MAM

India Votes

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From outside, 24 Akbar Road looks like just any other bungalow in Lyuten‘s Delhi - big with a huge lawn in the front amidst which sits the living quarters built in a style that speaks of a bygone British era. Most of the time, a silence hangs around the open gates, which is similar to most of the bungalows on this street that is resident to some of the most powerful men and women in the country who are also part of the government or some political party.

But these days inside the bungalow at 24 Akbar Road, men and women huddle together brainstorming on the Senior Team and Junior Team, while somebody shouts from a corner that there is even a Shouting Brigade. Scams and tainted politicians are strewn around, while some posters and stickers can be seen lying in bundles in another corner of a room.

Welcome to the temporary home of India‘s main opposition party Congress‘ media cell where plans and strategies to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party are discussed and fine-tuned before final execution. Also discussed and debated are the party‘s own multi-media communication strategies that would be adopted in the run-up to the general elections.

"The broad communication and media strategy of the Congress is to correct the incorrect hype around the feel-good factor (read the India Shining campaign that had been unleashed by the government) and follow the ground-up model to convey to the populace the real picture," says Dilip Cherian of Perfect Relations, a PR agency that has been mandated to look after the communication and media strategy of the Congress Party country-wide.

So, apart from Congress president Sonia Gandhi‘s Jan Sampark rallies, which have already started, the Junior Team, comprising the youth brigade of the party, would fan out to spread the message of `Disha 2004: Shiksha aur Rozgar‘ (a theme revolving around education and employment), something that has been identified as the "weakest link in the BJP armour."

And the 25-member Junior Team comprises some of the Young Turks like the educated Sachin Pilot (son of senior Congress leader Rajesh Pilot), Jiten Prasada (son of another Indira Gandhi loyalist Jitendra Prasada), Delhi University Student‘s Union‘s academically brilliant and attractive general secretary Ragini Nayak, Joyotirditya Scindia and Yusuf Ansari. The number is all set to grow in the coming days.

Not only the Congress‘ teams are being prepared well, but modern technology is being liberally used to update them on issues related to the youth of the country as they start touring the length and breadth of the country.

According to party sources, 17 states have been identified for the communication campaign, with the main focus on poverty and unemployment in the rural areas. The other talking points of the campaign would revolve around national security (Kargil), secularism (Congress‘ old theme) and also deputy prime minister LK Advani‘s rath yatra where the non-inclusion of Kashmir would be tom-tommed.

The states, where public relations focus will be less are the ones where the party is strong or anti-incumbency factor is expected to play its part. The party has also identified 48 media centers, both urban and rural, from where viewpoints on radio, television, print, Internet and other media would be disseminated.

As a senior Congress leader points out, the issues that would be taken up by the Congress would not belittle growth as it‘s important, but what would be stressed upon is the perspective and the context of the growth. So, an ad campaign that has broken in select English language magazines harp on the fact that foreign investment has certainly increased in the country, but scams involving the Unit Trust of India cannot be overlooked where millions of middle class Indians lost money.

Similarly, latest ICRA ( a rating agency) data has been collated that would be used to counter the government‘s claim on the country achieving 8 per cent GDP growth. Said a member of the media cell, "The latest ICRA analysis shows that the actual growth would be between 5-6 per cent and we would highlight this to tell the electorate that the government has been misleading them."

But realizing that a too metro-centric campaigns may not deliver the desired results, regional media has been given due importance. A Times of India or an Outlook is good, but more forceful would be the likes of Dainik Bhaskars (in the Hindi belt), Eenadu (down South) and other regional language print media publications.

"The temptation has been to take head on (the BJP and the government‘s campaigns), but then it was decided to create a different identity by stressing on the point that there is a need to create opportunities for all and not some people while India shines," said Cherian.

The print campaign`Congress ke Haath, Aam Aadmi Ke Saath‘, depicting the synergy between the symbol of the party and its association with common man, is one such instance that is cited.

The strategy also has two part to it. While the metro audiences get macro messages, for rural audiences micro messages would be customized, along with the big picture, to hammer in points.

With advertising on TV banned by the Election Commission and an Act of Parliament, this time round Internet would also be used heavily by the Congress. Whether publicity material would be posted on some popular Internet sites or not is yet to be finalized, what is finalized is that two interactive sites would be created so that ground level Congress workers and laypersons can communicate with the senior party leaders. While the party‘s official site, indiancongress.com, too is being upgraded a brand new site would be launched sometime in the third week of March.

With Orchard working fervently on the creatives that are slowly being approved by the media cell, headed by Ambika Soni, SMS and telephone calls would also play an important role. But unlike the BJP, where mostly the taped voices of the PM and deputy PM are being used to woo voters, Congress would use a variety of leaders including some from the Senior Team too like Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjea. "But unlike the BJP we would use this medium respecting the privacy of an individual, " said Cherian, hinting that such method would not be used at random.

Though the BJP is reported to be spending huge amount of money (figures range between Rs. 3-4 billion), the media cell members of the Congress insist that its media campaigns would be less costly. The figure that is being talked about ranges from Rs. 500 million to Rs 1 billion.

But what is the Shouting Brigade of the Congress?

Literally what it means. Shout down the opposition in TV talk shows, debates, and other such activities. Media and communication strategies have come a long way from the yore when the likes of Nehrus, Gandhis, Lohias and Maulana Azads would address peaceful rallies in select places or in mid-70s when political pamphlets were dropped from airplanes.

(This is the first in a series on media and communication strategy of political parties for the forthcoming general elections)

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