The raging multi-million brand war is the biggest ever in Indian politics
The raging multi-million brand war is the biggest ever in Indian politics
A group of smart young men are at work in a modest home at 15 Gurdwara Rakabganj Road in New Delhi. Last year, they had set up a website for the 129-year-old Congress party, inc.in. Sipping endless rounds of tea, they are now busy managing the poll campaign for the party on digital platforms, including social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. This isn’t just about updates and bulletins—it is, in fact, part of a strategic public relations operation. They are aware that they are outnumbered on the World Wide Web by their political rivals, the BJP. But surprisingly, there’s newfound enthusiasm after the resounding defeat of the Congress in the assembly elections late last year. “The focus has now shifted from the party and UPA Government to Rahul,” notes one of the members of this motley group, sponsored by Haryana Chief Minister and Congress leader Bhupinder Hooda and led by a former journalist. They coordinate with agencies hired by the party, PR firm Genesis Burson-Marsteller and Japanese ad agency Dentsu, to brush up the Gandhi scion’s image.
The change of tack—from focusing on the ‘achievements’ of a scam-tainted Manmohan Singh Government to a ‘relatively young face’—makes sense, admits a senior Congress minister in the UPA. A campaign needs a face, especially when others have one, he emphasises, referring to the BJP’s prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi and the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal. “Our 10-year legacy is nothing to be proud of,” reasons this 30-something member of the Congress ‘war-room’, “And Modi and Kejriwal have pitched themselves as outliers or agents of change.”
Now, how do they hardsell Rahul? Some of them have done global research. They have read up on the voice modulation classes taken by late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to reduce the screech in her tone. They have looked at last month’s viral images of Hillary Clinton’s new bangs (which frame her face in a way that make her appear younger), together with Twitter comments on them. They have even taken notes on how makeup artist Carl Ray made Michelle Obama go from looking ‘angry and arrogant’ to ‘warmer and softer’ by plucking her eyebrows differently. While all this may not be of immediate use in India’s political war over image projection in the run-up to the General Election due in about two months, a little grooming may not do Rahul Gandhi any harm, says a Congress worker involved in the leader’s image makeover to take on Modi’s media blitz and Kejriwal’s anti-graft appeal.
He, however, doesn’t elaborate except to say that Gandhi has been advised not to roll up his sleeves so often or appear clean-shaven on TV.
Another member of this group—who is often visited by ‘family’ members such as Congress President Sonia Gandhi and daughter Priyanka—agrees that Rahul’s televised interview with Arnab Goswami on Times Now was a disaster, but says he and his team have started putting up video clips of the 43-year-old leader interacting successfully and naturally with groups of 300-400 people at a time. He is most comfortable with crowds of that size, confides another member of the group. Which explains the logic behind Gandhi’s series of interactions with groups of minorities, rural women, retired soldiers and others across the country of late.
HAND IN HAND
Congress leaders who visit the party’s war-room are excited about the livewire integration—especially in sharing content—between professional ad and PR firms and what they call their ‘in-house’ group. Rahul Gandhi’s home-cum-office at 12 Tughlak Lane is a frequent brainstorming venue for this group, which also drafts speeches that go through layers of clearances before delivery.
There are pointsmen to coordinate action plans between these agencies and the group, says one of its members, a foodie who appreciates the sumptuous meals served at the 15 Gurdwara Rakabganj Road residence. Genesis Burson-Marsteller has a team posted at Jawahar Bhawan to engage the mass media, issuing press releases, sending out invitations and arranging TV link-ups. Meanwhile, the party has hired Dilip Cherian of Perfect Relations to monitor social media.
None of the members of the party’s ‘inner group’ want to be named because they are not authorised to speak to the media. Prema Sagar of Genesis Burson-Marsteller declined to offer details of the PR campaign unleashed by her firm for the Congress, citing contractual terms. Dentsu executives didn’t respond to e-mailed queries.
The brief to these agencies is crystal clear, says a senior Congress leader: “Focus on Rahul and his emphasis on giving voice to various disadvantaged groups, opportunities to them, transparency in doing things, and how he wants to empower them. The acronym for all that is ‘VOTE’.”
Besides last-minute strategy tweaks, trial-and-error has done well, too, in reaching out to the masses, claims a member of the group. After testing various slogans, including the likes of ‘Mein Nahin, Hum’ (Not me, but us), the campaign team settled for the best-received tagline: ‘Har Haath Shakti, Har Haath Tarakki’ (Power in each hand, progress for all). According to the first member of the Congress’ internal poll campaign team, one of the videos that has clicked—that is, got millions of hits online and much appreciation across other media—is the one featuring Hasiba B Amin, Goa unit president of the Congress’ students wing National Student Union of India, shouting the slogan, ‘Kattar Soch Nahin, Yuva Josh’ (Not a fanatic mindset, but youthful passion). In an apparent effort to spite Modi, whom the Congress accuses of being divisive, and to connect with young women, this Congress ad even appears on WomanLog Calendar, a popular free ovulation and fertility app.
But the Congress is not the only party aiming ads at specific audiences to draw the votes of young people. The BJP’s marketing mavens have also placed ads on sites such as Naukri.com; these pop-ups blame the Congress for not creating enough job opportunities in its 10-year rule. While the BJP may not spend as much on buying media space and airtime as the Congress is—some reports peg the GOP’s ad budget at Rs 500 crore this electoral season— it has in place a battalion of loyalists and in-house experts, many of who are on the party’s payroll. For a full-fledged campaign across all forms of media, the BJP is in talks with Concept and Rediffusion among other ad agencies, as party treasurer Piyush Goyal tells Open. Adman Prasoon Joshi, president, South Asia, McCann, who in 2009 had come up with slogans such as ‘Mazboot Neta, Nirnayak Sarkar’ (Strong leader, decisive government) to project LK Advani as Prime Minister, is expected to help the BJP with its high-octane poll campaign this time round too, though in his personal capacity as a creative mind. However, the party is yet to finalise the accounts, says Goyal, adding that the issues the party’s slogans will focus on will include inflation and jobs—two fronts on which he says the UPA has failed. One of the slogans he hopes these agencies will run as part of the BJP’s campaign is ‘Log Kehte Hain Modi Aa Raha Hai’ (People are saying Modi is coming).
According to ad professionals who Open spoke to, this slogan, which was used ahead of a recent National Council meet of the BJP, would hold considerable appeal; it would portray Modi as an unstoppable juggernaut, even work as a roar announcing the arrival of a lion for a hunt. “More such slogans are in the offing. We’ll let the creative guys decide,” says Goyal, claiming that the BJP only has to “maintain a brand, that of brand Modi, not create it”.
Sure, what the Congress fears most goes in favour of Modi: a call for change. The mood of the nation, opinion polls suggest, is for a change from the existing diarchy, where the Prime Minister’s actions are hobbled by his party’s chief and Rahul’s mother Sonia Gandhi. Renowned economist and globalisation buff Jagdish N Bhagwati compares this situation with that of the former Soviet Union, where the party was supreme and the chief of government was just a figurehead.
While the Congress war-room insider is glad about finally having “a face to the multi-million-rupee campaign”, he is worried about the upper hand the BJP has on the internet. This is evident on online platforms such as Centre Right India (CRI), where participants engage in subtle campaigns to push a centre-right agenda, discussing issues with remarkable fairness—at least as much as can be expected of the centre-right—and respect for divergent views. They offer nuanced arguments on a range of topics. Then there is also IBTL, short for India Behind The Lens, which churns out clever yet misleading articles and diatribes against political opponents. Its headlines are about as catchy as those run by the Communist mouthpieces of erstwhile East Germany. Just when it appeared that Kejriwal would be a force to reckon with at least in Delhi, IBTL resorted to write-ups bordering on the frivolous. Some of them had headlines such as ‘Arvind Kejriwal took money and Left Anna on his own’ and ‘25 questions to Arvind Kejriwal and his fan boys’, clear attempts at spreading malicious rumours. Rahul Gandhi wasn’t spared either.
Like the BJP, now the Congress also has troops of volunteers who comment on news stories and set online trends. Some of them, people close to the matter in both parties say, are paid by the respective parties. On normal days, such websites push their party agenda by hiring humorists and running joke series such as ‘CID versus Rajinikanth’, poking fun at various adversarial leaders.
Goyal admits that the BJP has a lot of loyalists—techies and other proessionals—who work without pay to campaign for the party’s PM aspirant, Modi. Congress leaders accuse many of them of being trolls, web crawlers who post nasty comments against the Grand Old Party on social networking sites.
WHY SPIN MATTERS
Edward N Luttwak, US academic, cold warrior, military historian and a master of spin himself, argues that brand building is important in politics: “It is essential. First you have to create awareness of existence, convert the unknown into (the favourably) known. Then you have to induce positive feelings towards the object or person by linking them to positive things: the flag, children, veterans, etcetera.”
According to Ashutosh Varshney, professor of political science at Brown University in the US, modern politics is part ideas, part presentation, part coalition building. “Ideas alone do not drive politics. Images need to be imagined, constructed and propagated. The agencies that do it best will inevitably get involved in the process.”
Agrees Robert Kaplan, the flamboyant travel writer and historian who has authored books as stellar as The Coming Anarchy and The Revenge of Geography, and has interviewed Modi in the past. The historian says he has no doubt that perceptions matter significantly in the game of one-upmanship in politics. “In an era of electronic media and public relations, perceptions are increasingly important, and thus ‘spin’ unfortunately matters more,” he notes. Similarly, philosopher-feminist and Chicago University professor Martha Nussbaum, a vehement Modi critic who has written extensively about atrocities on women during the Gujarat riots, concedes that the BJP candidate is an energetic and charismatic person, and has campaigned “tirelessly on his alleged development achievements, weak though these in reality are”.
On his part, Sumantra Bose, London School of Economics professor and author of a recent work, Transforming India: Challenges to the World’s Largest Democracy, observes that the ‘branding’ of individuals, imitating the corporate branding of products, has been something of a fad in urban India for about a decade now. According to him, the huge branding budgets of Modi and Gandhi convey insecurity rather than confidence. It suggests that both these individuals have some sort of image ‘problem’ or ‘deficit’ that their respective parties hope to overcome through blitzkrieg-style ad campaigns devised and managed by professionals, he argues.
True, the nature and magnitude of the problem or deficit is different in the two cases, Bose goes on. “In the case of Rahul, the problem is at once straightforward and immense— he has failed to build any kind of image that can appeal to the electorate over a decade as a politician, and is therefore an obvious candidate for professional help. Modi’s problem is different and more complex. First, as his political and governance credentials are limited to Gujarat, a mega-advertising campaign is seen as essential by his party and his campaign managers to project him as the coming ‘saviour of the nation’. Second, this is but a natural extension of the image makeover that Modi has been attempting over the past few years in order to put the ghosts and accusations of 2002 behind him.”
Bose does not expect Modi’s PR campaign to help him much, and Rahul Gandhi’s, not at all. “Modi,” he says, “does have a resume that can be tapped: he is a politician seasoned over several decades, a reasonably popular chief minister of a mid-sized state, and a self-made man of humble social origins. Rahul Gandhi’s resume is barren. Moreover, Modi has the obvious advantage of challenging a deeply discredited government, while Rahul Gandhi’s ship is floundering, to say the very least.”
But then, the Congress isn’t ready to give up yet. “Modi’s PR machinery is extremely strong but we have revived our campaign,” claims the Congress minister, “and want to leave nothing to chance.”
THE MODI BLITZ
The Gujarat Chief Minister’s early breakthroughs were aided by Apco, a global PR firm hired for his ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ initiative to attract investment. Today, Modi’s PR apparatus is far more formidable than ever, and is managed largely by his die-hard supporters. Rajesh Jain, a Mumbai-based entrepreneur and founder of netCore Solutions, and BG Mahesh, founder of Greynium Information Technologies, are among those running an aggressive social media campaign for the BJP candidate. “He and his team have been able to project such a favourable image of him that even global agencies assume that if Modi comes to power in this year’s election, it is good for business,” rues the Congress minister.
In fact, Modi’s painstaking efforts at positioning himself as a development leader seem to have paid off, says a PR professional who has worked closely with Modi for long. He remembers the day the Gujarat Chief Minister decided that he would interact with the media only selectively. It was nearly a decade ago, he recalls. Modi had gone to attend the annual dance festival at the Sun Temple in Modhera in Mehsana district of the state. A senior editor of a leading daily was with him in the car on the way to the festival on the banks of the Pushpavati river. Modi was impressed with the interaction, but the newspaper carried what he saw as a ‘negative’ report. “Soon, he started interacting directly with people through speeches and with industrialists through one- on-one meetings. And later, he began to use the social media to bypass the media,” says this executive who does not want to be named. Modi is a born-again politician, he avers, a man who has successfully wooed the very media whose wrath he incurred for Gujarat’s 2002 riots.
THE ROAD SHOW
Former Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has often said that he has been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, whose faith in political symbolism was legendary. Gandhi’s use of symbols is not lost on Kejriwal’s supporters. An AAP activist says his party falls back on in-house talent and help from “well-wishers among techies and economists, journalists, writers, bureaucrats and others” to formulate its campaign strategy. The digital campaign is managed by a team of experts, he says, but doesn’t disclose details. The new party has not hired any agency for its poll campaign, but has meticulously used unconventional ways to reach out to people: through posters on 40,000-odd auto rickshaws, videos, social networking sites, through the media and door-to-door campaigning.
AAP hopes to use a mix of crowdsourcing and private fundraising to collect close to Rs 300 crore ahead of the Lok Sabha polls; some of this will be spent on conventional mass media, and some of it outdoor and online.
AAP plans to replicate what Obama’s team did in 2008 to raise funds from millions of his supporters across the US. AAP, says a party activist, has appealed to people worldwide to donate money via net-banking gateways and mobile banking apps. Getting small donors to contribute to the party is key, says the activist. Several other AAP volunteers Open spoke to are gung-ho about Kejriwal “winning hands down” in opinion polls as the best ‘honest face’ among politicians.
The party expects to use the people and money at its command in select Lok Sabha constituencies across the country to maximise its electoral impact, even as it ups the volume of its anti-corruption and anti-crony capitalism rhetoric. Empowering the underclass would be another campaign theme.
Many party leaders and marketing professionals, however, are sceptical of this expensive emphasis on image creation. Such campaigns, they argue, are no substitute for the real essentials of politics. Nothing can beat leadership credentials earned through hard work, a coherent political message, a grassroots machine, and, of course, genuine charisma, says Professor Bose.
Indian voters, including the poor and uneducated, are too savvy to let their choices be determined by the hardsell of glitzy advertising, in Bose’s view.
For the time being, though, it is open season for such campaigns, and many PR and advertising professionals hope to hit pay dirt.