Asserting that people did not vote for their economic self-interest in the Lok Sabha polls, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor says the BJP decided early that its "product" was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and marketed him very well by building the most "extraordinary personality cult".
He also said the Congress may have underestimated the impact of national security as an electoral topic on the psyche of the voter in North India, where the BJP had great success in trying to convert the election into a "khaki' referendum".
In Tharoor's view, had the Congress' idea of NYAY, a minimum income guarantee scheme, been unrolled even six months earlier, it might have won over many voters.
"I think the results make it clear that there certainly seem to be some fundamental issues that we got wrong. It will undoubtedly take us some strong introspection and a comprehensive assessment to correctly identify exactly what these issues were," Tharoor told PTI.
He said the Congress was convinced that grave economic concerns, such as unemployment levels hitting a 45-year high, significant agrarian distress and the disastrous impact of other measures like demonetization would play a pivotal role in deciding the fate of the election.
"After all, there is a well-recognized wisdom in believing that voters would cast their votes according to their economic self-interest. But this time the Indian voter did not do that, and we need to understand why," the MP from Thiruvananthapuram said.
Tharoor said one reason is perhaps the BJP executing crucial messaging better.
"They decided early that their 'product' was Mr Modi and they marketed him very well,” Tharoor said.
"They built up the most extraordinary personality cult in modern Indian political history, buttressed by larger-than-life imagery, hundreds of thousands of social media warriors, an intimidated 'mainstream' media, ubiquitous cameramen and a slick publicity machinery that was switched on 24/7, all lubricated by Rs 5,600 crore of taxpayer funds relentlessly promoting his every move," he added..
The former Union minister also said the BJP had great success in marketing and creating hype around many of its government's flagship schemes.
"Perhaps we could have done better to make the reality of the flawed delivery of such schemes more apparent," he conceded
"Another issue is that we may have underestimated the impact of national security as an electoral topic, in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack and Balakot strike, on the psyche of the voter," Tharoor said.
He asserted that this is perhaps truer in the North than in South, where according to his personal experience, the issue did not gain much traction.
However, in the North, the BJP had "great success" in trying to convert the election into a ‘khaki’ referendum, the 63-year-old leader said.
Tharoor also pointed out that the party would have done better by releasing its party manifesto earlier and consequently giving itself more time to market ideas like NYAY, which he said by design and in terms of likely impact was nothing short of revolutionary.
The Congress had promised that if it comes to power, it will give an annual income support of Rs 72,000 to poor families under the minimum income guarantee scheme.
"It appears that the core messaging around NYAY may have only reached around half the electorate and perhaps even the wrong half—mainly centred in urban areas and among professional classes, who would be paying for the scheme, rather than the bottom 20 per cent, mainly in rural India, who would become beneficiaries of it," he said.
"Now all of this is based on 20-20 hindsight. But we really do need a comprehensive and systematic assessment of where and what we got wrong and I have no doubt that in the coming weeks the party will seek to do exactly that," the former diplomat added.
Many party stalwarts bit the dust in the Lok Sabha polls, but Tharoor scored an electoral hat-trick by winning from the Thiruvanathapuram seat by a margin of about one lakh votes.
The Congress faces an existential crisis with party president Rahul Gandhi adamant on his decision to quit after the poll debacle, winning just 52 Lok Sabha seats, and its state governments facing an uncertain future.
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