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Retrofit: Lessons in political campaigning – The Bipasa mandate

Guest Column
Retrofit: Lessons in political campaigning – The Bipasa mandate

Author | Sandeep Bamzai | Wednesday, Dec 10,2008 6:24 AM

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Guest Column<br>Retrofit: Lessons in political campaigning – The Bipasa mandate

As the curtain came down on super Monday, the value of every vote cast was once again thrown into stark relief. A win for local versus national issues was like a neon sign being held up in everyone’s face. Development had scored over inflation and terror. And the BJP, aspirant for the throne in Delhi, faced this mind numbing reality. Master strategist Arun Jaitley summed up the loss of face on a telly channel when he said, “The verdict is a lesson for me in electioneering. The entire incumbency question has been thrown wide open.” A new term has been coined in the process. It is called ‘Bipasa’ – bijli, paani and sadak – and this mandate in the various states that went to the polls is a victory for that slogan.

In 2004, the late Pramod Mahajan misread the mood of the electorate and went to the masses with the India Shining mantra. It bombed and so did the BJP. This time, Arun Jaitley fought the Delhi campaign on the ‘Mehengi padi Congress’ (price rise) and ‘Aatank’ (terror) planks. But it fell flat on its face. Governance is now critical. The valuable vote that is cast wants accountability. Are there visible signs of change around me? The mood of the hoi polloi has changed dramatically. SM Krishna read it wrong in Karnataka, Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh, Pramod at the 2004 hustings and now Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Sheila Dikshit and Raman Singh have read the tea leaves right.

The whole incumbency argument has been turned on its head. As a voter, I want the politico to give me development in my area. I want a face to be attached to this development and change. Pro is scoring over anti incumbency in a remarkable turn of events. Kapil Sibal summed it up when he said that the face should also be a practioner of an inclusive agenda, quality of policy response backed by sincerity. The BJP went full blast on radio, television and print focusing on terror and inflation. Its advertising was unrelenting in its messaging, while the Congress, calm and composed, crept up on the BJP’s blindside on the governance plank. Its simple riposte being that when the BJP was last in power, it had three chief ministers in five years. So, where was the question of continuity and leadership? The BJP’s stratagem was in your face loud advertising.

FM radio made truckloads of cash in the process as the BJP’s clarion call in Delhi was – ‘Sarkar padi shehar pe bari’. Well, actually it was ‘Shiela padi BJP pe bari’. Similarly, Shivraj Chauhan, all of 49 years old, worked tirelessly, built roads, delivered power and water to voters and won handsomely. The BJP’s print campaign in the capital pitted Vijay Kumar Malhotra against Shiela aunty as a politician with a difference, to serve the city as only he can. Nobody bought into this theory. They voted for bhagidari, better power, water, Metro, roads, flyovers, CNG and what have you. The Congress did not get rattled in this joust, it remained steadfast – ‘Choose Progress, Vote Congress’. But here again, it played out the developmental theme by highlighting – ‘Don’t Stop Nuclear Power to the People’. It narrow focused when it stated ‘Don’t Stop Clean Delhi, Green Delhi’ - the greenest capital in the world.

Consciously and assiduously, the Congress worked on the developmental theme and change. The BJP’s insipid response – Costlier Living, with a chart giving the readers a priceline comparison between BJP 2004 and Congress 2008 – mistaking the woods for the trees yet again. The battle was for Delhi, and Jaitley politicised the campaign by zeroing in on national issues versus specific local issues. His candid admission that the Delhi war room was a lesson in electioneering will make him more wary in the run up to the general elections. Terror didn’t matter. The worst part was that the media, kowtowing to the BJP spin doctors, also read the mood of the electorate in different states wrong. The BJP’s shrill and high decibel posturing over the 26/11 terror attacks didn’t cut any ice with the voters and this must be most mystifying to pollsters, politicians and editors. In many ways, this super Monday will be a defining moment in India’s democratic journey.

For the polemics of politics in India will never be the same again. As a voter, I want to see what the politician whom I voted for is doing in terms of deliverables. Yes, I will have to wait for five years to vote him out or in, but the politician has to decide here and now as to what he wants to do. Urban and semi-urban agglomerates will vote only to change the infrastructural inadequacies. For that matter, even rural India, or Bharat as we now know it, wants better connectivity to the mandis, tube wells, better education and healthcare, making agriculture profitable, and generally speaking is hoping for a better way of life, an inclusion in the scorching growth paradigm that India has managed to achieve over the last few years.

The BJP thought unwisely that terror – 26/11 – would deliver the votes. Terror, unfortunately, was politicised. A message for party managers and strategists has been delivered loud and clear at the hustings. Even Jammu and Kashmir is voting in large numbers because it wants a better way of life. Something that the purveyors of the azadi dream or their masters in Pakistan cannot hope to provide. Shivraj Chauhan summed it up by saying that he saw it as a people’s victory. How true and apt! The worst part is that the BJP didn’t have a plan for the Capital at all. It browbeat voters with national issues and ignored what it wanted to do for the story. An action plan, a blueprint, a hope.

Shiela Dikshit capitalised on the BJP’s negative campaigning. The radio and TV spots accentuated this message. Actually the celebratory print advertisement from the Congress said it all on Tuesday – ‘Aapka Vishwas Tutne Na Denge, Vikas Ko Rukne Na Denge’ – some learnings in that for our political class. Vikas and Vishwas over empty bombast. The irate voters have had the last word. Talking down doesn’t help, is the new clarion call. You have to start talking to voters. A new art of war is upon us.

(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist who started his career with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi - with The Indian Express, Illustrated Weekly, Sunday Observer, Dalal Street Journal, Plus Channel where he ran India's first morning business show on Doordarshan, The Times of India Group, Business India, Hindustan Times and Reliance Big Entertainment. Starting his career as a cricket writer, he graduated to becoming a man for all seasons under Pritish Nandy, who he considers as the premier influence on his career. Since he studied economics at Calcutta University, Bamzai decided in 1993 to branch out into business and financial journalism. Familiar with all three media, he is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.)

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