Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, defied expectations when he won his second election in an even bigger landslide than the first one. He did so at the expense of India’s Congress party, which campaigned on a secular and pluralist platform.
Turns out the nationalist message of Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hugely popular with voters. It was a massive defeat—the second in a row—for India’s more liberal Congress party. It’s a bitter loss that came with many lessons, ones that Democrats in the United States would be wise to heed.
The party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Congress was founded in 1885. It played a key role in the fight for India’s independence. It led the government all but four times until 2014, and in that same time never won fewer than 114 seats. Then, five years ago, voters reduced its power to a previously unimaginable 40 seats. This time around, it won just 52 seats. That doesn’t even meet the minimum required to lead the opposition.
Politics in India have traditionally been about the economy. This time, however, Modi and the BJP’s support of Hindu nationalism took a more prominent position than it had in past campaigns, exploiting tension with Pakistan to redirect the debate toward national security and anti-Muslim sectarianism. As Modi’s message grew stronger, Congress failed to really fight for India’s long-established secular ideals.
In a clear sign the party is in real trouble, its own leader, Rahul Gandhi, was defeated in his family’s traditional seat of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. He wasn’t interested in discussing what went wrong in the press conference that followed the results. But it isn’t hard for observers to point to the mistakes his party made. For one, the party structure verges on nepotism, retaining power within the Gandhi family tree. Gandhi’s great-grandfather, grandmother, father, uncle, mother and sister have all held high-profile political positions within the party.
The Congress isn’t known for its ability to learn lessons, but there are some more to note. And given that a left-leaning party promoting pluralism just lost to a right-leaning party promoting nationalism, the Democratic Party in the United States should probably read a long as it prepares for its own election season.
Modi’s leadership of the BJP is strong, and there is no separating his party or government’s success and work from his own. His party capitalized on this, turning the election into a referendum on him—rather than his government’s record. Polarizing figures like Modi tend to benefit from these kinds of politics. His party understood this. His adversaries did not.
Turning the campaign into a vote for or against Modi prevented the opposition from asserting its own ideas. Even when the Congress proposed policies that could have appealed to a broad electorate—for instance, guaranteed minimum income of Rs 72,000 ($1,035) a year—they received little attention. As George Lakoff explained in his 2004 book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, obsessing over a candidate’s flaws only makes him or her more popular.
Democrats in the United States made this mistake in the 2016 election, running a campaign against Donald Trump instead of for their own policies.
The Indian election essentially pitted Modi against Gandhi. That means that on the one hand, Indians had the prime minister’s popular narrative of a former, indefatigable, chai seller who rose to power thanks to his hard work. On the other hand, voters had the heir of a long-running political dynasty marred by corruption scandals.
Modi’s myth is centered around his humble roots, and his common man appeal. He doesn’t speak much English, for instance. Gandhi, meanwhile, studied at Harvard and Cambridge—it just doesn’t get more establishment than him.
For many voters, the Congress party is associated with old-school elitist politics, corruption, and a perceived inability to bring change to India. Gandhi’s candidacy didn’t do much to change anyone’s minds.
Congress also failed to make strong alliances with other, smaller political parties. In Delhi, it fielded its own candidates against the BJP-opposed Aam Aadmi Party, which had won local elections there in 2018, splitting the opposition vote. Competing this time with Congress, Aam Aadmi failed to defeat the BJP, which won all of Delhi’s seats. In Wayanad, Kerala, Gandhi himself took a seat from the Left Democratic Front (LDF). In West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, as well, Congress didn’t side with the local parties, once again splitting the non-BJP vote.
Progressives seem to make this mistake a lot. While conservatives often stick together (the Republican Party’s support of Trump during the campaign is a textbook example), liberals often fail to find common ground. In the last presidential campaign, the Democratic primaries went on long after Trump was the presumed nominee. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton spent more time tearing each other apart than focusing on the bigger fight.
The extremely crowded field of potential democratic candidates suggests the same thing could happen again.
Modi’s narrative of a new, strong, corruption-free India—one with international power, credibility and gravitas—appealed to many voters. It delivered a clear vision of what he was promising, and one that Indians were fast to embrace. Congress never presented a clear vision of its own.
The party decried the threat to secular values the BJP posed, and held itself up as its defender. But rather than communicating how those values could help India succeed, the party focused more on what would happen if protections further deteriorated.
This is not unlike what happened during the 2016 election in the United States. Just look at the campaign slogans: Trump’s “Make America Great Again” had a clear if suspect mission. Clinton’s “Stronger Together” described a status, not an intention. Democrats could face the same problem they did in 2016—and the same problem India’s Congress party faced this week—unless they forget about the opposition, stop playing defense, and promote their own, clear vision.
Correction: Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign slogan was “Stronger Together,” not “Better Together.”