Sunday Chronicle cover story 07 Apr 2019 Battle for the Ballo ...

Battle for the Ballot

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | VIKRAM SHARMA
Published Apr 7, 2019, 12:00 am IST
Updated Apr 7, 2019, 12:32 am IST
The two main political parties of the country are leaving no stone unturned in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi
 Congress President Rahul Gandhi

Wonder what Rap God Eminem would say if he were to come across the several short videos featuring dhinchak rap that are currently in circulation in India. And closer home, Gully Boy Ranveer Singh must surely be ROFL wondering what the songs of his hit movie have done to Indian politics.

Make way for the new rappers on the block — ‘Desh ka chowkidaar’ Narendra Modi and ‘Apna Time Aayega’ — thinking Congress President Rahul Gandhi — who are vying with each other by using rap as a weapon and trying to connect with the younger voters as well. By launching a host of catchy videos, the political battle in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections has just got more musical, witty and entertaining like never before, a big relief from the anchor yelling on a national prime time debate! And for a change, no one is complaining.

 

If the BJP’s rap video titled Congress Se Azadi taunts the Gandhi family with ‘Ghar mein hai chaar phir room tere aath kyun?’ (aiming at Sonia Gandhi who the BJP accuses of living in a bigger house than Modi’s), the Congress’ counter video, which starts with only the Azadi text is equally catchy as Rahul Gandhi goes hammer and tongs about communal intolerance during the BJP’s rule and features the lines, ‘Ye shaitaan hai insaan nahi’ while displaying images of Civil Aviation Minister Jayant Sinha felicitating people accused of lynching a Muslim cattle trader.

With just weeks left to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, political parties, particularly the BJP and the Congress have launched a full blown rap war against each other, trying to outdo one another through witty, hilarious and pointed short videos, with full-on dhinchak rap music in the background and catchy lyrics which are all over social media and seemingly directed towards the younger lot of the sawa sau karod Bollywood loving desh wasi who will be exercising their franchise shortly.  

Interestingly, the war started with the BJP taking the lead and releasing a 2 minute-38 second long Gully Boy-inspired video with a track called Banda Apna Sahi Hai (Our man is right), which garnered a huge response. Not surprisingly, the video highlighted the achievements of the Modi government. However, not to be left behind, the Congress quickly came out with a video comprising of Rahul Gandhi’s speeches and one-liners, which sounds very similar to the super hit track Apna Time Aayega.

Within days, the rap war between the two national parties seemed to be escalating after team BJP came out with another video titled Congress Se Azadi while the Congress party hit back once again with Dar Ke Aage Azadi, both of which saw the parties accusing each other of corruption.

Interestingly, it was in 2016, at the height of the student protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, when the ‘Azadi’ slogan first caught up with the youngsters. The Azadi videos show both parties highlighting the scams that took place in each other’s regimes. While the BJP video talks about the 2G scam, Commonwealth scandal along with the ongoing crackdown of ED on Robert Vadra, the Congress hits out at the saffron party by highlighting PM Modi’s links with businessmen like Adani and allegations against BJP President Amit Shah’s son. The creative minds in BJP have come out with lyrics like “Baaki poore desh doobe, inki naiya paar hai na” and “Ghar me hain chaar fir room tere aath kyun?” while the Congress’ reply was quite unexpected as it used a viral gif, namely the new meme involving Nancy Pelosi sarcastically clapping at Donald Trump.

Budget no bar

Believe it or not, while all political parties are keeping their ad budgets strictly under the carpet, it is estimated that hundreds of crores, some even say thousands of crores, is being spent on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, particularly by the BJP.

“'These sort of campaigns run into multiples of hundreds of crores,” says Abhijit Avasthi, founder of Sideways Consulting and former National Creative Director at Ogilvy and Mather. The former honcho at O&M, who was associated with the BJP campaign in 2014, including the popular slogan ‘Ab Ki Bar Modi Sarkar’, says there is no transparency when it comes to the money angle in social media/ad campaigns.

“Civil society has been raising a hue and cry demanding that political parties should put their respective poll expenditures in the public domain, but that is not happening. No party will ever reveal how much they spend on such ad and social media campaigns. It easily runs into multiples of hundreds of crores,” he says.

Echoing similar thoughts is Dilip Cherian, whose company Perfect Relations has been associated with four national campaigns on both sides of the fence. He says, “There is a huge cost to celebrating our periodic tryst with democracy. The money spent is accountable as well as unaccountable and put together, runs into several thousand crores. Obviously, the accountable and declared expenses announced by candidates are just the tip of the iceberg. It is difficult to know exactly how much unaccounted funds are spent by candidates beyond anecdotal evidence. But everyone knows what goes on behind the scenes.”

Another top political strategist, close to the powers-that-be in the BJP and someone who has handled poll propaganda of quite a few political parties previously, says that money could be running into a few hundreds of crores initially but even more money is pumped in if and when the party leaders sense that the campaign is a hit.

“The BJP has hired multiple ad agencies besides a few individuals, consultants and even freelancers. Not only has the saffron party hired many people, they also have a huge interest support base. However, the same cannot be said about the Congress as it neither has the interest base nor a team like the BJP to handle the poll propaganda. Every election has a narrative and an agenda and the opposition has failed to create a narrative, neither does it have an agenda. It’s 15 more days to the first phase and it already looks like it's Modi once more,” he says, adding that no political party has specific budgetary allocations.

“Money will not be known or fixed. A 120-second video that does not involve any shooting and requires only mixing/editing sells at `20,000 per video. Many advertisement videos with shooting etc. can fetch up to `20 lakh. If there is an ad agency involved, it will strike a deal of five campaigns to reach a target of say, `10 crore people and the money could run into several hundreds of crores of rupees,” says political analyst and novelist Sriram Karri.

While the BJP has tasked Union Minister Piyush Goyal to handle the social media/ad campaign of the party —which has roped in top players in the industry, the Congress is going with its trusted aide Divya Spandana, who handles social media for the party and is a trusted aide of its president, Rahul Gandhi.

“As per the latest market feedback, the spends are more or less around the same as last time,” says a top executive of Vermmillion, an ad agency who has Yoga Guru Ram Dev Baba’s Patanjali as its client besides a host of other top companies in India. Incidentally, Vermmillion is in advanced stages of discussions on an agreement and campaign with a political party as well.

“The ruling party always gets more funds than the party in opposition. In this case especially, there are many more industrialists who are pro the current government and with it, comes the flow of funds to the party. Also, if you consider the majority with which the BJP came to power, it seemed like they would be in power for at least one more term, which also makes donors give more to the party, thinking of the longevity of the association. The Congress on the other hand, had been floundering till its resplendent success in the three state elections, which has now boosted its chances of coming to power, and consequently, its donations have also increased. Considering the coffers that each party holds, the advertising budgets are in direct co-relation to that,” says brand expert and founder of TRA Research, N. Chandramouli.

Unleashing creativity

Describing rap as a weapon, Dilip Cherian says that Indian politics has never been bereft of creative ideas to use in election campaigning in order to reach potential voters. “Indian elections have always been seen and celebrated as a kind of carnival, so rap music becoming the rage in 2019 should not come as any surprise. If political parties have turned to rap to rake in the votes, they do so knowing that around 45 million new voters need to be tapped. India’s young population will be a major deciding factor in the polls. So parties are pulling out all stops. The Gully Boy movie came at the right time to spark off this video war. And political parties have money to throw, so that is not a problem. Digital technology only makes it easier to do so and perhaps less costly, though that is not a big concern for the BJP, Congress and others,” he says.

Chandramouli feels that all campaigns are assigned to professional advertising, digital and creative agencies and almost all political parties worth their salt would have more than a few on their roster. The videos are just one type of expression of campaign ideas that the agency puts forth to the party. Sometimes the ideas may emerge from the political party too, which may then be taken forward by the agency. The normal commercial costs of making such music videos can cost from a few lakhs to a few tens of lakhs depending on the sophistication and actors used in the video.  

While the Gully Boy inspired campaign for the BJP was done by the party’s IT cell based in Gujarat, for the Congress, it was done by Lucknow-based Faizan Siddiqui, who just used the editing/mixing skills that he picked up while working as a journalist in a few TV channels. Little did he know then that he was making a video that would become a rage in no time!  

“One of my friends is a Congress candidate and I just wanted to help him out, so I made this Gully Boy-wala video featuring Rahul Gandhi. I knew editing/mixing as I worked in four channels previously and so it was easy for me. But I did not expect the response the video received,” smiles Siddiqui, who now works in Saudi Arabia. He admits that working in channels where he was tasked with editing video footage came in handy while making the videos. But why Gully Boy? “It’s just that the songs from this movie were catchy. All I did was to edit them, come up with some catchy lyrics and background music, that’s all,” he says, still insisting that it was just to help his Congress friend and that he never made any money out of the videos.

Meanwhile, another political analyst opines, “Music is the best viral shot available today and with rap catching up like never before, it becomes easier to copy music from movies like Gully Boy and circulate it. It is basically a copycat business which can be done by any individual, a group of workers or an advertising agency engaged by the political party. Traditionally, music has been used in electioneering in the form of campaign songs and therefore, it works better than anything else.”

A senior executive, who was associated with the BJP in their 2014 campaign adds, “We, as a nation, have the highest number of young voters and the best way to connect with them is through rap and swag.” The founder and CEO of another top ad agency, Creativizt Communications, Rishu Monga, who has previously worked with five Chief Ministers and eight ex-Chief Ministers of different states says that except for the BJP, no other party depends on their senior leaders to ensure victory.

“The rap songs in circulation are being made by individuals and mostly originate on apps like TikTok. The individual creators are on a trip just because their content is getting viral and being recognised. They view it as a validation for their creativity and as their contribution to the party/ideology they support,” says Monga.

Social media is the new partner

Abhijit Avasthi says that elections are a vast exercise covering different segments of people and since the scale is so humongous, no single agency can cater to the needs of such a large number of voters. “Therefore, parties use a variety of partners for their campaigns who spread out. Some take care of the social media campaigns, make rap music videos and release them, while there are others who will take care of the TV advertisements, and ads through radio, banners/flexis etc.,” he explains.

Experts say that more than the Congress, it’s the BJP that began using more and more social media, even before the 2014 polls after the party realised that about 75 per cent of the traditional media was against them. “Social media is a relatively new industry and this would be the second election where it’s being used extensively, with all sorts of videos by both parties in circulation. I would say it is just a seven-year-old industry and it was after the BJP realised that 75 per cent of the media was against them that they decided to make use of the social media in a big way. Team Modi was able to make optimum use of it and that is the reason why Modi resonates so powerfully. As for the Congress, they never needed social media,” says Karri.

Experts say that huge ad campaigns run into hundreds of crores which involves not only ad making but also aspects like making Faceboook videos, FB live, Twitter trending, generating fake likes and followers, analytical trends etc. “This as a whole would cost anywhere between `50 lakhs to `2.5 crore per candidate and mind you, this is a very conservative estimate,” says one expert, adding, “In big campaigns, money to ad agencies is often paid in cash and in many cases, it is not about money alone. People could be offered Rajya Sabha tickets etc. as a gift for the successful campaign.”

Campaigning for success

“Ad campaigns for parties are akin to brand building campaigns. If brand campaigns can get people to buy products, then ad campaigns definitely contribute to a party’s victory. The campaigns are based on deep insights from the consumer/recipient of the message so that the communication connects with the consumer and the message delivery is more effective. Well-planned and well-executed ad campaigns can sway people’s opinions as we only react to what we see and hear. Of course, there has to be some truth in the ads also,” says a top executive of the advertising agency Vermmillion.

Ambi M.G. Parameswaran, brand strategist and founder of Brand-Building.com is of the view that political advertising has only a limited role to play in the final vote count. “They can work only if they manage to tap a strong consumer or voter insight and magnify it manifold. A campaign that is not rooted in a genuine valid voter issue is a waste. On the other hand, when the campaign is bringing to the fore a sentiment that is underlying the public discourse, then it can work brilliantly. As we have seen, the famous US Presidential campaign worked wonders. Sloganeering however, needs to be backed by sentiment mapping,” he explains, adding, “Like any other product or service brand, advertising can only help if your offer is intrinsically interesting to your consumer. If not, as a wise man said, a bad product can meet its fate more rapidly by good advertising.”

The Chowkidaar Chronicles

A mother calls up her doctor son in his clinic and asks him when he will come home for dinner as it is already 12.15 a.m. “Are you the only doctor in town?” she asks him. The son replies that he is not the only one, and adds, “I am a chowkidaar of our society’s health,” even as he tells her that she should not wait for him and should have dinner. As a poor patient looks at the doctor with astonishment, he says, “Will the nation’s chowkidaar (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) work alone till late in the night? I too am with him.” And then follows the punchline — ‘Woh akela chal pada…’

If the nation’s chowkidar Narendra Modi seems to be injecting high doses of emotion into his videos to appeal to the ‘sawa sau karod deshvasi’, Team Rahul Gandhi seems to stick to mostly rap videos where he counters Modi by saying, ‘chowkidar chor hai’.

From ‘Ab Ki Bar Modi Sarkar’ and ‘Chai pe Charcha’ back in 2014 to ‘Main bhi Chowkidar’, it is believed that this campaign can turn a Modi undercurrent into a tsunami.

The chowkidar campaign works at three different levels, explains BJP leader Tuhin Sinha. “Firstly, it gives a sense of responsibility and patriotism to every Indian and also urges one to be vigilant against thugs and looters of the country. Secondly, it calls for action against people who undermine the weaker sections of the society (for example, Congress undermined the chaiwala back in the 2014 elections) and thirdly, the campaign tells people about all aspects of good governance of the Narendra Modi government,” says Sinha.

Ask if such ad campaigns will help the party win elections, and the BJP leader describes it as a ‘cherry on the cake’ which he says adds to the performance of the government. “Modi government’s performance is before everyone to see and a good ad campaign which connects with people will be well received,” he says confidently.

So did Narendra Modi himself come up with the idea of the ‘Main bhi Chowkidar’ campaign? “Quite possible,” says Sinha, adding that back in 2014, when the Congress leaders looked down upon a chaiwala as a contender for the post of PM, they undermined him and attacked him personally. “By nature, Congress leaders are born with a sense of entitlement and humiliate all weaker sections of the society. Back then, our chaiwala campaign helped our party turn around the Congress attacks at the weaker sections,” says Sinha.

While Abhijit Avasthi does not wish to comment on how good or bad an ad is, saying it is always easy to pass judgments, the senior executive of a company says, “At a tactical level, the chowkidar campaign is an adequate comeback to the constant picking by Congress on issues. With one campaign, they have actually mobilised the entire nation and got them to stand behind the thought that everyone is now a chowkidar at some level or the other. However, a lot of unwarranted energy and money is being spent as it deflects from the larger core issues that currently face the nation.

It seems to be a diversionary tactic to focus on the smaller issues. Fatigue already seems to be setting in.”

He adds that the ‘Ab Ki Baar Modi Sarkar’ campaign of 2014 resonated much better than ‘Main bhi Chowkidar’ as it had a much larger impact on the country and its population as a whole.

A senior executive, who has an insight into the social media campaigns of the BJP, says that one agency had come out with the tagline ‘Modi Hai Toh Mumkin Hai’ after which Narendra Modi himself came up with the ‘Main bhi Chowkidar’ campaign, which like the chaiwala campaign of 2014, connects well with the masses.

“Interestingly, ‘Main bhi Chowkidar’ was a worldwide trend with 1.5 million tweets and took away all the other narratives, making it the only narrative,” he says, adding that while the Congress campaign of ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ may be the best way the Congress can counter the BJP’s moves, it does not seem to reflect the prevailing mood in the country.

The aim behind the chowkidar campaign is that each citizen has to contribute towards development of the nation. “Modiji has this ability to involve every Indian or at least make them think about what they can contribute to the overall nation building. Of the four films that have been released so far as part of the chowkidar campaign, one is a three minute film while the others are less than a minute. It rips apart Rahul’s ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ campaign. The highlight of the campaign is the powerful punchline — ‘Wo Akela Chal Pada’,” says a member of Team Modi, requesting anonymity. The videos have been shot across India.

As for the Congress, experts say that the party is mostly relying on their social media teams who have been releasing quite a few videos in the last couple of months.

But Chandramouli has a different take on this. “This campaign which began with the PM attaching Chowkidar to all his social media handles has backfired on the BJP as it has united all those against the party into a single bracket. The #MainBhiChowkidar campaign was started in all probability to negate the rhetoric of #ChowkidarChorHai, but in trying to make the latter hashtag defunct, the former campaign has turned to haunt the BJP because it has clearly divided the electorate into BJP and non-BJP sections. Even within the BJP, there are leaders who have stubbornly refused to sport the tag to their handles, leaving much to speculate about their future in the party. On the other hand, it has also come as a benefit to the BJP as it now knows the members who will support such initiatives blindly and those who will not,” he explains.  

Spinoffs and Spoofs

While there are a host of witty and entertaining videos in circulation, one that has been a super hit among the people is the one wherein Narendra Modi, sporting tattooed muscled arms, walks into the WWE ring and ‘takes on’ SP leader Akhilesh Yadav who finally ‘wins’ the battle. The video has racked up 7.7 million views in the last couple of months. “Videos like these are hugely popular in North India, particularly in UP and Bihar. The video is aimed at projecting Akhilesh Yadav as a more macho leader than Modi,” says one analyst.

Then there are videos mocking Rahul Gandhi as ‘Pappu’ while there are quite a few videos wherein Narendra Modi is seen making one announcement after the other and not fulfilling them, forcing the video to project him as a ‘pheku’.

There are also several videos in circulation featuring West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi but experts say that those videos do not garner as many likes as the ones of Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi.

Viral taglines

Interestingly, when compared to the Congress, the BJP’s ad campaign is much more robust, be it the rap videos targeting the Gandhi family or the chowkidar campaign. Meanwhile, the Congress is sticking to rap videos like Raga ka Mausam Awesome and Apna Time Aayega and Chowkidar Chor Hai.

Experts say that music connects better than other videos of extreme violence, unrealistic and extraordinary videos or those involving celebrities.

In August 2018, both the BJP and Congress had released videos giving their own versions of the Rafale deal. Even Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) came out with a similar video.

Previous BJP campaigns like ‘Majboot Neta, Nirnayak Sarkar’ and ‘Chai pe Charcha’ which were superhits though its India Shining campaign in early 2004, have clearly not worked for the BJP this time.

In the last UP elections, poll strategist Prashant Kishor had coined the line ‘UP ke Ladke’ for Rahul Gandhi and SP leader Akhilesh Yadav, who subsequently lost the elections despite a strong social media and ad campaign.

For the Madhya Pradesh elections, the Congress came up with ‘Aa Rahi Hai Congress, Parivartan Maange Madhya Pradesh’ as their musical slogan.

In 2014, BJP made the most of the ‘chaiwala’ comment by Congress leader Mani Shanker Aiyar. Similarly, it is likely that Congress leader Sam Pitroda’s remark on the Balakot terror strikes is likely to be turned around by the BJP for use in their social media campaigns.

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