Friday, May 29, 2009

Election Introspection

In the 2009 Indian general elections, the Indian National Congress (Congress) won 206 seats and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 116 seats out of a total of 543 seats. Five years ago, the Congress and the BJP had won 145 and 138 seats respectively.

A jubilant Sonia Gandhi reiterated that Manmohan Singh will be Congress Party’s choice for the prime minister. Manmohan Singh will be the first Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru to return to power after a full five-year term. In short, Indian electorate’s love affair with the Nehru-Gandhi family continued.

Most of the poll pundits had predicted a spilt verdict and regional parties would be crucial in forming the government. This was completely dismissed by the “Indian Voter” who chose stability over the change. The rejection of the Left and its brigade would be the best example for the decision made by the Indian electorate.

What went wrong for BJP or what clicked for Congress?

There is a fundamental truth to political communication: it’s never aimed at the society’s elite. I believe that although the campaigns were successful in catching people’s attention once, but they did not convey any message to the public.

Online community is all about conversation and connection. Joining the conversation in a smart, appropriate way, and building those connections is really both an art and a science. It requires very good listening skills, and the ability to show respect to the people who are already in the room, so to speak. Online communities have personalities and inside jokes and dialects that are highly specific to them. So, if we have an ad running where our political leaders are pitching their political campaign, would the user take note of it? It won’t make a difference to the user since he/she is engrossed in the community discussions. Any ad which tries to convey something irrelevant to the community is seen as infringement into the private space.

The BJP ran an aggressive 360 degree campaign on mass media and digital media, but it didn’t work. The Congress ran a traditional campaign with less emphasis on online world; it focused more on movie songs, local rallies and the charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi family, and succeeded. BJP has lost in spite of its brilliant campaign, not because of it. BJP campaign used the right medium: social/digital but calling Manmohan Singh as weak leader made no impact.

The BJP’s campaign was perceived to be negative, filled with personal attacks against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Because the PM is perceived by the electorate to be clean and honest, these personal attacks backfired. Also, the media played a big role in making it look like Singh is handling Advani in tactful way.

BJP campaign managers are always disconnected with reality, if you recollect the India Shining campaign of 2004; it also failed to convert the campaign into votes.

Ok, let’s get back to basics. Five years in opposition should have led to soul-searching within the BJP and the enunciation of a clear strategy to tackle the Congress. That did not happen. The Congress managed public relations and the media better than the BJP. The BJP went for quick fix and tried to position itself in the online world. It failed to connect with youth of India since its campaign did not have a clear strong message. Bringing the black money back to India cannot be a poll issue and does not influence the nation as a whole.

The BJP had no striking agenda. Its issues — terrorism, inflation and unemployment — have ceased to be major issues. The only thing the BJP could think of was speak ominously of money in Swiss bank accounts and this rarely got beyond the English-speaking media.

2009 elections are over. Results are out and introspection has started. Political pundits are wondering whether this is the start of ‘Politics of Youth’ or ‘Death of Communal Politics’. That is the beauty of Indian politics — it is unpredictable. At the end of the day, the BJP was unpleasantly surprised and the Congress pleasantly.

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