Has India’s opposition failed?

If exit polls prove right, the electoral strategies of the Indian opposition have failed to challenge the BJP’s appeal.

Rahul Gandhi
The Congress President Rahul Gandhi greets his supporters during an election campaign rally in Bangalore, India on March 31, 2019 [AP/Aijaz Rahi]

India’s six-week-long multi-phase election has finally come to a close. According to exit polls released on Sunday, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has secured a legislative majority. 

While the final make-up of the legislature will become clear on May 23, when final results are released, what is already clear is that the Indian opposition has failed to effectively counter the political appeal of the BJP and its nationalistic ideology.

The main challenger to the BJP’s second mandate in this election season was the Indian Congress Party led by Rahul Gandhi, a fourth-generation leader of the Nehru family. After his party was decimated in the 2014 general elections, Gandhi had to work hard to make its platform politically relevant once again and revamp his own image of an elitist and detached political leader.

Under his leadership, Congress adopted a strategy of trying to present Modi as an ineffective chowkidar (or caretaker). Almost every speech he made would begin or conclude with the slogan “chowkidar chor hai” (or “the protector is the thief”), accusing Modi of shielding big businessmen and industrialists and failing on his promises to improve the life of the ordinary Indian.

Congress also tried to put a dent in Modi’s image as the scrupulous and honest leader by using a major corruption scandal which involved the purchase 36 French fighter jets which erupted last year. Although a big part of the Indian and international media covered the Rafale scandal, the issue did not stick on the ground. When I travelled to rural areas in India, farmers, lower income group workers, and labourers claimed ignorance of the issue, calling it a rich man’s concern.

The party also tried to win the poor vote by criticising the BJP’s disastrous agrarian policies, costly demonetisation move, and failure to combat poverty. Among the party’s campaign promises were an $80 monthly transfer scheme for households below the poverty line. None of these strategies resulted in a significant shift in the rural and urban poor vote.

Congress also tried hard to fight back the BJP’s religious attacks and accusations that it was an “anti-Hindu” and “pro-Muslim” party. As the country witnessed lynchings, increasing majoritarianism, and attacks on minorities and civil liberties, Gandhi chose to embark on a series of visits to major Hindu temples across the country and often remained silent on the victimisation of minorities. The soft Hindutva approach of Congress seems to have backfired. As one BJP leader told me, “When you have the original Hindutva leaders, why would voters rely on a copy?”

The Congress leader himself went through a significant transformation. Having long been accused of living it large at his posh Tughlaq Lane residence in New Delhi, hobnobbing with his elite friends, and going off on vacations abroad exactly when the country needed an opposition leader to take on Modi, this election season Gandhi made a strong effort to be seen as a politician connected to the ground.

Although previously he was known to shy away from the media glare, in the past month he spoke to almost every media house in the country, whether regional or national. He was everywhere: news websites, television channels, newspapers; almost every request for an interview has been granted. Gandhi was joined by his sister Priyanka, who actively campaigned in the key state of Uttar Pradesh. But her entry was late and failed to sway voters in a state where the BJP cadres had been successfully managing a sustained Modi campaign for the last two years.

But perhaps the biggest mistake by Congress, which potentially helped the BJP seal an electoral victory, was not pushing hard enough to create a united front of major national and regional parties.

In New Delhi, the party did not form an alliance with the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi party which rose to fame in 2014 with a rebellious electoral campaign and victory. Neither Gandhi nor Kejriwal, both critics of Modi, could set aside their differences to jointly contest elections in the capital. As a result, the BJP is slated to take all seven seats contested in New Delhi, at least according to exit polls.

Congress also refused to be the adhesive that could stitch an alliance with two important players in the key state of Uttar Pradesh: Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party. The two, along with another local outfit, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, had formed the Mahagathbandhan, which was the most powerful opposition to the Modi campaign in the state.

Mayawati, in particular, was the most formidable cultural and political challenger to Modi’s image of being a man from a humble background, a chaiwala (or tea seller). She is a Dalit, an assertive voice from the underprivileged caste, the daughter of a telephone operator, who has fought caste hierarchy and patriarchy to become the most important Dalit leader in the country today. 

Wile Mahagathbandhan managed to “steal” some seats from BJP, the presence of Congress might have split the opposition vote, which again would benefit the ruling party.

But it wasn’t only Congress that failed to effectively counter the BJP. In West Bengal, its main challenger was Mamata Banerjee, who leads the Trinamool Congress (TMC), a splinter party of the Congress.

The BJP sought to win votes campaigning on a single issue: the “threat” of Bangladeshi migrants. It accused Banerjee of shielding “infiltrators” in order to appease the Muslim minority. A feisty and outspoken politician, the TMC leader took the ruling party head-on. Yet her campaign also failed to stave off its political advance.

According to the exit polls, the BJP, which so far only had two seats in West Bengal, is now poised to enter the double-digit mark for the first time in a state long known for being a bastion of the left. Its anti-migrant policies and campaign have worked not just in West Bengal but also in the neighbouring state of Assam which now shows a sweep for the BJP.

In the south, the BJP has never been a dominant force and, like the Congress, played a secondary role in most alliances in this election. While several regional parties allied with Gandhi’s party are expected to perform well, there are also some, such as Jagan Reddy’s YSR Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh state, which are expected to eventually back the BJP in parliament.

Overall, if exit polls prove to be true, it seems the BJP has not only managed to defeat Congress, but also regional parties, which constituted its biggest opposition.

Congress functionaries have already begun lamenting the failures of the party. Some have blamed the top leaders and the coterie surrounding them for being unable to sense the mood of the Indian streets full of polarised voters enamoured by Modi’s presidential-style election campaign. The party found itself on the wrong foot, unable to counter the nationalist narrative of the ruling party and build a united front against it.

The BJP kept baiting the opposition with its ultra-nationalist statements and Congress and other parties found themselves falling for the narrative and spending more time countering Modi on his surgical attacks rather than listening to the voice of the people.

Exit polls in India have been proven wrong in the past, as happened in 2004, when they failed to predict a Congress victory. But, unlike 2004, the palpable sentiment on the ground is that the country has no alternative to the ruling party. Rahul Gandhi tried hard, and so did his allies, but he failed to convince the Indian voter that he could be the alternative for a country that urgently needs economic and social reforms.

The opposition has not given up and many have dismissed the exit polls, but May 23 could be a reality check.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.