Wednesday, May 16, 2007

You learn something new every day

The ironic part about Mayawati’s win in UP is that she did it in a slow and steady manner, quite opposite of the huge tamashas the other parties put up in UP. There was Samajwadi Party with their big ‘UP mein koi jurm nahi’ (courtesy everyone’s favourite superstar, Amitabh Bachchan). There was Rahul Gandhi’s road show with very provocative statements, almost tailormade for national media coverage. Even the BJP that made waves in the press with its communal CD (and even if you believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity), in the end, none of it mattered. On the other hand, there was Mayawati, the sole star of her party, trudging from town to town, taking her message of a more inclusive party to the people. AND the BSP started this process three years ago. Her well oiled party machinery kept its focus : no theaterics, no fuss.

Now, analyses of the polls are coming out. It’s not really that she took away from the Samajwadi Party, but that she took away from the Congress and BJP, they say, which to my mind means that communal doesn’t have the same hook as caste. I suspect it’s a matter of class in the end because at the end of it, its money baby. So you are told that its not that she managed to get that many new upper caste votes, but other non-dalit lower castes who have previously not voted for her. Whatever the case may be, I think the strongest point this election has made is that India still remains a land of the aam aadmi, not of CNN, NDTV or even the Indian Express.

Last night I met a Vietnamese at my favourite watering hole. Thanks to his job at the Gates Foundation, he said that he’s visited over a 100 countries, but thinks India is the most special. He then talked about Delhi, and how he believed that unlike other developing cities in the world, it will never change. To be sure, there will be more industrialisation and it will become smarter -- high rises, the metro, luxury goods – but at the same time, the rich/poor gap will remain. But why, I asked. And he said, because you are so happy to accept a cow and a BMW sharing the same road. It doesn’t bother people. (Democracy has a lot to do with it, he agreed) And so the more things change, the more they will remain the same.

Well, back to the story of Maywati’s stellar campaign and victory. A while ago, maybe a month and a half, I was very eager to write about campaigns in India, and how there is a noticeable lack of technology used. So as part of my mission, I called Vankaiya Naidu, one of the men in charge of the BJP campaign in UP. What are you planning to do, I asked. He wanted to jointly attack the BSP, SP and Congress for prices rises, appeasement politics and anarchy in the state. [In other words, passing the buck]. He told me that jativad v/s rashtrivad would be an issue. About SP’s television ad, he said while it may be garnering them media coverage, people could see the direct contrast with reality, and it would boomerang. In terms of SMS campaigns, or print ads, he said that as much as 60% of UP did not have access to the print media, so the only way forward was people-to-people campaigning. Plus, perhaps they were still nervous about a supposed backlash after the India Shining campaign.

Now, two things of note. When the SP ad came out, I found myself wondering why exactly it was on air. After all, if most people in UP don’t watch TV, then it makes them no difference. And if they do, especially in the wake of Nithari, this ad was horribly offensive. So, in all, and I don’t know if I am giving them too much credit here (and I have mentioned this in one of my old posts), I thought it was done to make the SP a household name – or a national name at least because if Mulayam thought he had a hold on UP, certainly, he would want to branch out. As Mayawati most certainly will. The second was, despite Naidu’s claim that technology had no real place in this campaign, I do find it ironic that there was a communal CD released. But at the same time, the elections proved him right, as yet we do not have the need for technologically forward election campaigns, no matter how many laptops Rahul Gandhi carried with him. Thats one of the stories about Mayawati too -- that she isn't tech savvy, but if she needs figures etc, she just has to ask her party men. They have it on their fingertips.

But back to campaign strategies. In the days of Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress had actually brought in an ad agency to help them. The problem, I was told by Rajiv Desai, who was part of the Congress Committee back in the day (and in advertising/PR now), is that a proper brief is not developed in the party about what and how the campaign should be conducted. [Rahul Gandhi did nothing to disprove this in my opinion] He also told me that he thinks parties are not quite sure who their audience is and where their audience is, which is why an ad aimed at farmers may appear in a national paper, where it really doesn’t matter to city folk. The message, then, is lost. Also, the Congress in particular, still depends on star power to solve their problems. Sycophants fight amongst themselves for a chance to arrange a rally for madame or junior, instead of focusing on the real challenges. In fact, Desai told me that much of the money allocated for advertising in smaller, colloquial newspapers is really a big racket, where these local ‘paper’ owners just take money without printing the ads. The one thing the Congress did start after their loss in 1999 was polling. Unfortunately, sycophancy is hard to shake off, and the polls started to be made to look favourable towards the Congress to impress Mrs G.

But ultimately, the issue that made people look elsewhere than the government, and the guys still playing communal cards, was development. Well, that’s what I believe, because after years and years of inaction, you finally give the person who brings the most direct offer to you a chance. No frills, no star campaigners, nothing. No Hindu, Muslim, not even that only my caste will be taken care of. Just the message: everyone, listen up, you will all be taken care of, and I promise to put an end to this gunda raj. PS I mean it, I’m willing to put this sonofabitch in jail.

One more point. The most effective ad (and this extends to campaign strategy/slogans) is the one that gives an offer. There is no point waxing high on philosophy. I was told that the huge posters, buttons etc (which have been cut down by the EC) are largely to convince the party members that it can win. Its to charge up the party workers. And the final message to the voter, then, needs to offer them something solid. Not blame, no division, not history. A tangible choice.

So in the end, nothing flashy worked. And that in itself should give us a sense of where India is at. I’ve always heard people say that the Indian voter is highly intelligent and knows what he wants – and what he doesn’t. The sleeping giant that was UP needed to wake up, and boy, has it woken up. And that also reminds me that the cities, at the end of the days, are little fish. The real voice emerges from the heartland. Maywati did not really have the media, no businessmen backers, no has-been starlets, nothing. She went straight to the guy who has nothing to do with all of it anyway. And made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.