How PR and social media are changing politics in India

India is witnessing change – the usually apathetic middle class has shown little interest in voting  but the Anna Hazare movement offered a window into the power of a middle class political awakening in India. Whether they will prove to be a corrective force is too early to say but clearly the desire to bring about change is being witnessed.

More than ever political parties are scrutinised by a vigilant media and civil society. This new civil society is powerful and questions the status quo. Arvind Kejriwal and his India Against Corruption campaign is becoming the new voice which is being heard, this despite his own political interests.

The time is here for the middle class to protest against the reputation of corruption and make political leadership answerable. It’s all about national identity and using the power of a free nation to the fullest.

The Anna Hazare fast became a sleek political PR campaign. Whether it was planned as one is harder to say. Perhaps it resonated because it reminded Indians of a national leader who followed a somewhat similar path of protest, leading up to our country’s independence? He was following an iconic route with an audience desperately starved for a hero who would be their savior. It may well not have been a planned PR campaign but the results had Anna Hazare and his team walking away with PR success.  

A movement akin to the iconic freedom struggle of India, it was a PR professional's dream  and used every tool – street plays; peaceful protests; images of mass movement; Bollywood and celebrity backing; YouTube videos; candle-lit marches; live TV Appearances; frequent media; Tweets and Facebook posts; and at the heart of it a man who we all wanted to believe. Evoking the strong image of Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement with a fast unto death – followers came forth in droves.

The influence of social media can be seen by all of us; Facebook and Twitter are the new socio-political voice which is gaining momentum and gathering a life of its own.

Akhilesh Yadav, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, illustrated the influence of social media when he communicated via his Facebook page to reach out to a new demographic of voters. It wasn’t the page that did the trick, his entire campaign was real – Akhilesh’s appeal was his approachable image which he built both during his campaign rallies using the humble cycle, and also through his online presence. A robust interactive campaign which engaged with a new tech savvy demographic ended up contributing to the win for the scion of the Samajwadi Party during the recent elections in UP.

As a run-up to the general elections in 2014, we can look to see some focused campaigns being outsourced to professionals to give Akhilesh an image makeover to boost his government’s popularity ratings.

Social campaigns have been prolific and very popular during the US campaign. Managed professionally they are being used as a tool to attract voters aged 21 to 35 who are not invested politically. With regular hourly updates, the social campaigns are interactive and possibly the most appropriate platform to reach out to the audience sitting online.

The latest buzz is Gujarat Chief Minister’s Narendra Modi’s PR strategy as he prepares to go to election. Campaigns on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube – nothing is being left to chance. Modi’s power of communication has been well orchestrated over the years; an image built on the achievement plank. 

With a middle class that seeks a systematic change, social media has the potential to help politicians become more trasparent and answerable. Public relations and and public affairs has an important role to play in this process.

Sudha Sarin is Managing Director - Public Affairs, IPAN Hill + Knowlton Strategies.

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