The Election’s PR War

Why the BJP needs to steal AAP’s anti–corruption messaging plank for long term gains

It is 2014 and the war for power in India has more than just begun. Even as the poll rhetoric rises to a fever pitch, PRmoment India takes a look at how the three major parties: AAP, BJP and the Indian National Congress are putting across their campaign messages and what the communication needs to be like once the Government is in place.

The BJP, now and after the polls

The BJP has been in a mass communication overdrive, led entirely by Narendra Modi. A massive messaging campaign which consists of a mixture of planks such as economic development, strong leadership and plain old patriotic rhetoric along with consistent attacks on the Gandhi family.

According to theEconomic Times the BJP, in March, put out an estimated 1,500 spots every day across all television channels, double the Congress party’s average of 600-700 spots. Dentsu Aegis, the media agency on record (AOR) for the Congress party, told the Economic Times that “BJP's ad volumes across all platforms except for outdoor are 50% higher than Congress.”

Is this bombardment of messaging working? Anju Thakral Makin, Founder Director, Alchemy Corporate Communications feels that the, ”Messaging around Modi is neither creative, nor insightful, but overtly simplistic, probably catering to the lowest common denominator, in the process alienating the middle class voters. An overdrive of simplistic and rhetorical advertising is extremely annoying for many people.”

Image from HD Walls Hub.

John Victor, socio-political analyst and senior clinical psychologist however feels that “Indians are deeply emotional and they get easily emotionally charged. Whoever touches their emotions will have the last laugh in the elections. Currently the BJP is riding high because the Congress has lost touch with the emotional reality of the Indian people due to its association with corruption. This murky side of the Congress party has turned into a positive asset for the BJP in elevating Modi. He has been able to position himself successfully as a man of action and showcase the success of Gujarat as a well-developed state. Even other BJP leaders have not been able to do that; project themselves as development focused, nor of course has the Congress.”

Pranav Kumar, Managing Director, India, Bite Global agrees the BJP’s campaign from the get-go has been the sharpest backed by an apparently clear strategy and a strong leader. “Not only has their rhetoric around decisive leadership, growth and development been consistent, but they’ve used natural opportunities presented by the slightly slow-to-move Congress and political missteps of the Aam Aadmi Party to their advantage. Whether one likes it or not (depending upon one’s political leaning’s), brand NaMo’s clearly triumphed at least from a publicity perspective. “

BJP should turn the messaging to anti-corruption

If the BJP succeeds in forming the government at the centre, as all polls are predicting, the biggest challenge for Modi would be to deliver on governance and especially on corruption.

Says John, “It's very important that the BJP thinks about moving to the anti-corruption plank if they want to position themselves for the long run in government. “

John points out that being in power in Delhi would not be the same as being autocratic in Gujarat. “Here he has to satisfy his supporters to stay in power. This will be a huge challenge for Modi and BJP as they will have to take support from regional parties. Taking support to form a government would push them to compromise on various fronts. If the BJP has to succeed in the long run they have to resist this pressure and appropriate the anti-corruption plank.”

Adds John,BJP has pitched the campaign at a very high level. They will have a lot of challenges in delivering their promises. If they do that, Indian people will give them a very long rope to govern for a very long time, but first they need to deal with their leadership conflicts and dissolve their differences.”

The BJP has been beset with the old guard – LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, former BJP member Jaswant Singh expressing open disapproval of the projection of Modi as the singular face of BJP.

What should the Congress do next ?

While the Congress too has stepped up its poll attack on Modi in recent days, by targeting his separation from his wife, pointing out the difference between BJP and Congress ideologies via an ad featuring Sonia Gandhi as well as charges of crony capitalism and allegations of campaign spends of 10,000 crores, Anju believes it’s too late in the day and that too much projection of Rahul and the Gandhi dynasty will hurt the Congress.

Anju feels that the Congress has undone themselves by depending too much on the Nehru Gandhi dynasty.  The last week has seen reports of the possible larger political role by Priyanka Gandhi – reports that Priyanka has denied. Says Anju, “Many corporates in India have transformed themselves by moving away from family run managements. Tatas are a shining example. It’s time to introduce a renewed vigour in Congress, and that can only come through focusing on multi leadership concept. Maybe they should take a leaf out of corporate houses’ books.”

“Looking back however, Congress could have done many things better. They should have stood up to Modi wave, by decentralizing the campaign. If you don’t have one single leader to counter the BJP strategy, you should at least have a list of stalwarts who can mute the attack and represent a stable leadership at the helm.”

Adds Anju, “Other than that – one core thing which Congress needed to focus on was the ‘Way Ahead’. Rather than harping on about past achievements, which people tend to forget easily, it would have been better to focus on a simple document, pointers to the economic and social agenda, which might have helped the voter decide as to how ‘different’ are they going to perform, if voted to power next.  Nobody reads elaborate manifestos nowadays. “

The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty

Picture Source

John feels that, “Right now the Congress should not promise anything as they don’t have any credibility with the people of India. To turn things around, if they want to position themselves, they should do so for the 2019 polls. Across the next 5 years, they should come across as a completely clean party and not take in any corrupt people. They also have to take care not to indulge in any name calling and come across as a united party.”

Pranav believes that the Congress has a compelling campaign focusing specifically on inclusive growth, empowering women, accountable governance, national security and in reenergising growth. Pranav points out that however, “As we all know, this hasn’t cut through the reverberations of its rival parties. From a campaign point-of-view, the Congress also comes across as reactive, fending off allegations or disputing claims made by the BJP in particular on the so-called Gujarat success model. I think the Congress should have a taken a more aggressive stance in pre-empting all of this rhetoric slightly earlier on in the game. The perception was of reticence more than anything else.”

The AAP factor

AAP has been one party that has made the cap and the ordinary Jhaadu (broom) a central and easy symbol for its twin message of anti-corruption and a party for that dearly loved Indian metaphor - the common man.

Kunal Anand, Senior Content Executive, Perfect Relations says that, “The symbolism of the Jhaadu (the broom) works on many levels, simultaneously.  The most obvious interpretation - the one the party itself provides - is that it is a tool to sweep away corruption. However, compared to the other parties, it is also a very bold symbol - one that stands out on the streets, or in a rally. A broom can be sourced in every part of India, which syncs perfectly with their campaign's grassroots image.”

AAP and the Jhaadu

Picture Source

Adds Kunal, “It is extremely clear that the AAP had to radically stand out among Indian parties and appeal to the youth with a fervent directness. In my opinion, the AAP is where it is today because it has been extremely consistent to this ideal. Arvind Kejriwal's firm adherence to his own clichéd sweater, muffler and floaters look - even when facing the national flag on Republic Day, a rock concert in the Capital, and even their caps, are meant to make them stand out, saying  - We are the Aam Aadmi - and we are loud and clear.”

Pranav comments that the AAP has built its brand on, largely, a guerrilla communications strategy. Pranav draws a parallel with the marketing world, where, “There are umpteen brands that’ve gone out there and through some aggressive and creative marketing at the expense of their competitors, gone and built formidable brands. Think Virgin Atlantic when they took on British Airways in the 80’s (purely as an example). Other than that, AAP is a modern phenomenon reaching scores of people through digital channels along with traditional media (and by taking to the streets). It’s a new age party in every sense fully utilising the medium as we know it today. Two things clearly stand out from their campaign: their anti-establishment stance and their unrelenting pursuit to end corruption. I think we’ll have to wait and watch how things pan out for them in the end given their Delhi debacle and dwindling support as a consequence. “

Arvind Kejriwal himself has admitted that acts such as resigning from the Delhi government and failing to communicate this clearly have affected their credulity with the middle class.

John agrees that while their PR is good they lack the political maturity to govern. “They had connected well with the lower and middle class sections of society. But after their antics, the middle class is slowly getting disillusioned with AAP.  AAP has a lack of awareness about what Delhi wants. However, at the same time, what we see as antics strike a strong emotional chord with the lower classes with the message that “This government is for you”.

What the great Indian voter, known for its way of defying poll predictions, thinks will soon be known. Either way, this election is a textbook example of political communication in India.

Written by Paarul Chand