India's state polls descend into
style wars By Neeta Lal
DELHI - As the battlelines are drawn for
state assembly elections in five Indian states -
Uttar Pradesh (UP), Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and
Manipur - beginning with UP (the country's most
populous state with 166 million people) on
February 8, parties are deploying ingenious ways
to attract the electorate.
Many have hired
public relations (PR) firms to woo voters in the
world's largest democracy. Others are relying on
advertisement gurus and spin doctors. Technology
is also being used with e-campaigns on social
networking sites and microblogging sites. Messages
on music television channels, FM radio, mobile
phones and e-mail are other weapons in the
companies are being hired for both image makeovers
and publicity campaigns. They are offering a panoply
of services - ranging
from media interactions, press conferences and
superstar campaigners to electronic presentations.
Some are even providing advising how star
campaigners can package themselves to create
maximum impact, right down to clothing tips.
The frontrunner in the image-building
sweepstakes is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) - the
ruling party in UP led by its feisty chief
minister Mayawati, 56. Behenji (or "sister" as
Mayawati is called) has an army of professionals
at her beck and call to help her chalk out the
party's publicity game plan. Even the coverage of
the CM's rallies has been outsourced to private
event management firms.
we're leaving nothing to chance," says a senior
BSP functionary succinctly.
This is hardly
surprising given the high political stakes in UP.
Uttar Pradesh sends 80 members of parliament (out
of a total of 545 in the Lower House or Lok
Sabha), the most of all Indian states. It will
elect a 403-member legislative assembly and its
poll results will broadly indicate trends for the
national elections due in 2014. The electoral
outcome might even determine who inherits the
throne in Delhi.
In a four-cornered fight,
the BSP will lock horns with the Congress, the
Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal.
All stakeholders are aggressively wooing all
possible constituencies. While the Congress
crusade has been masterminded by Congress General
Secretary Rahul Gandhi, 41, the SP has 36-year-old
environmental engineer Akhilesh Yadav - son of SP
veteran Mulayam Singh Yadav - as its helmsman.
"When it comes to branding and publicity
these days, political parties are extremely
demanding," says Nilofar Buxi, a New Delhi-based
PR consultant who has handled online marketing for
many high-profile politicians. "They are
approaching elections with the kind of zeal seen
in corporate boardrooms."
demand for their services has skyrocketed lately
because of a shift in demographics. "India has a
huge young demographic. Each election, millions of
more new voters join the electorate who need to be
informed of the candidates' credentials. Hiring a
professional agency or marketing company allows
political parties easy access to survey data and
voting trends which help them strategize better,"
A large swathe of UP's voters
for instance, elaborates the publicist, are
first-time voters, and represent an "aspirational"
India. "To grab the eyeballs of this satellite
television generation, we need a new kind of
approach," she explains.
experts ascribe this changed dynamic to rapidly
altering ground realities in Indian realpolitik.
They say that these days, political parties' image
makeovers run far deeper than hiring PR agencies
or employing new media to convey their message.
It includes purging the party of criminal
and corrupt elements and projecting a clean,
"In a corruption-fatigued
country, people are hankering for honest
politicians," says Anand Mahendroo, an analyst at
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. "You may
call this the Anna Hazare effect. Parties are
realizing that politics is now as much about
reality as it is about perception."
Therefore, it hardly came as surprise when
recently - as a part of her image revamp -
Mayawati sacked as many as 20 ministers from her
cabinet on corruption charges. "The dalit leader
is getting increasingly conscious of the dent
caused to her image by serious corruption charges.
This marks a distinct shift from a defiant
Mayawati who, confident of her Dalit vote bank,
seemed immune to such finger pointing earlier,"
The Samajwadi Party (SP)
affected a similar purge last week by refusing an
SP ticket to DP Yadav, also known as the "don of
western UP". The party also sacked its
spokesperson Mohan Singh from his post for
endorsing Yadav's candidature. For a party that
has been synonymous with - and quite unapologetic
about - its nexus with undesirable elements, this
marks an important strategic shift. In a similar
vein, the BJP too, dropped its chief minister in
Gandhi too, has for long been
reiterating the need for Congress to eschew caste,
corruption and criminality and embrace change. The
Gandhi scion has been working closely with his
"war room boys" for threadbare discussions on
"He seeks inputs
proactively and doesn't shy away from mid-course
corrections if required," admits a Congress
source. The hands-on general secretary has also
been locked in hours-long meetings with media and
To come up with an
efficacious strategy to take on ruling SAD-BJP
coalition in Punjab, the Congress has hired
Crayons Advertising. Crayons is drafting the
entire campaign for Congress in a tongue-in-cheek
manner. "It will raise concerns of the farmers and
youth in the state while bringing to light the
drawback and failures of the ruling party," says
The trend to hire PR
managers, point out observers, is also gathering
momentum because it does away with putting paid
advertisements in the media. "The Election
Commission discourages paid advertisements. So,
politicians hire PR agents who can get publicity
through other subtler means," reasons Buxi.
The stringent Election Commission (EC)
guidelines for this round of assembly elections
seem to have already had a huge impact. The
political parties have toned down their rallies
for fear of crossing the expenditure limit of 1.6
million Indian rupees (US$31,800) per candidate
while the use of "paid news" (ads masquerading as
newspaper articles) has also been whittled down.
The EC has also instituted a "media
certification and monitoring committee" (MCMC) in
every district which makes it mandatory for the
media to get all political advertisements vetted
by a scrutiny committee. The idea is that a
watchdog's system should be robust enough to track
and act against the wrongdoers.
Neeta Lal is a widely published
writer/commentator who contributes to many reputed
national and international print and Internet
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