Politicos Versus Pollsters

Prashant Kishore

Personality branding and marketing as a phenomenon is a realty but it shouldn’t come at the cost of local and organizational leadership, which political leadership must realize

By Anil Anand

Branding and marketing were the two words not only alien to Indian political system but almost untouchable and looked upon both by the traditional politicians and public alike with contempt to the extent being unethical. It is not that the Branding-Marketing phenomenon was totally unknown as it did figure in a limited manner to shore-up the images of leaders such as former Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee and some regional leaders like Chandrababu Naidu and the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. But it took a centre-stage with the advent of Lok Sabha elections 2014.

Credit must be given to Prime Minister Modi for giving a fresh look to mechanisms of contesting elections which are far removed from the traditional methods. The new mechanisms brought into play the institution of poll-strategists though it was prevalent in USA and some European countries. Prashant Kishore who was hired by Modi to create a brand out of him and frame a high-tech and high-decibel mega election campaign, never seen before in the last seven decades, has become the symbol of this new institution. This is despite the fact that his own strike rate barring Modi’s success in Lok Sabha elections has not been that impressive.

This brings one to a vital question whether there is need or role for poll strategists? Prashant came a cropper while planning Congress’ election campaign in Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. Some attributed it to his poor planning while others described his failure as an outcome of clash with the party’s established leaders, neither versed with nor ready to learn modern techniques of fighting elections.

The level to which Modi or Team Modi, a nomenclature direct outcome of branding-marketing strategies, has taken the electioneering would be hard to follow by other political parties both in terms of cost and magnitude. But the phenomena has come on to stay so has the institution of poll strategists. Prashant was just the beginning, he must be given the credit to start a new avocation, but there are many more that have since entered the profession armed with latest technological gadgets, ideas and band of young IITians and IIMans.

 There is no denying the fact that challenges of modern day elections are different than what it used to be a decade or two back. First the electronic and lately the advent of social media have altogether changed the dynamics of political parties and their leaders equation with the public. These two mediums are instant and constantly entering the bedrooms and dominating the dining table discussions in an average household.

There is a strong school of thought that blames media for giving too much credence to poll strategists. But there is an equally strong support base that backs new trends of brand building and marketing in politics. The common meeting ground between the two schools of thoughts is on the cost effectiveness of such strategies.

Yes media can be blamed to the extent that in certain cases and more so in that of Prashant, it had sought to create a hero out of the strategists while relegating the party for which they were working and its leadership to the backdrop. That definitely created a chasm between the strategists, established leadership and rank and file of the party concerned. It did not happen in Modi’s case, though there was simmering discontent in BJP, as he controlled the system, but Prashant’s association with Congress brought into open the clash of ideas and personalities due to different nature of the party’s organizational structure.

Fact of the matter is that political leaders, at various levels, are not attuned to accepting directions from persons other than their own leaders. The strategists like Prashant are considered rank outsiders with little or no knowledge of India’s electoral ground realties, caste system and other nitty-gritty.

But do the poll strategists of Prashant variety are really grabbing the traditional leadership’s space in terms of conceptualizing and building election campaigns? This is a tricky question which has no clear cut answer either in affirmation or a no simply because both the sides have some genuine grouse. Since the phenomenon is in its infancy there is little effort at this stage to work out a common ground between the strategists and political leadership.

The flash point between the two is unique. The strategists see the political leadership’s ideas as obsolete and not in tune with the changing realities on the ground particularly in the face of a huge set of younger voters. On the other hand the political leaders complain that the strategist hired by the party keeps them out of loop and that merely drawing board models provided by them are not sufficient to either create a leader’s brand or convince people to vote for the party.

It would be wrong to say that the political leaders are reacting due to sense of insecurity though every political leader, from top to the bottom, was beset with a sense of security in the olden political set up as well. The current sense of insecurity has two basis: Firstly the leaders feel that their utility is being challenged and secondly they view the particular strategist as a representative of the top leadership, encroaching upon their domain.

On the other hand a strategist like Prashant comes loaded with new ideas backed by a team of young professionals with institutional background of IIT, IIM and working with multinational corporations like McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, though excellent in data-analysis and focused planning. Naturally, they are found wanting in understanding the complex puzzle of political nuances, especially in politically significant states such as UP and Bihar.

Personality branding and marketing as a phenomenon is a realty which the political leadership should realize. The sooner they do the better it would be.  The success of this model would lie in harmony of relationships and ideas, to some extent, among the strategists and political leadership. The latter at least should be given a strong impression that the strategist is working for them and their party and not at cross purposes and certainly not to cut them to size.