruption, democracy, and development," said the BJP MP.
A Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) functionary and legislator in Maharashtra said Rahul Gandhi had demonstrated “confusion" throughout the campaign.
“He kept saying different things at different times. Modi too changed his messaging across phases but he did that intelligently. Rahul showed signs of confusion throughout. He went hyper on Rafale even when it was not connecting with the rural voters. Then he never clarified where the money for NYAY would come from. Voters got confused," the NCP leader said requesting anonymity.
He said the Congress had lost a “golden" opportunity to consolidate its success in three states in 2018. “Rahul also did not show magnanimity to accommodate other parties like Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and Raj Thackeray in Maharashtra. When it was clear that the BJP would at least emerge as the single largest party, Rahul should have moved fast and brought opposition parties together. Pawar saheb (NCP chief Sharad Pawar) kept insisting on this but Rahul did not show the maturity to be a team player," the NCP leader said.