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2014, the branding battle

The Congress loses its aam aadmi, the BJP can’t see beyond one khaas aadmi.

In political campaigns in India, the people,  the second and third words respectively in the preamble of the Constitution, have been the centre of an energetic tussle. (PTI) In political campaigns in India, the people,
the second and third words respectively in the preamble of the Constitution, have been the centre of an energetic tussle. (PTI)

The Congress loses its aam aadmi, the BJP can’t see beyond one khaas aadmi.

It’s 2014 and with about a hundred days to go for polling, campaign season is upon us. However, we are still some distance from clarity on what either of the two largest parties has to offer. Perhaps it is because both sides are trying to cater to a homogenised, media-savvy “voter-consumer” that the contest so far sounds too much like an ad war. There are “war rooms”, banal, flashcard references to the “young vote” and a bitter battle of words that is supposed to stand in for a clear articulation of policy.

The face of the Congress, which has been in power for a decade, and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, who has ruled his state for 13 years, are both trying to project themselves as outsiders. Both claims sound hollow, to be polite about it.

The Congress is struggling to recover from the loss of its aam aadmi slogan, which had helped it so far in putting forward its Manmohanomics-meets-welfare-economics positions. The “aam aadmi”, a term loose enough and yet specific enough for a wide range of persons to identify with it, had come to signify a utilitarian test for whatever works. With the AAP now part of the discourse, the Congress clearly has an aam aadmi problem.

The BJP, ever since 1980, has resisted calls to turn itself over to the regular Western idea of a rightwing party — free-market, nationalist, Thatcherite. Now, it finds itself very much under RSS control and freighted with the latter’s ideological baggage. So it is difficult for the BJP to model itself on Western rightwing parties like the Tories or the Christian Democrats. It has chosen, instead, to invest in the “khaas aadmi”. One might say it has a khaas aadmi problem.

In political campaigns in India, “the people”, the second and third words respectively in the preamble of the Constitution, have been the centre of an energetic tussle. The past several decades have seen the need for a moniker that justifies actions and around which ideas can be built, whether its “the people”, “makkal” (Tamil), “jana”, “gana” or “lok”. With the invasion of politics by the management-walas, especially in the Eighties and Nineties, it became even more important for parties to brand such terms more forcefully. So the “garibi hatao” slogan had to find and directly address its subject.

The Congress, which had initially had the garib aadmi at the heart of discussions, moved on to the well-branded aam aadmi. With “aam aadmi”, a thought-out departure from “garib aadmi”, the Congress set its sights on a broader demographic. And with citizens anxious to come out of the garib classification, this new term found a wider response and helped the Congress regain ground. Meanwhile, the BJP, especially in its NDA avatar, reworked the antyodaya idea, which meant reaching out to those at the end of the line. This also served it well, especially in the states.

Damaged deeply by the AAP in its showpiece state, the Congress is looking for a new phrase to articulate whom it wants to draw in and focus on for its campaign. Rahul Gandhi, in his speech at the AICC, hinted at a version of the not-quite or the neo-aam aadmi — the “70 crore” who are not part of the middle class and not poor — as the new target. But that phrase is yet to find a proper home in the Congress’s campaign lexicon.

Unlike the Congress, the BJP is not beset by the problem of someone walking off with its best campaign pitch. But how does it provide more wind in the sails of the khaas aadmi it has appointed as leader? It will now be watched closely for how skillfully it uses Narendra Modi so that he does not lose his core base and yet succeeds in winning over a sizeable section of the Hindu vote that doesn’t yet respond to his image or attempts at a makeover. In short, how does someone like Modi appear true to his Hindutva allegiance while also appearing committed to just building bridges, drains or toilets. The party’s central challenge is to forge a cohesion in the Hindu vote, while ensuring that the “rest of India” does not get spooked into parking all its votes with the Congress.

The BJP had said recently that it would articulate its “solutions”. But it turned out to be a laundry list, throwing no light on what the party’s position is on some very obvious contemporary policy questions. Modi’s silence on the AAP, economic policy and even the Supreme Court order to immediately disqualify sitting MPs and MLAs who have been convicted cannot go on for ever. Though Modi is still loath to making himself available to the press or for questions, never mind the Muslim question, the BJP will eventually have to spell out what its idea of India is.

Perhaps it is the “benaam aadmi”, a term coined by Delhi-based commentator Samir Saran recently, that should get more attention now from the aam aadmi-free Congress as well as the khaas aadmi-ridden BJP. Saran’s contention is that, in the race to sort out the nightmares of the middle class, whether it is gas, water or electricity bills, several basic questions that assail India today, concerning the truly dispossessed, or the benaam aadmi, have been completely ignored.

In the weeks ahead, it will be important to observe if the two very similar ad campaigns eventually give way to honest and cogent ideas. So we are still waiting to see what the BJP commits itself to and what it has to offer beyond its khaas aadmi. It would have to establish that its vision of Hindutva Plus is what the doctor has prescribed for India in 2014. And the Congress will have to effectively communicate that it stands for cohesion in an astoundingly diverse country, in a way that is different from imposing a oneness on it. It would have to convey that personal wellbeing is eventually dependent on the welfare of all — the benaam and the aam. A pitch for “hum sab”, anybody ?

seema.chishti@expressindia.com

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