Why did Congress fare so badly in the General Election? One reason is that it devised catchy slogans that made media headlines but didn’t translate into votes since they were not grounded in reality. The best example is Rahul Gandhi’s sneer that Narendra Modi represents “suited-booted” millionaires at the expense of the poor.
The Congress first used this slogan when Modi attempted to change the UPA’s land acquisition law that had stalled several projects. Rahul Gandhi used the same “suited booted” slogan when Modi made the mistake of wearing an expensive suit with his name threaded through the fabric, a fancy present from a rich admirer. The media chuckled that Rahul, long an unimpressive, tongue-tied speaker, had suddenly come of age with a telling barb.
Modi saw that his attempt to change the land acquisition law could give him an anti-poor image. So he dropped the issue, leaving state governments to deal with it. Never again did he wear that infamous suit. He knew image mattered.
But, more importantly, he believed that performance mattered more than image. He came out with a string of programmes for the poor, and implemented them better than earlier Congress regimes. This ultimately made nonsense of Rahul’s slogan that Modi benefited only the “suit-boot” brigade. So did the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code that for the first time ensured that incompetent, corrupt businessmen defaulting on loans would lose control of their companies and not be bailed out forever, as in decades of Congress rule.
Instead of acting as a right-wing economic reformer, as some had anticipated, Modi took welfarism to new heights. Far from cancelling the UPA’s welfare schemes, he adopted many as his own, expanding and implementing them so strongly that the gains were associated with the BJP, not the UPA that first started down those paths. Examples include Swachh Bharat (toilets for all), Jan Dhan Yojana (bank accounts for all), Sowbhagya (electricity for all), Ujjwala (cooking gas) and PM-Kisan (direct cash transfers to farmers).
Implementation glitches and gaps in coverage affected all Modi’s projects, yet they achieved far more than earlier Congress initiatives. So, voters saw Modi as genuinely concerned for the poor. He was far better than Congress leaders in implementation, swinging his prime ministerial weight strongly behind sanitation and financial inclusion as no earlier Prime Minister had.
Indeed, his re-election strategy was to ensure that every rural family benefited from at least one of his welfare schemes. Other political parties had similar plans, but failed in implementation.
Congress always claimed to stand for the poor, the lower castes and the minorities. But if indeed it was so pro-poor, why did poverty remain so high after decades of Congress rule? Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao” slogan was catchy and initially won many votes. Yet poverty did not decline at all in the first three decades of Independence, while the population almost doubled so that the absolute number of poor people almost doubled. Anti-poverty programmes were leaky and corrupt, and failed to reach beneficiaries because Congress governments were not serious about implementation. A thousand controls imposed in the name of socialism and helping the poor were used by Congressmen to feather their nests and create patronage networks.
Public outrage against corruption decimated Congress in the 1989 election (dominated by the Bofors scandal) and 2014. By contrast, Modi is seen by voters as ascetic in habits, unburdened by greedy relatives, and genuinely committed to reducing corruption even if many other BJP politicians were not.
Rahul may keep claiming that he represents the poor and the BJP represents the rich. But data from the Association for Democratic Reform shows that the median declared wealth of Congress candidates in the election was Rs 4.4 crore, against Rs 3.5 crore for BJP candidates. Congressmen may still wear khadi kurtas and Gandhi caps, symbols of self-sacrifice developed during the Freedom Movement, but that fools nobody.
Modi is not the only non-Congress politician to be seen as seriously concerned about helping the poor. Naveen Patnaik has won five elections in Odisha by presenting himself as a non-corrupt ascetic, much as Modi has. Nitish Kumar of Bihar is also seen as personally honest and committed, despite glaring flaws. Does any Congress chief minister have such a good image? Alas, no.
The lesson for Rahul: let Congress-run state governments prove, through sheer performance, that they can combat poverty and check corruption better than Modi. If they don’t, slogans about suits and boots will sink without trace.