July 6, 2009

World’s largest exercise in democracy 2009 edition

Month long exercise, having 5 phases, Indian General Elections 2009, to the 15th Lok Sabha- the Indian parliament, began on April 16 and closed on May 13, could rightly be called the greatest spectacle of democracy in the world. It was an opportunity for 714 Million eligible citizen consumers to exercise their franchise at 828,804 polling stations using 1,368,430 electronic voting machines across India to elect 543 Members of Parliament to sit in the lower house of parliament called the Lok Sabha. India’s first elections in 1952 had only 176 Million eligible voters. Whew.

Imagine 7 national political parties along with some 22 state level parties and a smattering of 1000 odd registered unrecognized political parties in the fray for voters’ approval. That’s some competition. Moreover the consumer side is no less amazing scenario for a marketing strategist responsible for the task of succeeding in such a market. The linguistic profile of India is as colorful as it gets. It has 22 officially recognized languages and 1500-2000 spoken dialects. This becomes a real challenge to the media professionals and political parties to bridge them all into few groups so as to target the advertising messages to the appropriate segments.

Literacy in India has been on the rise ever since first election. Compared to only 15 percent of the eligible voters during those times we had a much respectable figure of 54 percent for the 2009. Besides you have six major religions, caste divides, and few hundred very influential religio-cultural groupings that follow the community chief’s command as gospel truth and vote together as per the chief’s dictates. Even in more economically developed and globalised states like Punjab major political parties shudder at the idea of earning disfavor of such ‘Dera’ (literally translated as a settlement) Chief.

The election exercise involved an estimated expenditure of close to $ 3 billion by the political parties and the candidates. Don’t be surprised if the figure seems more than that of recently concluded elections in the United States. Well in the US you don’t have many astrologers to pay off to propitiate the Gods for a favorable outcome in the elections. And there were those mundane affairs like political advertising, transportation including air travel bills of the leaders, and off course some loose cash to share with the voters who eagerly wait for elections to bring some work and money into their lives. One survey indicated that even in the national capital of Delhi some 25 percent voters received the money for votes.

The Election Commission of India conducts and regulates the election process. They have implemented a model code of conduct for the political parties and politicians that include caps on election expenditure and the general conduct of campaigning. The restriction on media translates into a major expenditure allocation moving towards the television, away from the traditional print and other below the line media. The use of internet, mobile phone advertising and other digital media has been on the rise. The 400 million mobile phone base in presented a ready target for the short text based messages to the ever eager voters. There have been several technological innovations in the 2009 elections such as use of social media like Orkut, Facebook etc by the leading parties to attract and satisfy the younger interactive generation of voters. Lal Krishan Advani of the Hindu ultra nationalist BJP went on to leverage digital media with dedicated website a la Obama complete with a blog and blogger outreach program. In the din of election fever he conveniently forgot that media is the message. Digital space is not a suitable media fit for any narrow parochial message based on religion, culture, caste or national orientation. It is pure democratic space for all of us who find it easy to accept each other with open arms.

Main political parties Indian National Congress (INC) and Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) did not contest elections individually but as a group of parties with pre-poll alliance as most thought that none of them can expect to form a government on their own without forming some sort of a coalition with others.INC led the United Progressive Alliance whereas the BJP contested as National Democratic Alliance. It presented interesting communications challenges. Besides the plight of the marketing researchers who predict the elections outcome has been no less miserable. It is customary that in a country with powerful independent media the press would like to have their opinion on such issues like politics and elections with great zeal.

The Election Commission does not allow the media to broadcast or publish any opinion or exit polls during the election process to safeguard the possibility of swaying the public sentiment. But still media organizations as well as the political parties commission such polls to feed the 24x7 news channels. This time too, like in the 2004, most polls went completely way off the mark. Not even the Exit polls could predict the results with some degree of success despite being carried out by the world’s leading marketing research firms like AC Nielsen.

The Indian National Congress was the first political party in India to use a professional advertising agency for political advertising in 1989. Similarly leading advertising agencies were engaged by the political parties in these elections too. The Congress party had hired two advertising agencies namely John Walter Thompson (JWT) and Crayons to design its advertising campaign whereas BJP engaged Frank Simoes-Tag and Utopia for their campaign. The challenger BJP led NDA alliance went on attack with a negative advertising campaign. The incumbent stuck to largely defensive low profile positive messages.

The BJP talked about its ability to govern better and tried once again its Hindutva (Hindu Nationalism) based rhetoric but without much success. There were glaring contradictions in the message content and selection of media to disseminate the messages on the part of media strategist in the BJP’s war room. They used digital media profusely to convey its ultra nationalist agenda without any regard to the profile of the target audience. Educated Indians, particularly the youth, has global outlook and modern perspective on life. It is not possible to sell them such ultra nationalist policies as they are already living or aspire to live a modern materialistic globalised life without prejudices. Therefore it resulted in defeat of the party in major metros like Mumbai, New Delhi etc. In fact the political parties that broke away from BJP alliance or did not share their ultra nationalistic agenda have done significantly better than BJP or INC.

BJP had nothing ‘new’ in its message therefore it failed to excite the fence sitters. The congress party had a defensive low profile campaign with substantially ‘new’ offers in its promise to the voters in form of projecting Rahul Gandhi as genuine youth leader and the incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the next prime minister. Well the economist Manmohan Singh with impeccable credentials of sincerity & humility, coming from a minority Sikh community does not fit the traditional profile of an Indian politician fit for PM’s office, offers quite newness in the promise to the electorate. INC did not even try to repeat the mistake of projecting India as a country on the threshold of becoming a super power as was done by previous NDA government in 2004 though its ‘India Shining’ campaign. Persuasion remains the objective for the political players during elections. The parties in general stop short of finding out what the electorate wants from them; instead they claim to know what people must expect from them.

The elections were unique in more than one way. Three leading commercial brands released social advertising campaigns to motivate voters to exercise their franchise and consequently build their own brands. Tata Tea’s Jagoo re (Wake Up) campaign, Idea cellular’s ‘Janta ki Awaz’ (Voice of people) and Lead India campaign of The Times of India group were directed to motivate the voters to cast their votes. Because large sections of middle class in India refrain from casting their vote due one reason or the other, major one being their lack of faith in the electoral process and its impact on their lives.

Indian elections are not contested on serious national issues alone. Different regions have their own local issues that take precedence over the so called national issues. The previous incumbent government of the UPA was subject to show of strength on the floor of the parliament when the major part of alliance represented by leftist parties choose to withdraw support as a consequence to the signing of the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement by the Congress led alliance. But still this crisis did not form the major issue in the elections. Cheap food rations still remain a vote catcher in this developing country more important than the deal. Some political parties openly distribute television sets other items and even cash to win the support of the electorate.

Another facet of Indian elections in the last few decades has been the rise of elite political families. BJP generally accuses the INC party for being led by the Nehru-Gandhi family. Current president of the INC is Sonia Gandhi whose husband, mother in law, grandfather has been the Prime Minister. Her son Rahul Gandhi and daughter Priyanka are tipped to be the next political elite. Although BJP has several leaders in its top positions who are promoting their children to inherit their political space. There are several political parties that operate like private family dominated organizations such as Shiromani Akali Dal led by Badal family that is in power in Punjab, AIADMK in southern state of Tamil Nadu is led by Karunanidhi, his sons, daughter and other relatives. INLD in Haryana belongs to Chautala family. Samajwadi party of UP is dominated by father son and uncle triumvirate of Mulayam yadav. RJD operates like personal property of Lallu yadav his wife and other family members. Shiv Sena of Bal Thakeray has his son in command. There are others parties that swear by one or other leader’s legacy making elections in India as more of a personality dominated affair rather than issue based service organizations. This leads to almost complete obfuscation of people’s issues and their genuine needs.

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