In #2019, no TINA but be wary of TAIL!

As 2018 winds down and we step in to 2019, for India, it is just not another new year. Mid of 2019 is when we will have the Lok Sabha polls that will determine if Narendra Modi will get another shot at being the Prime Minister. In my memory, I cannot recall of any individual who has come for so much scrutiny as an elected representative. And whose re-election is being discussed and debated so intensely in the country. First up, blame it all on the social media and its growing tentacles!

The fact that a government’s performance is coming up for such a rigorous appraisal itself, augurs well for our country. It should be like that. I only hope that this appraisal business isn’t selective and not just reserved for Modi Sarkar! If I think as to why this government has come under such a close assessment, I realise that it should blame itself for the same.

Did we have any other government in the past that

Set targets for itself on many fronts?

Which announced the targets and put them out in public domain?

Which tracked the actual delivery against the targets and presented them for everyone to see and comprehend easily that too mostly on real-time basis?

Today we know, not just what this government’s targets are for rural electrification, construction of highways, building targets, opening of bank accounts so on and so forth but also where it stands in terms of achievement. One look at the https://transformingindia.mygov.in/performance-dashboard/ site gives us an update on a real-time basis. It is not that governments in the past did not set targets for themselves. But all these targets were usually in terms of outlays announced in the Annual Budget speeches and seldom one would know what the final outcomes were. Between the outlays and outcomes, the India story remained in tatters. I guess not any more.  So, if people keep remembering the promises made and get disappointed if some of the promises have not been met fully or adequately, blame it on the Government’s efforts of putting out data in the open which makes it possible to compare achievements Vs goals easily.

In comparison to the upbeat mood in 2014 and 2015, today the mood in the country is more sombre. Even the most loyal fans of Modi have realised that probably he chewed more than what he could swallow. Five years are just not enough to turn around and solve all the ills of the country. That too when the global economy is facing one headwind after another! But then, as a country we had our own share of misses. Right when the economy was getting back on track in 2015/16 from the throes of policy paralysis and negative vibes and was poised for a leap, this government let loose the Demonetisation devil on the economy.  This set the economy back by 2 years to get back on track. That we didn’t fully collapse and managed to grow the economy at a slower pace nevertheless, would be a miracle, academicians would pore over in the years to come!

Before the effects of Demonetisation could subside, this government went ahead with the introduction of GST which according me is the biggest Tax reform in Independent India. Irrespective of the critics who take on this government on the “not so perfect” GST, I maintain that it was extremely creditable on the part of Modi Sarkar to launch the GST without further delaying, on the 1st of July 2017. In India, in aspects of meeting deadlines, we Indians follow religiously and rigorously the Theory of Elasticity which says solid materials deform under the application of external force and regain their original shape when the force is removed. So, in the quest of a perfect, ideal GST, if this government had deferred the launch, who knows, perhaps we will still be talking of “introducing the GST” in the upcoming budget!  Against that, today we already have a thriving GST which is now going to complete 2 years! The introduction of GST will remain this government’s biggest achievement when its history is written.

The short term pains inflicted by these 2 moves (Demonetisation and GST) to the small and medium businesses combined with the government’s failure to address the Banking crisis at the beginning of its term have led the BJP to the situation where it is today.  In its strong hold states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the party’s support base has been dwindling. On the contrary, the Congress which seemingly had no hope of a revival till mid-2017, has smelt blood and is hoping to deprive Modi of a second term and a shot at history.

In India today, in the main stream media and also probably social media, the obituary of Modi Sarkar is being written on a daily basis. As per me, it is too early to write off Narendra Modi in the context of 2019. In spite of his government’s misses in terms of promises and more importantly the delivery of Achhe Din, his personal credibility as a leader who is keen to deliver, is intact. I do believe that there are those who are disappointed with him. But they are still not disgusted with him. Yet.  My personal feeling is that they would like to give him another chance.  The same states which voted out the BJP recently could very well see voting for Modi in the Lok Sabha polls!

Apart from this factor of Modi’s personal charisma, there is another important factor at play. People like to call it the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor. I don’t believe that there are no alternatives to Modi. In fact, we have many. We have the spectre of a Rahul Gandhi becoming the Prime Minister, if a Congress led UPA front emerges as the biggest. Or else it could be toss between a Mamata Banerjee or a Mayawati or a Chandrasekhar Rao or any other leader depending upon how many seats they win, as part of a coalition which will be cobbled together post the elections. In all these cases, a leader of the party with 30-40 MPs would head the coalition of 10-15 parties with each party playing the “I am indispensable” card!

This Mahagathbandan where, parties will oppose each other in one state but will come together in another state is only a Maha”cut”bandhan who want their share of power and the perks that come with it. I believe that people are smart enough to understand and realise that Modi Sarkar might have disappointed but will still probably vote for him not because of TINA but being weary of TAIL – The Alternative Is Lousy!

In the past, we saw many Accidental Prime Ministers as we didn’t sight TAIL properly! Hope 2019 is different. On that hopeful note, wishing India a momentous 2019!

Cartoon courtesy: Satish Acharya

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Semi-finals and the many Confusing Signals! Part – 2

In my last post (read here), I had written about the recently concluded state elections in 5 states with focus on Rajasthan. In this, I intend to cover Madhya Pradesh and Telangana and try to drive home the message of the confusing signals coming out for an election strategist and watcher.

In MP, in an evenly poised, see-saw battle, Congress eventually scraped through and has now formed the government with support from other parties, having just fallen short of the half way mark. At the outset, it would appear that for BJP’s performance wasn’t that bad considering that it has been in power in MP for the last 15 years. The question is – “Is it par for the course for voters to get tired with a party which has been in power for more than 2 terms?” I don’t think so. Hence brushing aside a defeat owing to just “Anti-Incumbency factor” may not be correct. There could be and usually there are other factors at play which make people ring in a change.  Considering the fact that eventually BJP ended with the same vote share as Congress with just few seats less, it doesn’t look like as if a severe Anti-Incumbency wave swept away BJP or Shivraj Chauhan.

To be fair to the BJP and Shivraj Chauhan, MP has seen a sea change on the positive side during the last 15 years. It is no longer cursed as part of the “BIMARU” states of India! Those who have visited the state in the last 10 years can see the visible improvement in the road infrastructure not just in the cities but the connecting towns. 87% of rural roads in MP are surfaced (road laid with bitumen or tar), which is higher than the national average (64 %)!  Similarly the progress on the electricity and water supply fronts are visible.

Bijli, Sadak, Paani as far as I heard, were no longer the issues in MP! So what were? Have the voters punished a government even after showing visible vikas?

Farm crisis is one reason which has been talked about. Here again, there are missed signals. Madhya Pradesh has reported the best agricultural growth in India over eight years and yet there is widespread farm unrest. It’s clear that BJP has lost in rural pockets with a seat share drop from 67% to 42% in 2018 Vs 2013. However surprisingly in Mandsaur which was the epicentre of the farmers’ agitation few months back, BJP retained its tally of 3 seats! Similarly in Neemuch district, BJP retained all its 3 seats!

Coming to urban centres, BJP’s major losses came from here unlike Gujarat where it was saved by urban Gujarat! As mentioned before, there has been visible development in urban centres like Bhopal, Indore, Gwalior,..  In fact, Indore has been ranked the cleanest city as per the Swachh Bharat survey in 2018 for the 2nd consecutive year. Bhopal came in 2nd!  Even then, BJP major losses in this election came from the urban pockets! The seat share fell from 90% in the urban areas in 2013 to 55% in 2018!

It looks like BJP in MP has been felled by the weight of expectations and not on its standalone performance which has not been so bad. The expectations could be with respect to the State’s progress from what it has achieved so far and also of the Centre’s promises to usher in the Achhe Din! In his column – “No proof required”, Dr. Surjit Bhalla calls the election results – “The Revolution of Rising expectations”! It is possible that in spite of the local BJP Government under the leadership of the “Mamaji” – Shivraj Chauhan delivering governance, the people expected more. More in terms of jobs, more in terms of disposable income and finally “Yeh Dil maange sub kuch more”!

In MP, the other factor is BJP lost 10 seats with a narrow margin of under 1000 votes!  Again, if you look at the swing of votes against BJP which is at 4%, it is not a big swing but reduced BJP’s number of seats from 165 to 109, a drop of almost 1/3rd of the seats! What does this say of BJP’s famed booth level management tactics and WhatsApp outreach programmes??? What happened to the “Panna Pramukhs” this time?

The fact that BJP lost 10 seats by a margin which was lower than the NOTA votes polled in those seats would lend credence probably to a simmering anger among a section of loyal BJP voters to teach a lesson to the party!  It would be interesting to see if this anger is temporary or permanent enough to afflict a damage to BJP’s fortunes in 2019 Lok Sabha polls!

Coming to Telangana, the TRS (Telangana Rashtriya Samithi) party under K. Chandrasekhar Rao(KCR) successfully saw off the Anti-Incumbency and managed to not just win, but win by a landslide! I have not looked at Telangana closely but as far as I saw, TRS planned out the 5 year period well.

In the 1st 3 years, KCR’s son K.T.Rama Rao was in the forefront of pitching the state to get investments. In this effort, they rolled out the red carpet to industrialists and companies in India and abroad with a promise of industry friendly policies. In the centre’s ranking of states for “Ease of doing business”, Telangana consistently came 2nd with its not friendly neighbour Andhra Pradesh coming 1st. The previous year, Telangana and AP had jointly topped the charts!

In the last 18 months though, Telangana has been focussing on welfare initiatives. Free housing for the poor, Direct cash subsidy for farmers,.., all right at the nick of time in the last year of the rule!  It ended up spending more than on Agriculture, Irrigation,… than the Rest of India.

It looks like KCR’s government divided the 5 year period into 2 halves. In the 1st half they focussed on long term, reformist initiatives, while the 2nd half closer to elections they came out with short term, populist welfare schemes that would give electoral results. A closer analysis of how this pans out probably may provide a working model for all those seeking to beat Anti-Incumbency. That of balancing long term with short term by focussing on reforms and structural changes in the 1st 2/3 years of the rule and resort to populist, welfare programmes in the last 2 years closer to elections.

With the many confusing signals emanating from these results, it becomes all the more difficult for an election strategist particularly of the BJP to come up with a winning formula for 2019! But here, one must not forget, that India has begun to vote differently between state elections and National elections. Therefore one should linearly extrapolate the trends from these Semi-finals to the finals at their own peril. However, it is safe to conclude that with these crucial wins in the Hindi heartland, Congress has got its mojo back and BJP is on the back foot. The next few months will be interesting to see how the final narrative for the 2019 elections unfolds.

Semi-finals and the many Confusing Signals! Part – 1

What has been touted as the semi-finals before the Grand finals in May 2019 just got over in India and the results from the 5 state elections are finally out. Though there have been surprises, more than the eventual result, the extent of the win or the loss from whichever side you look at it, has been more surprising. While in 3 states the margin of victory to the victor has been phenomenal, in the other 2 states, it’s been quite small. There has been many analyses and take aways of the verdict from pundits in the last few days but, to me, there is an important one. Which is, never before in recent times you have such confusing signals emanating from the voter from the heartland states. Before I go on to elaborate my hypothesis, honest disclosure. I am not from these states. I had not travelled to theses states in the run up to the elections. I have not had “elections on my plate” to gauge the mood of the voter. So my take aways are nothing more than armchair punditry based on what I gather.  So please keep a container of salt ready by your side as you read this.

This week, let me dwell on Rajasthan which according to me is quite interesting.

  • From BJP’s point of view, though they would like to spin the defeat in Rajasthan as extremely close and well fought out contest, in reality it has been a huge defeat. One cannot and should not gauge the extent of defeat based on opinion poll predictions or exit poll results and conclude that the fight was closer than expected. In reality, there has been a swing of 6.2% away from BJP resulting in a loss of 90 seats in an assembly of 200 compared to the last elections in 2013! This is not a narrow loss.
  • As per most of the commentariat, there have been very few plausible reasons to explain such a big defeat for the BJP.
    • First up, one of the reasons attributed was the outgoing Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s arrogance/attitude! Really? Raje is not new to the voters of Rajasthan. Before this term, she served the state as a Chief Minister for 5 years from 2003-08. She has been a MP and MLA from Rajasthan many times. She came to power in 2008 with a massive mandate defeating the Congress! So did people come to realise about her arrogant attitude only now? Or is it that she started behaving arrogantly only in the last few years?
    • The second reason attributed is – Rajasthan voters have the habit of throwing out the incumbent government and opt for a change if one goes by the trend in the last 20 years! Hence it is said that BJP giving way to Congress was on expected lines. Does it mean that people don’t care about governance and just throw out the incumbent government for the heck of it?
    • Coming to governance, Raje in the last 5 years, presided over the most reformist government among most of the states in India. Soon after she took over, Raje did the unthinkable in India of initiating labour reforms – a long-standing request from entrepreneurs and India Inc. What should have helped in attracting investments and aid economic growth, apparently has not worked, it looks like.
    • If I am not mistaken, under the support and supervision of economist Bibek Debroy, Rajasthan Government passed a bill to repeal whole lot of archaic state laws to make governance simpler.
    • In the context of UP, we are often told that people are no longer interested in Mandir politics but in development. But in Rajasthan we are told that people were unhappy with the Raje government when it decided to re-locate a few Hindu temples to give way for Metro in Jaipur!
    • Agrarian Distress – is the other reason attributed for BJP’s loss in Rajasthan. In most of states today including Rajasthan, agrarian crisis is not arising out of shortages (supply side) but due to a problem of plenty. In the sense, farmers do not get the right prices for their produce due to the excess supply. Hence the demand for higher MSPs. I don’t think higher MSPs will solve the problem in the long run, as it will shortly fuel very high food inflation which is again a bigger monster to handle, for the Government. The solution lies in raising farm income without raising MSPs beyond a point. For that, the issue to fix is the demand side bottle necks.  As I understand, some of the reforms undertaken by the Raje Government like creation of one agriculture market,… were supposed to take care of rationalising the licensing of mandis,… Have they not worked??? May be more ground needs to be covered here.
    • As you can see from the above points, Good Economics has not yielded Good political returns.
    • At the same time, it appears that the Raje Government’s waiver of farm loans of up to Rs. 50000 hasn’t worked either! So Good Populism has not yielded results also!

If you are an election strategist for the BJP, you many tend to conclude that these reforms or populism are of no use to win elections may decide to have a strategy to just pander to emotive issues. In Rajasthan have the emotive issues worked?

  • While the Raje Government started off well with the above focussed development agenda, I do believe that it lost its away trying to pander to extreme elements within the BJP. The government was practically silent during the entire Padmaavat episode when lumpen elements were running amuck.
  • In Alwar, there were violence due to cow vigilantism which the government was guilty of promoting. However cow vigilantism failed to come to the rescue of BJP in this region, where the party lost 16 of the 18 assembly seats!
  • So raising the pitch on emotive issues hasn’t worked either.

In the final count, the difference in vote share of just 0.5% may also indicate that while there has been a 6.2% erosion of vote share for the BJP, the anti-incumbency has not been strong enough to significantly dent the voter base of BJP. Hence, one will extrapolate the state election results and predict that BJP will face a rout in 2019 Lok Sabha elections at his own peril.

But in this state elections, what have the voters voted for or against? Was it

A positive vote for the Congress? Or

A Negative vote against the BJP? Or

Negative against the BJP at the Centre or State? Or

Neither a positive vote for the Congress nor a negative vote against the BJP?

Hence, my hypothesis that the voters while booting out BJP have also sent confusing signals as to why they have done so!

Post Script: When you know that he has been a CM twice over before and failed to win a second term in Rajasthan why would you again make Ashok Gehlot the CM for the 3rd time? This was a great opportunity for Rahul Gandhi to put his stamp and I guess, he let it go!

Time to end the Post Poll Alliance Plot!

Ever since H.D. Kumaraswamy became the Chief Minister of Karnataka through a post poll alliance between his party JD(S) and the Congress, he and Karnataka have been in the news, mostly for all the wrong reasons. From the wrangling over members of the cabinet, allocation of ministries and decision over waiving of farm loans, the so called “Unconditional” support of the Congress to the JD(S) has come with the “Conditions Apply” water mark! This is a coalition government formed after elections where, the Chief Minister in his own admission is at the mercy of the Congress which won more seats in the assembly and one that he fought a bitter battle against, during the elections. This has brought to the fore the moral legitimacy of a post poll alliance and the raison d’etre for this post!

This sort of a post poll arrangement is not the first and constitutional provisions remaining the same, will not be the last either. In the last few years, we have had similar post poll alliances being cobbled up in Maharashtra between the BJP and Shiv Sena and in Jammu & Kashmir between the BJP again and the PDP. In Bihar, we had the pre-poll alliance partners JD (U) and RJD coming together, winning, forming a government successfully only to fall apart in just under 2 years. The same JD (U) has now got into an alliance with the BJP, which it fought intensely against during the elections and is now running a coalition government! One glance at the political situation in all these states presents a similar and not so encouraging picture. Of an unease, under the veneer of partnership.  Of open differences in day-to-day functioning, even after coming to power with an understanding of a common minimum programme.

In Maharashtra, though the coalition government has been in power for more than three years now, there have been serious differences between the BJP and Shiv Sena on the vision, programmes and the idea of development.  The Shiv Sena opposes these in the media for public consumption while continuing to be a part of the very cabinet which takes these decisions. There cannot be a bigger deceit on the voting public than this!

In Jammu & Kashmir, the coming together of BJP and PDP was itself a very strange occurrence. Here were two parties who ended up with complimenting geographical presence (PDP in the valley and BJP in Jammu, Ladakh area) but with different ideological outlook to the state. Not surprising that decisions related to governance like handling of militancy and response to the ground situation,… were viewed through their respective ideological prisms and were subjected to pulls and pressures.  Not surprising again, that the alliance finally broke off last week!

In Bihar also, we keep hearing of murmurs of rumblings under the still surface of the Kosi River!

In all these states, it is indeed a legitimate democratic process that threw up hung verdicts which essentially reflected the mood of the public. And hence it may appear that the formation of a coalition government though based on a post poll alliance, is indeed a reflection of the rather muddled mandate. And in that sense one could argue that, democracy won at the end.

And as Indians we have still not forgotten the many short stint governments and Prime Ministers we had in the mid 90’s all thanks to post poll plots! Have we?

 If democracy is just about free and fair elections and installing “a” government as an end result of that process, probably, we should not grumble much about how governments function once they come to power. However, I do believe that democracy is not just about the election process but also about the outcome of the process as a reflection of the collective will of people as demonstrated by the election results and the ensuing governance.

From that point of view, is a post poll alliance, where 2 or more parties who contested and fought against each other bitterly before the elections come together and form a coalition government, fair? Is that arrangement a fair representation of the mandate or the collective will of the people? Is it not fooling the voters if, the party against whom you raised a stink over issues like corruption during the election campaign is now part of your government, for example? And there are more legitimate questions like these.

In a pre-poll alliance, parties “come together” probably with a common ideological plank or against a common enemy or some common promise or premise. This is transparent to the people when they go to vote. In a post poll scenario, parties “cobble up together” an alliance.  And there is a big difference between the two!

Apart from the moral issue of a post poll alliance government going against the will of the people, the other obvious issue with it is the thriving of “resort politics” – a phrase today associated with deal cutting and other “Direct Benefit Transfers”! Today, we are a witness to all this happening before us but have to be silent because post poll alliances are deemed acceptable under the constitution! Even the Supreme Court expressed its inability to term post poll alliances as invalid!

One of the main argument in favour of post poll alliances is that, today the constitution doesn’t dis-allow such an arrangement. Has the time not come to look at reviewing this aspect of it and make amends?

One of the other vocal arguments that is used to legitimise post poll alliances is saving public exchequer on expenses over another round of elections. For parties who raise this, it is just a convenient argument to come to power somehow.  In the case of a hung verdict, it is clear that the people are not convinced of the credentials of a single party or a pre-poll alliance. Giving an opportunity to a post poll alliance is the biggest charade that can be inflicted on the public.

If one looks at all angles, post poll alliances don’t check any of the boxes in public’s favour in a democracy. And it’s time as a country we have a debate around it and look at other alternatives of handling a hung verdict than the post poll plots which parties draw up.

Toon courtesy: Satish Acharya

Karnataka Political League!

Since 12th May, the day when Karnataka went to polls, India has been gripped by non-stop action from KPL – Karnataka Political league. The twists and turns of KPL put IPL completely on the back burner for a week. From the exit poll results to counting day to the see-sawing of fortunes of parties and leaders to the resort games to the confidence vote, we saw it all. In these “Winner takes it all” times, finally JDS emerged the winner at the end of the week! And the people of Karnataka (to whom elections and the rulers actually matter) lost!

For those of us, who have been keenly watching the Karnataka elections and some of the electoral battles since 2014, there are many interesting takeaways which I would like to share:

  • Final election results defy ground reports of journalists and in particular celebrity anchors and Star journos. Karnataka once again confirmed this! They tend to hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see. Ergo, report what they want to report!
  • Restaurants, eateries, dhabas are wrong places to sense any political hawa during elections. Channels, anchors and reporters should find better options to plug eateries in their shows. My unsolicited advice to anchors – “Please do not have politics and elections on your plates!”
  • For a political party being savvy or active on Social media (read as Twitter) and claiming to dominate Twitter trends aggressively is not a passport to electoral wins. Dominating “on the ground” trends is. I have come to realise that what happens on Twitter may just steer conversations on WhatsApp groups or lunchtime discussions in offices. These also help feed off talk points to reporters and journalists. At the hustings, being savvy on Social media particularly Twitter has no impact. As a tool, WhatsApp works better and efficiently in driving opinions.
  • Opinion polls and Exit polls continue to be employment generating machines for pollsters, TRP drivers for channels and entertainment source for viewers. Beyond that, we have now got habituated to see that for every exit poll there is an opposite result exit poll!
  • On TV, the so called experts have their own way of explaining any result. In the run up to the polls when Congress was poised to do well, Siddaramaiah was touted to have mastered the social coalition of AHINDA. On the counting day when Congress for floundering, Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA and the many social schemes were pronounced as “flops”. Same with his Lingayat gamble. In 24 hours, a masterstroke became Siddaramaiah’s undoing!
  • Therefore the important take away for observers like us is not to form our opinions based on experts on TV or social media narratives!
  • If one is weak on Indian geography, start watching pre-election programming where channel after channel will take you through the regional divides in a state with the caste composition in added measure!
  • And the more and more we want our next generation to move away from casteism, experts on TV will keep hammering and reminding us about Vokkaligas and Kappus and Yadavs and Kurmis and what not! If you are a student of journalism, this is the 1st thing to master to become a successful political journalist!
  • Corruption is not really a big issue for the electorate. Impact of governance on the individual voter is. Even if a party or a legislator is corrupt, as long as they manage to meet the expectations of voters in matters of day-to-day governance, they will go ahead and vote for them. This I am talking of voters for whom elections and the rulers matter. I have come to this conclusion not just based on the Karnataka elections but what has been happening for so many years not just in India but even in our neighbourhood like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh,…
  • I think Demonetisation aka Notebandi and GST,… as much as the media and opposition would like to rake them as electoral issues have clearly emerged as non-issues in elections. On the contrary, I feel that opposition parties continuing to raise hell on these issues are yielding them negative returns.
  • Prime Minister Modi clearly has a Pan India and towering appeal today. Talks of a waning Modi appeal are as per me pure imaginations. And it is my belief that even if BJP had lost Karnataka badly and ended up with fewer seats than Congress, come 2019, Karnataka will vote for Modi and BJP in that order.
  • Anti-incumbency is just an excuse to explain poor Governance. Incumbent governments will continue to be under severe scrutiny. However, if the government delivers on at least 50% of its promises and demonstrates its intent to deliver the rest, I think the floating non-core supporter will vote in the ruling party’s favour. (Core voters stick to their parties come what may). As per me, above all other factors, this is one in which BJP has demonstrated a clear edge over Congress. And hence it is able to retain states where it rules and Congress is unable to.
  • Post poll alliance is the biggest charade to afflict Indian democracy. I am not saying this with just Karnataka in mind but seeing what has happened in the past and recently in Goa, Manipur, J&K,… That you fight tooth and nail against each other before elections and then stitch up a post alliance to appropriate power is nothing but a sham! Before elections, 2 parties “come together” for an alliance. After elections, 2 parties “cobble up” an alliance! There is a world of difference in both! In India, now any 2 parties which may seem to be in loggerheads can come together if a situation arises for sharing power! Morality be damned and Ideology be condemned!
  • In India, “Whataboutery” just scaled new heights! “Whataboutery” which has largely been in the domain of party spokespersons trying to defend their positions day in and day out has now become common man’s defence against any argument. No argument/discussion is complete today without reference to “Whatabout that” or “Whatabout then”!
  • For every precedent, there is an opposite precedent!

Karnataka Political League might have just ended. But the games parties play will continue. Bernard Shaw said politics is the last resort of scoundrels. These days, “Resorts” have become the 1st resort for politics!!!

Toon credit: Satish Acharya

Marketing of Politics!!!

Last week’s explosive expose of Channel 4 on the role of Cambridge Analytica (CA), a British political consultancy firm in the Trump campaign has thrown up many questions on the devious marketing ways parties use, to influence voters.  At the outset, it would appear that CA has been doing nothing else but extending time-tested established marketing techniques to the political domain. For years, brands have used psycho graphic profiling of target consumers in addition to the more rudimentary demographic profiling to fine-tune their messaging. Extending this into the realm of political campaigns, particularly with the help of social media would seem to be a very logical thing to do. After all, one of the key attractions of digital marketing viz-a-viz traditional mass media is the possibility to deliver customized, targeted messaging based on individual likes and preferences.

As can be seen from the expose, what CA has been doing all along, is not as straight forward as it appears. It seems apart from profiling voters and using it for targeted messaging, manipulation of news, spreading fake news and playing on people’s fears,… have been part of the game. “Marketing of Politics” has indeed come a long way since 1960 when probably the 1st political mass media campaign was used by John F Kennedy against his rival Richard Nixon in the US elections.  Bruce Newman in his book, ‘The Handbook of Political Marketing’ in fact says, “This was the beginning of the modernization of marketing in political context”. Concepts like “Branding” and “Positioning” which were hitherto considered important in the marketing of consumer goods struck a chord with politicians and leaders during elections and they started “Branding” themselves.  From then to the 2016 presidential campaign with social media as the pivot, US has been leading the way in Political Marketing!

While all this seems plausible in developed and mature countries like the US, UK,… it indeed came as a surprise that a foreign political consultancy firm like CA has been operating in India in different avatars since 2010! In a vast country with voters of diverse social, educational, cultural, economic backgrounds as India, can advance techniques like targeted messaging through Social media be used to influence voting patterns in elections? This question gains added significance particularly when Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook said this week that his organization is committed to upholding the integrity of elections around the world, including India. This statement in itself reveals that there was a possibility that Facebook would have been used to compromise elections in the past. With due respect to Zuckerberg’s intention, I do feel that this statement is more a marketing statement for the brand Facebook!  Be that as it may, the more fundamental question is – “Do Indian’s allow Marketing of Politics?”

As far as my memory goes, I think it was Rajiv Gandhi who brought in to Indian politics the concept of mass advertising campaigns way back in 1984. For the 1984 elections, Congress under Rajiv Gandhi had hired Rediffusion as their ad agency for their campaign which was largely print. In that election Congress, in the aftermath of a massive sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi’s death, got 3/4th majority in the Lok Sabha. So it’s not clear if the Rediffusion campaign around the theme of “Give Unity a Hand” played a big part in the victory. In the following election in 1989, Rediffusion was back doing the Congress campaign. However, the mega Rs. 25 crore “My heart beats for India” campaign couldn’t silence the boom of the Bofors gun scandal! Congress lost and I think it was the last time Rediffusion worked for Congress!

The subsequent elections all saw quite a bit of Political Marketing in India but, I guess that the next tipping point was the 2014 elections and the campaign of BJP in general and Narendra Modi in particular. “Abki Baar, Modi Sarkar” is part of marketing case studies. Piyush Pandey of Ogilvy, the man behind this campaign however admitted that they or the media didn’t create “Brand Modi” and that they only amplified the features of the “Modi Brand” which already existed.

2014 is also when I guess, we saw the advent of professional election strategists like Prashant Kishor (PK) for the 1st time. There were election strategists in the past but they were from the party and subscribed to an ideology.  As we see now, PK is ideology agnostic and basically works with whichever party contracts him. Again looking at the track record of PK it’s been a mixed bag. As an election strategist who worked with Modi in 2014 and then with Nitish Kumar for Bihar elections, Congress for UP, Punjab and Gujarat elections, he has been successful only with a good product in the 1st place.  The old adage of “Great marketing cannot redeem a bad product” holds well in Political Marketing also.  However it’s abundantly clear that election strategists like PK have found their calling mainly with the advent of Social media.

In a country like India, even now traditional Social media vehicles like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,… remain an urban/semi urban/youth phenomenon.  Having millions of followers on Twitter or FB may not still ensure a victory in the hinterlands of India!  Having said that, it’s obvious that one takes these vehicles seriously as they are part of day-today narrative. I just heard that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of the very early hoppers among Indian politicians onto the Social media band wagon, suggested to BJP MPs to be active on social media to communicate the party’s accomplishments. Because, he knows that today, Social media vehicles like Twitter and Facebook feeds off to the conventional media. Conventional media picks up trends from Social media. “Breaking News” happens these days on Twitter. Trump fires his Secretary of State on Twitter! Notwithstanding all these, still using these for targeted messaging may only help brands (including political parties) reach urban, semi urban and youth audience. However there is one exception.

Among the social media vehicles, literally the elephant in the room or rather hand is WhatsApp. I believe that more than FB, Twitter, Instagram and Blog sites if there is one media which has the most exponential and explosive reach, it is WhatsApp. With anonymity part of its structure and design and primarily being accessible from a Smart phone, it can be conveniently used for spreading News, views and stuff masquerading as News. Today, I find that even educated and informed people get swayed by propagandist material doing the rounds on WhatsApp and do their bit by “forwarding as received” to their near and dear! Imagine the effect of this among more gullible voters in rural India!  And therefore, it has become the most potent medium for spreading fake news.  One cannot realistically expect one and all to do due diligence before forwarding something which they feel as interesting!

Therefore, it is not surprising that when Cambridge Analytica and the subsequent Facebook stories erupted, tremors could be felt in the political circles in India with parties scrambling to distance themselves as much as possible and blaming each other.  Social media, in particular vehicles like WhatsApp can today be used to deliver targeted messages that can easily influence voters. With the proliferation of WhatsApp groups, you have a set of people who have a certain common denominator.   And hence spreading an appealing message to them is cheap, quick and effective. Hence in the elections to come, unless regulated, I have no doubts in my mind that a medium like WhatsApp will be the most sought after during political campaigns.  It already is as we saw recently in Gujarat!  Marketing of Politics that too with Social media as the mainstay is here to stay!

No wonder then Marketing of Politics has now led to Politics over Marketing!!!

Pic Courtesy: NBC News

For Congress, time to have a Punjab Model!!!

For the Grand Old Party of India – the Congress, yesterday the 16th of Dec, 2017 was a historic day. Or that’s what the Congress and the media made us to believe. A day in which their long waiting scion, Rahul Gandhi was finally crowned as the President of the party a post held by his mother, father, grandmother, great grandfather and great great grandfather in the past. While it was a very natural event which needed to happen one day or the other, Rahul takes charge at a time when an arduous task lies ahead.  That of pulling the party from the woods which it has got into since 2014. But for Punjab recently, electoral successes for the party have been far and few between. But, all hopes are not lost. The ruling behemoth called the BJP may be clinically executing its mission of a “Congress Mukt Bharat” and coming close to achieving it as well. But that doesn’t mean that in a country like India, Congress is out for ever. As the “once party with a difference” – BJP grows, it cannot escape afflicting itself with the trappings of power and the downsides that come along with it. As the principal opposition party with a national footprint, the Congress can certainly hope for its time to come.  And Rahul Gandhi being the current heir of the “Gandhi turned Nehru parivar”, can also hope to become the Prime Minister of India, one day. I am not saying that this could happen in 2019 or even in 2024. But for a 47 year old, Rahul can certainly count on his chances sometime in the future.

Having said that, just counting on his chances or luck will not be enough to resurrect the party and become the PM of India. Not in these times. Certainly not with a competitor who is developing a sense of invincibility by the election. Tomorrow is the counting day for state elections of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat and by this time, it will be clear if Rahul’s stars are in the upswing or they continue to betray him. The exit polls have not been kind. Anyway, irrespective of the final results, Rahul Gandhi needs to have a game plan for the next 20 years for his party. First, to become a formidable opposition to BJP and then to become a credible party of governance.  At a time when Rahul takes up the new mantle, this piece aims to provide some unsolicited advice in this direction to the Grand Old Party. That also means that this has nothing to do with what is going to happen with the Gujarat results. The advice is irrespective.

Now that the Congress has a clear face by way of Rahul Gandhi, it needs its own “Model”. While it can continue to attack NarendraModi and the BJP for all their fallacies, the question in the mind of the “unattached” voter is, what does Congress stand for today?  It’s my view that in general, core voters are loyal to their own parties, come what may. It’s the non-core voters who determine the swing and accordingly the winner. Today, the non-core voters are usually the urban middle class, women in general and the youth who have got into the voting net in the last few years. I have found that these groups are Ideology agnostic and make up their minds based on what is it for them as individuals. The youth of today are not aware of what Congress did or did not when it was in power for most part of 70 years in Independent India. Modi and the BJP have been very effective in reminding these voters of the omissions and commissions of the Congress. Hence, Congress needs to have a positive narrative of what they could do now, if they come to power which is different from the past and from what BJP is doing. The easiest thing is to showcase this in one state first. Take up a state where you are in power. Nurture an effective leader. Focus on governance. Do all what you feel BJP is not doing. Finally, Deliver, Deliver and Deliver. Make this a showcase. In short make this state a Model! And effectively “market” this model!

Today, the biggest issue with Congress is its credibility. There is no state which can be shown as a success story for the Congress. Congress had a great chance when it wrested back Karnataka from the BJP 5 years ago. But it has squandered its chances there with some lacklustre performance. As Karnataka goes to polls in 2018, Congress has its back against the wall.

Having missed the opportunity in Karnataka, the next bet for Rahul is to focus on Punjab, a state which Congress wrested from the SAD-BJP combine in 2017. With more than 4 years to go for the electoral test there, time is ripe for the Congress to demonstrate its capability and come up with its own “Punjab model”. It has nothing to lose and in fact everything to gain. It has just come to power in the back of severe anti-incumbency and promise of better governance. It has got a Chief Minister who I am told is an effective leader (Only time will tell) and who has a mind and brain of his own. Punjab is not a Bihar. It has been one of the wealthier states in the country. Agriculture and Industry have been thriving. So, for Congress to focus, identify the gaps in governance and focus on plugging them should not be difficult. In fact, Rahul should summon the entire might of the Congress in supporting the CM and ensure by 2022, the state is No.1 in terms of economic growth, infrastructure and social indices. And go for re-election with the narrative of its own “Punjab model”! 

In marketing, we often talk of a concept of “One-Three-Five-Many” by which we first successfully launch a product in one market, make it a success and then take it to three, five and then many other markets. I see no reason why Congress cannot follow the same. After making a success of Punjab, Congress then can focus on capturing few other vulnerable states in 2023 like MP, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan,.. which by then in all probability would be inflicted from severe Anti-Incumbency and fatigue. Having 3-5 major states in the pocket is when Congress will be in any serious position to take a shot at the Centre.

Immediately after BJP’s rousing win in UP this year, Omar Abdullah in part jest and part irony tweeted that the opposition should forget 2019 and start planning and hoping for 2024. Developing a marketable “Punjab model” by 2022 could be that plan and hope.  Or else, wait and watch for BJP to implode, Ram Bharose!!!

Postscript: While on this, cannot avoid but sharing this joke:

Congress worker: Sirji, for us to come back to power, we need a successful Punjab model.

RaGa: Why just one? We always have many successful models from Punjab:) 🙂