After 3 years of reverses, the party is finding increasing acceptability in the 18-35 years age group with Rahul Gandhi adding a million followers in the past 2 months and Facebook and Twitter also seeing similar spikes, reports Archis Mohan.
‘Amethi Rae Bareli ki kahani’, or ‘the story of Amethi and Rae Bareli’, a seemingly innocuous page on Facebook, has garnered an increasing number of followers in the past couple of months. The Facebook community strives to tell ‘stories from the past and the latest political and contemporary developments in Rae Bareli and Amethi’.
The profile picture is of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, the sitting Lok Sabha member from Amethi, and of his sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Congress president Sonia Gandhi is the sitting MP from Rae Bareli. Congress communication strategists neither confirm nor deny if the Facebook page is a sign of things to come but suggest those tracking the party should keep a keen eye on it.
Videos and content posted on the page are updated regularly and have created a buzz among party supporters in the two constituencies. Rae Bareli and Amethi are Nehru-Gandhi family pocket boroughs. The Congress might be organisationally weak elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh but is already at work to retain these two seats in the next Lok Sabha polls.
In a two-storeyed house near Lodhi Gardens in Lutyens’ Delhi, Congress Rajya Sabha member Rajeev Gowda and his team have spent numerous sleepless nights since November 8 -- the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced demonetisation.
Ever since, the team has pored over government data, crunched numbers, written press releases, posted on social media and prepared research material and talking points on economic issues for the party’s leadership.
The team is a mix of young men and women, several of them graduates from leading universities in the United States and United Kingdom, and those in their early 30s with some years of political work under their belts.
The party leadership recognised the effort of the team when Gowda, a former professor at the Indian Institute of Management at Bengaluru, was appointed chairman of the Congress’s reconstituted research department.
While the team is currently focused on the coming assembly elections in Gujarat and Karnataka, its success has meant the party plans to constitute similar research teams in as many states as possible in the run to the next Lok Sabha poll.
Step by step
Before Rahul Gandhi left for his US tour, the Congress’s communication department sent him detailed feedback. Randeep Singh Surjewala felt, based on inputs from the ground, that the party was losing credibility by criticising everything the PM did, including ‘people’s movements’ that he has initiated, particularly the ‘Clean India’ campaign.
During interactions at American universities, the Congress vice-president praised the PM for his oratory and for some of his government’s campaigns, like ‘Make in India’ and ‘Clean India’ but with caveats.
However, party sources said the bit about the Congress having become “arrogant” in the last years of United Progressive Alliance-2 rule was his own input. The US visit of Gandhi, which the party believes was successful, was conceived by former MP Milind Deora and the party’s overseas department chief, Sam Pitroda.
Social media traction
If July 26, when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar ditched the ‘grand alliance’ in Bihar to align with the Bharatiya Janata Party, was the bleakest moment for the party, events in August and September have helped the Congress and its vice-president regain credibility.
After three years of reverses, the Congress and its VP are now being talked about. With the Narendra Modi government facing increasing criticism for its handling of the economy, the Congress is trying to put its act together. To highlight the “mess” the Modi government has made, the Congress is planning 300,000 WhatsApp groups across the country.
Of late, its social media and ground campaigns have evoked good response. In Gujarat, the campaign ‘vikas gando thayo chhe’ (development has gone crazy), seems to have struck a chord. In Karnataka, where the Congress runs the government, it plans to have WhatsApp groups for its poll booth workers, in each of the over 50,000 booths.
The party’s communication department says the real work had started in the run-up to the Delhi civic polls in April. Under Delhi unit chief Ajay Maken, workers phoned 250,000 people known to have been Congress supporters to identify 40,000 dedicated ones. They were asked to contribute on the ground by helping party candidates, and also on social media by spreading the party’s message.
It is a model the party is trying to replicate across India. Instead of expending its shrinking resources in states where it finds itself debilitated, like Odisha or even Uttar Pradesh, the Congress is concentrating on seats and states where it still has vibrant organisational structures in place.
It might be a long haul but the Congress, a source said, is finding increasing acceptability in the 18-35 years age group. Rahul Gandhi has added a million Twitter followers in the past two months. Facebook and Twitter following of the Youth Congress and National Students Union of India have seen similar spikes, the source claimed.
The people behind this turnaround of sorts are many, sources insist. The communications strategy group has Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mallikarjun Kharge, Anand Sharma and Jairam Ramesh, bolstered with inclusion of younger leaders like Randeep Singh Surjewala, Sushmita Dev and Rajeev Gowda.
The Congress has also introduced several new spokespersons to showcase how it represents all sections. Shama Mohamed, who on her Twitter profile describes herself as a “nationalist who believes Hinduism is my culture”, Punjab leader Manpreet Singh Badal and Kamlakar Tripathi are some of the new ones.
The Congress, or so its leaders claim, has also been helped with the return of those who had lost faith in the party and become supporters of Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party.