JAIPUR: In January, the Congress seemed poised for a strong fightback against Prime Minister Narendra Modi after victories in three heartland states late last year.
But just over four months later, even Congress officials admit the attempt to unseat Modi in the ongoing general has suffered from a weak campaign and fumbled communications. Political strategists say the mis-steps and an inability to sew up alliances with other opposition groups had hurt Congress.
Votes are to be counted on May 23 and it's still not clear if Modi will come back to power, although many political analysts and pollsters have said he has the edge.
Two Congress officials told Reuters that their campaign, centred around a promise of a handout of 72,000 rupees every year for India's poorest families, was rolled out late — only a few days before the first phase of the polls.
In contrast, Modi campaign's communications has been a huge strength - no one can complain that the message didn't get out.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has dominated newspaper frontpages, TV screens, social media posts, roadside billboards and rallies through the election, backed by a war chest multiple times that controlled by Congress.
Using a dozen similar operations, Congress's data analytics chief Praveen Chakravarty said he has polled more than one million people covering all of India's 543 constituencies in the last six months.
That is only a start in an electorate of about 900 million.
"There's not one national election," Chakravarty said, "In my view, it's not even 29 different state elections. It feels like there are 543 different elections going on."
He said his data showed there was upsurge in the number of people unhappy with Modi but he did not give any prediction on the final results.
On 11 Hindi TV news channels, for example, Modi has got nearly three times the air-time compared to Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi between March 30-April 26, according to Broadcast Audience Research Council India.
Congress has also been unable to forge alliances with other opposition parties in two important states and adequately overhaul its grassroots organisation, political strategists said, making an already difficult contest even harder.
The campaign slip-up was partly because the party's detailed manifesto came out late, followed by further delays in readying promotional materials, the two Congress officials said. Both requested anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.
"The backroom work to push out the campaign hadn't been done," one of them said. "Basically, it was a big royal mess."
A Congress candidate said that his party's publicity campaign wasn't even noticed by rank-and-file workers, let alone voters. On multiple trips to northern Uttar Pradesh, which elects more lawmakers than any other state, Reuters found that many voters did not know about Congress's handout promise.
Difficult to predict
Elections in India are notoriously difficult to predict, and growing farm distress and a lack of jobs could still hurt the BJP, like it did last December when Congress wrested away three states from the ruling party.
There are a whole series of regional and caste-based parties that could benefit from any such anti-Modi swing as much as Congress. If that happens, a coalition of parties might form the next government with Congress a powerful force in that though not necessarily calling all the shots.
A key problem in the campaign has been that instead of maximising the impact of December's wins, Congress stumbled, particularly after the Pulwama attack in February in which Pakistan-based JeM killed 40 CRPF personnel, the second Congress official said.
"After the state elections there was complacency, and after Pulwama happened, there was no coherent campaign to respond," he said.
In response to Pulwama, Modi sent warplanes into Pakistan in late February, dramatically escalating tensions with the nuclear-armed neighbour while projecting himself as a fearless leader, which the BJP deftly used to craft an election campaign focused on national security.
Senior Congress leader and former finance minister P Chidamabaram acknowledged that Modi had dominated the election so far, but declined to comment on his party's delayed publicity campaign.
"I think if anybody has gained in this election campaign it is Mr Gandhi, if anybody has lost ground in the election campaign it is Mr Modi," he told Reuters. "I think BJP will suffer huge losses."
Part of Congress's confidence stems from states like western Rajasthan, where it has set up good ground operations.
On May 6, as India voted in the fifth phase of the election, over 100 young men and women employed by a private firm sat inside a basement in Rajasthan's capital city of Jaipur making and receiving calls on behalf of Congress.
Most were calling party workers to check for any problems during polling and logging complaints, which were being monitored and resolved by Congress officials there and at another location in Jaipur.
The same call centre, together with a large state-wide database of workers, was also used by Congress to receive daily feedback, tweak the campaign to local needs and identify swing polling centres in each Rajasthan constituency to focus on.