Election 2014: At the cusp of public opinion and propaganda

“All art is at once surface and symbol” – said Oscar Wilde, and Public Affairs more so.

The Indian General Elections in 2014 is an exciting prospect for India’s burgeoning public affairs advisories. As political parties fiercely compete for the 16th Lok Sabha, the elections will witness some of the greatest efforts in public outreach, campaigning and opinion generation to woo the electorate of the world’s largest democracy. If the figures recently released by Census of India are anything to go by - 28.9% of India’s population falls between the age of 19-35 years and the elections will see participation by almost 150 million first-time voters.

The public affairs predicament is also quite daunting, especially with an inherently diverse cultural and political landscape, the voters ever so aware and the election battleground polarized like never before.

Looking back at India’s history, elections have been fraught with sloganeering, recrimination and populism. While India may not have shed its propensity to use these tools, it might well be the first instance when elections will be greatly impacted by scientifically-devised mass media, message campaigning and persona-centric propaganda administered to precision. At the back-end will be a grand convergence of public affairs efforts by political parties, special interest groups, industry leaders and activists who will seek to determine election outcomes to suit their needs.

The risk of looking beyond ‘surface and symbol’ in these elections, is in fact making the grave mistake of ignoring the ground on which the battle is being fought. The play on public perception, platforms and positioning has taken pre-eminence. Although the prevalence of personality-cults in Indian politics is almost a tradition, the contest looks poised for a close finish with the two poster-boys of Indian politics assuming contrasting virtues.

Narendra Modi’s rumbling juggernaut of ‘Development’ and the promise of replicating the much-admired ‘Gujarat Model’ has evoked an unprecedented response, even from regions were the BJP enjoys little support. He is heralded as ‘modern’, ‘dynamic’ and ‘authoritative’. His personality is cultivated on the aspirations of the urban Indian youth, his ‘development’ platform carefully built over the years to fill the void where Congress left it a decade ago.

On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi comes across as a young leader on a mission, with an ever present nervous energy about him. While reflecting the angst of the common man, he champions the rights of the ordinary Indian citizen. Rahul’s image has been carefully crafted to appeal to the rural vote bank, and his portrayal as an ‘honest’, ‘well-grounded’, ‘secular’ youth leader at the helm of the Congress party is perhaps aimed at decisively reversing a huge anti-incumbency sentiment amongst Indian voters.

Apart from the persona-centric campaigns, there are a slew of policies and reforms being announced by the Congress led Government in the run-up to the election. Be it the recent announcement of the contentious Food Security Bill, the much debated ordinance on convicted legislators, or the 7th pay commission, there is evidently much more than a mere hint of populism in these measures. In the meanwhile, business leaders and industrialists are apparently extending overwhelming support for a Modi-led BJP at the center, after suffering a prolonged policy draught.

The art of influencing is at its peak. The acts are yet to be played out. The finale could surprise us all. But will the coming elections signal the advent of public affairs as an indispensable and rational science or will it forever remain an intuitive and inscrutable art?

The answer lies in the virtues that Public Affairs as an expertise can assume. Will Public Affairs move on from creating hype based leadership profiles to being an advisor that connects politics to public opinion? Will it be able to skill-fully weave narratives in public interest? Will it play the role of being an initiator to make businesses socially responsible? Can it bring together people and organizations to participate actively in governance? Can policies be influenced based on sound economics rather than short-term appeasement or vested interests? Can Public Affairs as an industry act for the greater public good?  

These are significant challenges that face the Public Affairs industry and its practitioners, and the election outcome will only enlighten us with a fluid-ounce of pragmatism.

Shailesh Goyal, Founder & Principal of Simulations Public Affairs Management Services