It was October 1990. I was thirteen. In a pre cable TV, multiplexes and mall era, just about the only thing that got a teenager in a small town excited, was the twice a week Chitrahar on Wednesdays and Fridays, broadcast by Delhi Doordarshan.
Unless of course there was a cricket match on! But cricket was not played as often as it is today. And not everything was broadcast on the state owned Doordarshan.
Hence it was very exciting when Lal Krishna Advani arrived late one night to stay “overnight” in the guest house in the colony I lived in. Advani, during those days, was going around the country as a part of what he and the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) called the rath yatra.
Early next morning, before he was supposed to leave, a small crowd which included me had gathered in front of the guest house. He came out and was requested to speak a few words. I don’t remember anything of what he said except the last line, which was “saugandh Ram ki khaate hain, mandir wohin banayenge”.
He was out of the place in five minutes. But the crowd that had gathered continued to mingle around. Some were happy at having seen him. Some were amazed to know that his rath wasn’t actually one. Some women spoke about the glow Advani ji had on his face. And some others were worried. “Mandir banega ki nahi?” they asked.
I pretty much had the same feeling as everyone else, but what I was most happy about was the fact that I would be a minor celebrity in the school next day, having seen Advani when none of my classmates had.
Advani was arrested a few days later before the rath yatra could enter Uttar Pradesh. As he writes in his autobiography My Country My Life “My yatra was scheduled to enter Deoria in Uttar Pradesh on 24 October. However, as I had anticipated, it was stopped at Samastipur in Bihar on 23 October and I was arrested by the Janata Dal government in the state then headed by Laloo Prasad Yadav (sic). I was taken to an inspection bungalow of the irrigation department at a place called Massanjore near Dumka on the Bihar-Bengal border (Dumka now comes under the state of Jharkhand).”
We all know what happened in the aftermath of the rath yatra. But as I grew older, I kept asking myself, why did Advani say what he did? Why was it so important to build a temple there? Didn’t the country have bigger issues which needed to be sorted out first? And so on.
Political party as a brand
All my questions were answered the day I realised that every political party is a brand and a brand needs to stand for something. It needs a story that can be told to people, so that people can go buy the brand by supporting it and by voting for it.
In the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, the Congress Party had swept the Lok Sabha elections, with the BJP winning only two seats. Given the sorry performance the party needed to stand for something in the minds of the Indian voter.
Brand BJP was built on the war cry of “saugandh Ram ki khaate hain mandir wohin banayenge”. This ensured that the party was able to increase the number of seats in the Lok Sabha from 2 in 1984, to 88 in 1989 and 118 in 1991.
The party espoused for causes like making temples in Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura. It talked about banning cow slaughter, having a uniform civil code, and doing away with the Article 370, that gives special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. All this was music to the ears of voters across Northern and Western India and the party catapulted from being a political front of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to having an identity of its own.
BJP’s story was that it stood for the cause of Hindus and Hindutva. And it was not the only political party that came with a story attached to it. Almost every political party that has risen in India in the last three to four decades has had a story attached to it.
The Kanshi Ram story
Kanshi Ram launched the Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti or DS4 as it was more popularly called, with the war cry “Thakur, Brahmin, Bania Chhod, Baki Sab Hain DS4.” This left no doubt in anybody’s mind that Kanshi Ram and DS4 stood for everyone who wasn’t an upper caste.
Kanshi Ram probably realised the power of the slogan he had hit upon. He came up with another slogan along similar lines when he launched the Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP). “Tilak Tarazu aur Talwaar, inko maaro joote chaar” was the rallying cry of the BSP (with Tilak, Tarazu and Talwar being the representation of the Brahman, Bania and Thakur castes, the upper castes).
Or let’s take the case of Left Front in West Bengal. The front which comprised of various communist parties stood for what the Sonia Gandhi led UPA calls the aam aadmi. It positioned itself as being pro-poor and anti big business. When the Left Front first came to power, share croppers where handed over land after taking it over from wealthy landlords. Teak trees were planted in front of homes by Left Front members where a girl child was born, so that the tree could be cut when she was of marriageable age and money for the wedding expenses could be raised.
In the late seventies and early eighties the Left brand also stood for “trade unions” which bargained hard in the interest of the workers. This over the years ensured that most industrialists shut shop and left for other parts of the country. But this didn’t really have any impact on the voter base of the Left Front which remained committed because what the Front was doing was in line with the story it had sold to the voters.
Why the story is important
The story that a political party sells to its voters is very important and it should hold for a very long period of time. Take the case of Janata Dal which was formed by the merger of the various factions of the erstwhile Janata Party, which were the Lok Dal, Congress (S) and the VP Singh led Jan Morcha.
The story that the party successfully sold to the voters was that it would introduced 27.5% reservation for other backward classes (OBCs) in government jobs, as had been proposed by the Mandal Commission.
The story was lapped by the votes and the party won 142 seats in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections.
Despite student protests erupting all across the country, starting with Rajiv Goswami burning himself in front of Deshbandu College in New Delhi, reservations were introduced. No political party could be seen going against this legislation.
The trouble was once Mandal Commission became a reality what did the Janata Dal stand for in the mind of the voter? Nothing. This soon led to the regional satraps forming their own parties like the Mulayam Singh Yadav led Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Lalu Prasad Yadav led Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar and the Nitish Kumar-George Fernandes led Samta Party also in Bihar.
The end of Janata Dal led to the coining of one of the most memorable though underrated slogans in Indian politics: “Thakur buddhi, Yadav bal, jhandu ho gaya Janta Dal.” (where thakur was in reference to VP Singh who was a rajput).
Hence a political party needs to stand for something in the mind of the voter. If it doesn’t it meets the fate of a party like Janata Dal.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it
Buddhadeb Bhattacharya became the Chief Minister of West Bengal in 2000, taking over after Jyoti Basu had been the Chief Minister for 23years. Bhattacharya tried to get big business to come back to Kolkata, so that jobs could be created.
But the trouble was Bengal was not a state used to the ways of professional business. If BPOs had to set shop then they had to work every day their foreign clients were working. So was the case with IT companies. But in a state where bandhs were way of life, how would that be possible?
Buddha Babu asked his party carder not to disturb BPO employees on their way to work on “bandh” days. This was the first dint to the Left brand. Then the heavy industry companies wanted to set shop, given that labour in Bengal was cheaper than other parts of the country and the government was ready to welcome them.
This was where all the trouble started. Almost all land in Bengal is agriculture land. And every time an industrialist wants to set shop it leads to some farmers being put out of job. Things escalated when the party carder in Nandigram resorted to violence against farmers who were protesting. The same was the case with Singur, where the Tata Nano plant was supposed to come up.
When a communist party (or rather parties) start beating up farmers, it need not be said that it does do any good to the identity and brand and the story they have carefully cultivated over the years.
This in no way means that industrialization is not important or should not have been pursued by the Left Front government, but it was definitely not done in the way it was. This of course went totally against the anti industry image that the Left Front carried in the minds of people. The same Left Front whose trade unions went cholbe na cholbe na against industries and industrialists was now catering to their demands, felt people of the state. Communists had become capitalists. The practitioners of all that Karl Marx had espoused for were now vouching for the principles of Adam Smith.
There was clearly a branding problem. The gap was filled by Mamata Banerjee who now stands for everything that the Left Front had stood for, warts and all.
The year was 2004 and I was travelling in a local bus in Hyderabad, excited about the new mobile phone I had bought. The phone suddenly buzzed and it was a Delhi number, the first call on my new mobile. I picked up the call and heard the voice on the other end say “main Atal Bihari Vajpayee bol raha hoon”.
It took me a few seconds to realize that it was an automated call in the voice of the Prime Minister of the country asking the voters to vote for the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
The party had decided to abandon its soft-Hindutva branding and decided to go in for what it thought was a more mass market campaign of “India shining”.
The party lost the elections and has been in opposition ever since.
What BJP can learn from Coca Cola
Donald R Keough, a former president of the Coca-Cola Company, in his book The Ten Commandments for Business Failure elaborates on what happens when the story associated with a brand is changed.
A slew of research and consultants told the top brass at Coca-Cola that people were looking for more sweetness in the product. This led to the launch the ‘New Coke’.
What followed was a disaster that went totally against what the consultants had predicted. People did not like the tinkering. And some of them started to hoard old coke, before the stocks ran out..
One day an old woman called a Coke call centre. Here is how Keough recounts this touching story.
. “It was an eighty-five year woman who convinced me we had to do something more than stay course. She had called the company in tears from a retirement home in Covina, California. I happened to be visiting the call centre and took the call. “You’ve taken away my Coke,” she sobbed. “When was the last time you had Coke?” I asked. “Oh, I don’t know. About twenty, twenty-five years ago.” “Then why are you so upset?” I asked. “Young man, you are playing around with my youth and you should stop it right now. Don’t you have any idea what Coke means to me?”
This made the top brass at Coke realise that they are not dealing with a taste or a marketing issue, but the idea or the story behind Coca-Cola. It was the “real-thing” and the consumers did not want any fiddling around with it. Immediately a decision was made to bring back the old Coke as “Coca-Cola Classic”.
As marketing guru Seth Godin writes in All Marketers are Liars “Great stories happen fast. They engage the consumer the moment the story clicks into place. First impressions are more powerful than we give them credit for.”
Given this getting rid of first impressions in the minds of the voter is very difficult. This does not apply for the Congress Party, which has been around for so long that it doesn’t really stand for anything and hence can change forms like a chameleon.
So if the BJP has to pose any sort of challenge to the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the next Lok Sabha elections it needs to go back to what it has always stood for in the mind of the voter: Hindutva. Like Coca Cola, it has to go back to stand for what it used to in the mind of the voter.
What it needs to decide on is the degree of Hindutva? Does it want to follow the hard line approach that it did in the late 1980s and the early 1990s with slogans like “ye to kewal jhaanki hai, kaashi mathura baaki hai” or does it want to follow the soft Hindutva strategy that it did when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was at his peak.
Given this, there is no one better than leader than Narendra Modi who can project the attributes of the pro Hindutva line. The trouble of course with Modi is that he comes across as a hardliner. Hence it’s important for Modi and the BJP that the spin-doctors of the party get to work immediately trying to soften up his image, so that his acceptability goes up across sections he is not currently popular with.
(The article originally appeared at www.firstpost.com on June 6,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/politics/political-brands-what-the-bjp-can-learn-from-coca-cola-333964.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])