What money can't buy for Congress

A former Congress member of Parliament, the son of an old friend of mine, telephoned me some time ago. He was complaining about the way the party was being run (not competently and without any strategy) and the conversation turned to his own losses. He had invested a lot of his money contesting and had lost. He did not specifically mind the losing so much as the fact that it all seemed to be a wasted effort, and to no avail, given that the party wasn’t competitive. He would be circumspect about raising, and spending, those sorts of sums again if he got a ticket.

A second conversation, with another politician, this one a serving minister, was about why money was needed in an election. He said to me something I didn’t know: 50 per cent or thereabouts of all money spent in an election was spent on the day of voting, particularly the second half.

What was it spent on, I asked. He said constituents called to say they hadn’t yet voted (these days also sending over WhatsApp photographs of their un-inked fingers, no doubt). These potential voters had to be incentivised to get to the booth and this required massive amounts of cash. This is why the police under the Election Commission in a state become vigilant about money being transported into areas going to the polls.

Illustration by Binay Sinha
A third conversation, this one very recent, is relevant. An acquaintance of mine, who runs the Congress’ social media, messaged to ask for a donation to the party. I thought it was a generic request, of the sort that many organisations, including the non-profit for which I work, make to widen their support base. I should reveal here in the interest of transparency that I have made a donation to one political party in the past, Yogendra Yadav’s Swaraj Abhiyan.

Anyway, I thought nothing else of this but that message from her became relevant when Bloomberg reported this week that the Congress was broke. The money coming to the party as donations from industrialists, the report said, “has all but dried up”. 

The numbers and the trends are quite revealing. The Bharatiya Janata Party received over Rs 10 billion (Rs 1,000 crore) last year, which was an 80 per cent increase over the previous year, while the Congress got Rs 2.25 billion, a dip of 14 per cent. Businesses do not back losing investments for too long, as my friend who lost the election has also learned. The party is down to governing two states from 15 just five years ago and we should expect that the funding crisis will escalate.

The report added that for the past five months, Congress leadership has stopped sending the funds required to run its offices in various states. Alarmingly, for Congress supporters anyway, this lack of money meant that "a senior leader couldn’t reach an eastern state on time to supervise elections earlier this year”. And this was apparently one of the reasons the party lost Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya.

To overcome the crisis, the Congress has "urged members to step up contributions and asked officials to cut expenses”. I am not sure what a Congress member is and I do not personally know of anyone who is such a thing, unlike, say a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. As I have written before, the RSS is the world’s largest NGO and has an army (over 500,000 Indians and people of Indian origin) of highly motivated volunteers, many of whom will serve for extended periods for free. The Congress has no access to such a force. It cannot attract middle-class volunteers either, as the BJP is able to because of its clear call to majoritarian anger against minorities.

In the world of 2019, perhaps it could be argued that the resources used to “campaign” are not as significant, particularly the spending on mass media, as they were before the mass adoption of social media. This is true. But social media is only a tool, a medium. It requires a message. 

Rahul Gandhi’s stock is dwindling, as we can see from the rapidly reducing amount of media coverage he receives, but there still remains space for him and his team to think up entertaining, and sparkling stratagems for attacking the government.

Do we see this happening? I cannot remember any efforts in this direction.

So what does this lack of funding mean for the 2019 elections? I think the party will continue to be able to successfully raise money in those states — such as Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka — where it is still strong. In these states, it will also be able to find some candidates that will be willing to raise and spend large sums. What is missing is energy, purpose, messaging and strategy from the central leadership and the party. Their interventions all seem a little scattershot, and it appears that they’re making it up as they go along. This will not do. 

For example, we still do not know what the central theme of the Congress campaign is for 2019. Is it negative (as it must be in large part) against communal and divisive politics and about the incompetence at managing the economy and foreign policy? Or is it positive, as Mr Vajpayee’s failed 2004 campaign was? No idea. On the other hand, the BJP’s message will be the same because it is precise and indisputable: Development is better than dynasty and corruption. Seen this way, a lack of money is not the only problem. More precisely, the lack of money has followed the lack of a plan. The issue is that Congress has a low-energy leadership going up against the two most motivated and hungry leaders in politics, perhaps anywhere in the democratic world. And that difference no amount of money is going to be able to correct.