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Campaigns and public perception

Campaigns and public perception
The gap between the on-ground election campaign and the election campaign debates makes one wonder what actually is the right campaign strategy in India. Are the common Indians fed up with the scams and want a change in government? Isn’t the principal campaigner for the ruling coalition, the Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, caught between the devil of 10-year long anti-incumbency spiced with near governance failure for four years and the deep sea of his inability to articulate any ray of hope to get out of the tunnel? Could these explain the enthusiastic reception given to the Congress adversaries?

Apart from the barrage of corruption charges what could be the reasons for the anger of the electorates against the incumbent UPA government? Whether one likes to admit it or not the fact is that large-scale corruptions make nice headlines and create shouting matches in TV shows but hardly have any direct impact on the life of an ordinary citizen. Can anybody provide a plausible case study why a farmer in Vidarbha would commit suicide because, say, Unitech made huge profit by bagging a 2G licence? Or for that matter why will the nation like to know if some Muthalik or Masood should continue in the electoral politics? Such questions are not raised in Delhi since people do not like to be branded as irrelevant. But experts who argue incessantly on these matters will know well how inconsequential these issues are if they care to step outside and move 500 km away from the national capital.

That most of them scrupulously avoid doing the fact check could be explained by the inaugural campaign of Arvind Kejriwal in his chosen Waterloo – Varanasi, the temple town of the nation. Arvind Kejriwal knows much better than any other political persons, even many reputed publicists, how to turn public opinion in his favour. Imagine how he had placed a completely regional activist Anna Hazare on the national map where all political parties had to chew their nails. And what did Kejriwal do when he reached Varanasi? He took a dip in the dirty waters of the Ganges – a photograph prominently placed in media – helped him rebrand himself as a devout Hindu. Next he went to temples to decorate his forehead with sandal-paste. When in Varanasi behave as those who visit the holy city do. Did the TV channels go hammer and tong against Arvind Kejriwal for displaying his faith in Hindu rituals? 

The plunge of Arvind Kejriwal in Varanasi is an eye opener. Not every one will change loyalty just because certain member of a ruling family emerged as the history’s quickest billionaire or certain industrialist owns the costliest home in the world. A voter will like to elect one whom she can accept as her own. Who will move as she does, talk her language, touch issues dear to her and of course have similar faith as she has. Even if left to him Kejriwal perhaps would not have taken the dip in the Ganges or liked to be photographed with the painted forehead, he had to go through the unaccustomed rigmarole for the sake of his target voter. Election is not what the ‘chatterati’ think it is.  
While sympathising with Arvind Kejriwal for the discomfiture he suffered in Varanasi one may take a look at the lot of volunteers coming from different destinations to work for one party or another. Rahul Gandhi had a head start in this. Unfortunately it turned out that those rich family’s foreign educated kids did have little understanding of the psyche of an ordinary elector. Thus wasted were the photo opportunities like Rahul eating in a Dalit’s house, travelling in a train or pillion riding in Rajasthan. Clearly common men viewed the campaign as condescending.

The other set that descended were drawn because of Kejriwal’s promise of cleansing Indian politics. They were relatively grounded and opted for micro issues affecting the life of their target voters. Higher electricity bill, higher water bill, lawlessness and many such issues could warm the hearts of Delhi residents. In between Kejriwal had also alleged that many could earn billions through political patronage. But his primary appeal was because of his ability to bring home the travails of a common man in the daily chores. The success of his fledgling party in the assembly election of the capital city Delhi is a proof that AAP-campaign was more effective than Rahul-campaign. But when it comes to the national election the complexity changes. The volunteers from abroad are as much incapable of assessing the mood of the nation, as had been the members of the Rahul-brigade in Congress. Here the role of the grass root political worker is more critical than that of an overseas volunteer.
Arvind Kejriwal understood it. Hence he opted to showcase his faith in Hindu ritual in Varanasi, a series of steps that his target, a ‘communal’ Narendra Modi is unlikely to emulate. When Modi visited the holy city last year he was not seen taking such plunges. Clearly an overtly ‘secular’ Kejriwal had to enact the role that suits a fanatic Hindu. Kejriwal, despite the frown from his foreign-returned volunteers, had to behave as an ordinary Indian would. 

Elections 2014 have created a fractured society –between the communalists (read Hindu) and secularists (read Muslims). Arvind Kejriwal, his supporters hoped, would focus on corruption, governance and the plight of the common man. Instead he plunged into the Ganges to create a Hindu image for himself. Kejriwal has illustrated that in elections a leader must be viewed as somebody who endorses the faith of his voters, holds dear the problems they face and shows sincerity to redress the same. On ground election campaign is not what an NRI on sabbatical will love to believe it is. One may make fun of Kejriwal’s dip in Varanasi but the fact is he did what is fair in an electoral battle, even if it looks suspicious.

The author is a communication consultant
Sugato Hazra

Sugato Hazra

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