Bihar 2020: What Can Rahul Gandhi Learn From Tejashwi’s Campaign?

What did Tejashwi get right? One, he kept his message simple: say ‘no’ to Nitish and ‘yes’ to jobs. 

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Rahul Gandhi (L), Tejashwi Yadav (R). Image used for representation.
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Tejashwi Yadav and Rahul Gandhi are two sides of the same coin, at least superficially. Both are dynasts with a strong sense of entitlement. They come with political legacies that are a boon but also a burden. And it so happens that their reaction to their humiliating defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls was eerily similar.

Rahul quit as president of the Congress party in a huff and disappeared for a long time. He finally surfaced but is visible mostly on Twitter where he has been taking continuous pot shots at Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

How Tejashwi Proved His Mettle

Tejashwi too went underground after the RJD’s rout in Bihar. He was not to be seen or heard for months. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he took shelter in Delhi. He was holed up in a five-star hotel in the Capital while his jobless state compatriots were forced to trudge back home on foot with children, bag and baggage.

He appeared only when there was evidence of mounting anger against Nitish Kumar for ‘abandoning’ Bihar’s poor migrants. Like Rahul, he took to Twitter to fire salvos at the Bihar chief minister, and made ‘choreographed’ appearances at the occasional rally or protest demonstration.

But as the campaign for the 2020 Bihar assembly election got underway, Tejashwi quickly proved that he was made of sterner mettle. Any resemblance to Rahul was, at best, circumstantial.

In fact, the Gandhi scion could well draw a lesson or two from the manner in which Tejashwi has silenced his critics outside, and Doubting Thomases in his own party, to emerge as a Gen Next leader to reckon with in a post-Mandal Bihar.

However, at the time of writing this article, the RJD wasn’t doing as well as the opinion polls had predicted. The NDA has crossed the halfway mark as per Election Commission trends, leading in 125 seats; but the polling body said that votes will continue to be counted until late evening on Tuesday, 10 November. The Tejashwi Yadav-led Mahagathbandhan is ahead in 110 seats.

Tejashwi’s Simple Messaging: What Congress Could Follow

Despite NDA’s edge in the 2020 Bihar elections so far, one cannot discount the fact that Tejashwi has mounted a strong opposition against the NDA and Nitish Kumar; in fact, thanks to Tejashwi’s decision to take the traditional campaigning route, Team Nitish had to abandon the idea of virtual rallies that had emerged amid the pandemic. Moreover, given his inexperience compared to Nitish Kumar’s long years in politics, Tejashwi has shown commendable political acumen in his campaign.

Now let’s look at what Tejashwi got right which could well become a template for young leaders waiting in the wings to snatch the baton from a fading generation.

One, he kept his message simple. Say ‘no’ to Nitish and yes to jobs. Nothing complex here for voters to grapple with. Tejashwi didn’t hire a group of well-meaning social activists and intellectuals to draft a social security scheme with a tongue-twister name like ‘Nyuntam Aay Yojna’ as Rahul’s Congress did in 2019.

The Congress tied itself in knots trying to explain NYAY to voters. On the other hand, Tejashwi had the crowds roaring with approval as he made jobs his central theme.

He vowed to sign off on an order for 10 lakh jobs in his very first act if elected CM. And when the BJP and Nitish mocked him about funds, Tejashwi silenced them with a plan which showed that he had thought the promise through. Four and a half lakh pending vacancies, he pointed out. The rest will be funded by plugging corruption leakages in government spending, he declared.

Unlike Nitish-Modi’s ‘Outdated’ Messaging, Tejashwi’s ‘Unemployment’ War Cry Struck A Chord

Two, Tejashwi shrewdly worked Bihar’s demographics to his advantage. The state is India’s youngest with a median age of 20 years. Some 58 percent of the population is under 25. This was the voter group the 31-year-old targeted.

And he struck the right notes with it by playing on Nitish’s advancing age and flagging an issue which is at the top of every youngster’s mind today: unemployment.

In fact, both Nitish and Modi unwittingly revealed how far removed they are from the concerns of today’s youth by harping on ‘jungle raj’, which is a throwback in time to the era of Tejashwi’s father, Lalu Yadav. Most people under 25 have no recollection of those years. So while Tejashwi struck a chord with them, Nitish and Modi seemed out-dated.

Three, Tejashwi understood that this is a state election and wisely refrained from attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In fact, he hardly mentioned the PM. He reserved his arsenal to fire at Nitish Kumar and crafted his campaign entirely around state-specific issues.

This is a tactic successfully used by two other state leaders before him – Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and Hemant Soren in Jharkhand. Both scrupulously avoided criticising the PM in their election campaigns – and won.

Although Kejriwal was lambasted for not taking on Modi, he proved correct in his strategy for two reasons:

  • Firstly, Modi still retains his Teflon-coated popular image
  • Secondly, Modi is not in contest in a state poll which is held to elect a chief minister, not a prime minister

Tejashwi’s Charm: Short Speeches & Barnstorming Campaign

Four, Tejashwi conducted a barnstorming campaign, displaying unexpected energy and charisma. He hardly looked the effete, entitled young dynast as he blazed a trail around Bihar addressing 215 rallies. Much to the surprise of his party elders, he worked the crowds in a manner reminiscent of his father Lalu, throwing caution to the winds in the time of COVID, as he allowed cheering supporters to surge to his dais.

Again, he showed that he is very much a leader in tune with the times, by keeping his speeches short, sharp and to the point. No rally exceeded beyond ten minutes, not just because he wanted to squeeze in as many stops as possible in a short span of time but also because he realises perhaps that today’s youth have a shorter attention span as compared to their parents.

Lalu was entertaining but rambling. His style worked with a generation used to a slower pace. But a generation that has grown up on a diet of social media and television has no patience with long speeches.

Tejashwi’s Departure From Lalu’s Politics

Five, Tejashwi got off his high horse and showed an amazing degree of willingness to accommodate and compromise with other parties so that he could expand his social base. He understood that while the Muslim-Yadav combination gives him a 30 percent advantage, he needs plus plus plus to actually win. Perhaps his shrewdest gambit was to part with as many as 19 seats to the Left including the CPI(ML).

This was a departure from his father’s politics, and the results will reveal whether Tejashwi got it right. Tejashwi must be given the credit for recognising the popular mood and tailoring a campaign that fit like a glove including choosing the issue of jobs as his spearhead.

Perhaps Rahul could pick up a few tips from Tejashwi to revive his flagging political career. As the young RJD leader has shown, an election can be turned on a single issue – provided it’s the right one.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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