Will UPA’s Rs 630-crore ad blitz entice the voters?

Whether it be the NDA’s India Shining debacle or now the UPA’s 630-crore Bharat Nirman blitz, political ad campaigns seem destined to sidestep the politicians.


If you talk to a BJP supporter about the 2004 general elections, chances are they’ll tear up like an Indian Idol contestant accused of plagiarism by Anu Malik. Why would they not? The NDA, during its tenure, had defeated the Pakistanis, macro-economic indicators had shown steady growth, and highways were connecting Indian cities to parts of the country citizens didn’t know existed. All this was fed to the populace in a slickly packaged campaign designed to remind them that India was “shining”.

What happened next can be likened to the iconic second match of the 1997 Wills Challenge tournament between India and Pakistan. Pakistan, at the risk of inviting uncouth Internet comments, seemed all set to win, just like the NDA. With eight runs needed off the last over, a miracle happened. India’s Rajesh Chauhan, someone the entire country expected to capitulate like morality in the BCCI, walked in and smacked a six over long on. The world was in shock. No one, especially the Indians, expected their team to win. 

We’re less than a year away from the next general elections, and it’s funny how little things have changed. The BJP, having collectively drunk the Kool-Aid at the fountain of Modi, expects a resounding win so they can turn the whole country into Gujarat.

The Congress remains aware of its precarious hold on power thanks to its bouquet of scams, commitment to perpetual policy paralysis and a spineless leadership. While the kurta-clad scion publicly chides the BJP for its India Shining campaign, he fails to mention how his party has taken a leaf out of the same playbook.

The result? A new multimedia blitzkrieg for Rs 630 crore from the UPA government – reportedly scripted by the ad agency Percept/H and filmed by Pradeep Sarkar – that sweetly tells us, “Ho raha Bharat Nirman”.

The first phase of the Bharat Nirman campaign launched in May and the second in August. It’s already knocked out 22 commercials, shot simultaneously in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, and Kannada and dubbed in a few others. 9.7 lakh ad spots were screened at 8,231 theatres across the country in just these two phases. And a wave of TV, radio, print and outdoor publicity programs has meant that there has been no escaping this campaign.

It’s hard not to draw parallels with the BJP’s India Shining campaign, created by Grey Digital. Commissioned by Jaswant Singh as a campaign to promote India as an investment destination, it failed to connect with the average voter when used for political ends because people saw through the façade of development that was largely exclusivist.

This is why the Bharat Nirman campaign makes for interesting viewing. For rich urban voters, these new ads try to summarize the initiatives taken by the UPA government in an attempt to move the discourse from the usual pappu feku hashtags. And for poorer voters in semi-urban and rural areas, they aim to draw an emotional connect by showing how these initiatives have directly impacted their lives. If you’re one of the few who hasn’t managed to catch these ads, let’s go through some of them.

The first one is called “Milestones”. Seven men and one woman (or as census officials call it, Punjab) are travelling in a non-A/C train discussing the various achievements of the Congress party. The ticket collector mentions how the Congress was bashed for bringing computers into the country, followed by an uncle reminding people that the Bhakra Nangal dam caused the Green Revolution. The female passenger then chimes in to talk about how nationalized banks were the reason India survived the recent recession. At this point, YouTube miraculously felt the tumor growing inside my brain and switched to playing a Dhoom 3 trailer to ease the pain.

Let’s start with authenticity. Any non-A/C train passenger in India will tell you that the experience isn’t complete without at least a few children singing Altaf Raja songs or hijras threatening to undress if not given money. If that doesn’t tell you how out of touch the Congress is with the common man, I don’t know what will.
 
On the other hand, the advertisement fulfills its role as a public service announcement by warning you that there are still people who believe computers came to India only because of Rajiv Gandhi. I presume these are the same people who believe Sanjay Gandhi designed the Maruti SX4.

I don’t even want to talk about the insult to hardworking farmers across the country for reducing their achievements to the construction of one dam, but I will say that if a train coach has seven men and one woman, at least six would be trying to ogle at her cleavage from the upper berth.

Another favorite ad features the face of the campaign, Anupriya Goenka, playing the role of a character called Priya. Priya is what the government would describe as an ideal subsidised baby. According to the campaign, she was born in a remote village called Shantipur. Unlike Premchand, she didn’t have to study under a streetlight because her house received electricity under a scheme named after (surprise!) Rajiv Gandhi. She ate the food provided as part of a mid-day meal that then gave her the energy to run across streets carrying a paper windmill. She could continue her higher studies at one of the 15 new infrastructure-less IITs or IIMs thanks to a post-matric scholarship before finally taking the Bandra-Worli sea link, named after (again?) Rajiv Gandhi, back to her village. There, awaiting her with much fanfare were more girls carrying paper windmills. It’s hard not to tear up at such a government-induced success story.

Priya’s grandmother is unable to open a bank account because she has no identification papers. Without asking about the registration papers of her grandmother’s house, Priya determines that the solution lies in an Aadhaar card. Nandan Nilekani can’t be wrong about something, can he? I mean, white authors get inspired to write books because of him. Just because she’s old doesn’t mean her private data shouldn’t be stored on an unencrypted Excel sheet for easy access by the Chinese and American NSA. Grandmother finally gets a bank account and Priya is happy that her family can fight over who gets her money and property after she dies.

Besides her grandmother, Priya also cares about farmers. The greedy farmer is shown as wanting at least twice the estimated market value of the land the government wants to acquire, but Priya is generous. In true Bollywood style, she smirks and hands a file to the evil farmers, whose faces light up with gratitude on seeing that Priya is offering four times the market value.

If only Priya could take a stroll down the Narmada, walk through the forests of Orissa to meet the people protesting POSCO, or have some chai with the locals at Singur.  Who knew the root of friction between generous corporations and evil farmers was mere miscommunication?

After everything Priya did for them – opening a wind-based power plant, providing a chance to ride on escalators in Delhi, personally solving corruption in the public distribution system by sternly scolding a shopkeeper once – this is how they repay her. More greed. One would imagine they would trust someone who also grew up in a poor village.

The makers on their part have paid close attention to detail. The Marathi dub shows villagers and shop owners wearing Nehru caps, unlike the Hindi version. Similarly, coconuts disappear from the Bengali street vendor advertisement while remaining in the Marathi one. What does jar, however, are the excessively clean locations. I, for one, am not aware of many markets or street corners in India that are free of paan stains and cows waddling through exposed trash piles.

Another interesting pattern is how, at the end of most advertisements, after having fought with a government official, evil farmer or generic corrupt Indian, Priya appeals to you to demand your right. What’s the point of the government enacting so many regulations in your favour if you won’t take advantage of them? The irony of having created the very systems within which the corrupt thrive apparently didn’t dawn on anybody. Hey Malala, did you know we allow all girls to be educated in the SWAT region? Go and demand your right if the Taliban denies it!

Despite their tendency to give your eyes AIDS, these are still better than traditional full-page newspaper ads issued by government agencies meant to win favour with the party leadership. How will an Indian family line their cupboards if not for newspaper pages featuring Manmohan Singh smiling at his imaginary friends? They’re better than billboards, with every party member’s face on it like an inverse IIT-topper list.

One should also be somewhat grateful that Indian political advertising is largely positive, in that parties focus on their own achievements and election promises instead of running negative campaigns focusing on trashing the rival party. Why spend so much time trashing the opposition in the mainstream media when you can get it done for cheaper through paid supporters on the Internet?

In a country as vast and diverse as India, the impact of advertising on voter preferences is hard to establish. What we know is that even back in 1989, when Rajiv Gandhi hired Rediffusion to help create a brand for himself and the Congress, the party lost.

Since then, such advertising campaigns haven’t been able to dramatically change a party’s fortunes. But they have changed the lives of directors, media buyers, television stations, junior artists, newspapers, Anupriya Goenka, me by getting me this paycheck, Amitabh Bachchan and Prakash Jha.

Ho raha Bharat Nirman.

Gursimranjeet Khamba is a writer, comic and co-founder of All India Bakchod. Follow him at https://twitter.com/gkhamba

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