Progress Report

The modest failures of the UPA’s Bharat Nirman campaign

Many consider the Bharat Nirman campaign the UPA’s version of “India Shining”. COURTESY DAVP
01 July, 2013

LAST MONTH, the beleaguered United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government introduced a series of pre-election advertisements that it insists are nothing of the sort. Under the banner of “Bharat Nirman”, the new campaign features six television commercials, each intended to highlight a separate achievement of the government. Though the slogan is not a new one (it names a government plan for rural infrastructure development, and was used in two previous UPA ad campaigns), this campaign shows an evident shift in the intended audience: the urban middle class is the target, as is abundantly clear from both the choice of subjects and the style of creative execution.

Apart from familiar themes like minority rights and increasing literacy, we have ads that showcase the rapid rise in mobile phone penetration, the construction of mass transit projects, the inauguration of new IITs, IIMs and central universities, and the support given to women’s education through a variety of government schemes. In one ad, the story of the Delhi Metro is told through the wonderstruck description of a village choudhary, who holds forth on the magic of progress to a group of unbelieving peers; in another, we see a typically hectic scene on the day of an Indian wedding, with mobile phones playing a crucial role as family members navigate the chaos.

The effort to recruit every possible bit of good news is almost archeological in scope: one ad that references the UPA’s rural employment scheme and the Right To Information Act also manages to cite Indira Gandhi’s nationalisation of banks and—reaching all the way back to the Nehru era—the building of the Bhakra-Nangal dams and the Green Revolution. The end result is a diverse array of claimed achievements, presented in varying tones but held together by the tagline “Sabka Hit. Sabka Haq.” (Loosely, “Everyone’s right. For the good of everyone.”) The ads do display some restraint. “Bharat Nirman” does not have the sharp swagger of “India Shining”, trading an impatient verb for a serene noun, and they are careful to suggest that much work remains to be done, hence the line “Meelo hum aa gaye, meelo hamein jaana hain” (“We have covered miles and we have to go miles forward”).

To repair its battered reputation, the UPA undoubtedly needs all the help it can muster, but the task of finding a way to reframe what might charitably be called a mixed record into a string of unalloyed achievements is a truly challenging one. The campaign certainly tries hard, in a splashy let’s-throw-all-we-have-at-it kind of way. The scale is lavish: the media spend is estimated to be ₹ 180 crores (₹ 1.8 billion), and the ads—at least by the standards of government campaigns—are slickly produced. A deliberate effort has been made to avoid producing something that seems like just another government ad; the campaign’s creative director, Rajiv Agrawal from the agency Percept/H, told one trade magazine that they didn’t want to “create work that looks ‘sarkari’.”

The use of professionally-mounted advertising in politics became prominent after the famous print campaign created by Rediffusion for the Congress (I) in 1984, which featured ads with headlines like “Will Your Grocery List, in the Future, include Acid Bulbs, Iron Rods, Daggers?” and “Will the Country’s Border Finally Move to Your Doorstep?” Since then, the use of advertising agencies in election campaigns has been a regular feature of the political landscape. But apart from the Grey Worldwide campaign for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in 2004, “India Shining”, which was clearly credited with making an impact—hailed at first as a masterpiece, and then after the election, retrospectively panned as the primary culprit for the unexpected BJP loss—most other political ad campaigns, whether local or national, have failed to play a significant role.

In theory, mass media advertising should be an efficient and powerful way to get one’s message to a wide and scattered audience, but there are many reasons why it has played a limited role in Indian elections. Part of the problem lies with the size of the Indian electorate and its relative inaccessibility to advertisers. Even today, conventional ads struggle to reach audiences beyond the urban middle class, and in an election campaign, which involves reaching every last eligible voter, the task becomes that much more challenging. It would not be wrong to conclude that political advertising, even in the best case, really only works with a small subset of voters, whose numbers are too small to be meaningful. This, in fact, was the central issue with the “India Shining” campaign: when it was hailed as a masterpiece, this was because it connected strongly with that small section of India; after the BJP loss, that same connection was cited as the reason why the ads had purportedly created a backlash from the rest of the electorate, ostensibly because they were put off by the campaign’s smugness.

Another reason why it is not easy to assess the role that advertising can play has to do with the complex and fragmented nature of the Indian electoral process. Elections in India generate two simultaneous and only occasionally overlapping realities: one that narrativises the election in terms that make it both comprehensible and consumable, and another that involves the more uncertain enterprise of fighting and winning an election that no one has a real grasp of. In the first instance, issues sort themselves out neatly, and reflect the concern of those that consume media: national leaders as brands, the importance of the youth vote, Manmohan Singh’s silence, the rise of middle class anger and the like. The search for ‘the national picture’ is an understandable attempt to think of every election outcome as a mandate for something coherent, something that can be understood as a single narrative that neatly ties together a complex, fragmented and inherently inchoate picture, while sitting at a central vantage point, such as a Delhi television studio. Campaign advertisements may have some small influence on this ‘national narrative’ and the people who shape it, but they are more likely to be praised or blamed in hindsight. The popular wisdom about the role played by the “India Shining” campaign in determining the fortunes of the NDA is one such act of retrospective narrative-building; it is reasonable to believe that it was, in fact, the nature of regional alliances that played a critical role in the NDA’s unexpected defeat.

Advertising works best when it gets to converge on key personalities and issues. It can amplify a quality or anxiety and crystallise complex issues into a promise with emotional currency. In the Indian case, most elections are neither reducible to a few personalities, particularly at the national level, nor involve specific policy issues on which either support is sought or denied. The election manifestoes of most parties are documents that exist on paper and carry little meaning, for even the parties themselves choose to ignore them. Unlike the relatively neat binaries encountered in the US, the Indian electoral landscape is a scatter-diagram of regional aspirations, caste identities and equations, local issues, alliances, and intra-party rivalries. Specific policy proposals are rarely the issues that determine an election, and thus advertising restricts itself to vague evocations of feel-good sloganism, of the “Jai Ho!” or “Aam Aadmi” sort, which lack bite and are rarely relevant at a national level.

With stories of the Obama campaign’s analytical brilliance at guiding highly targeted advertising efforts resounding in their ears, political parties have invested significantly in their efforts to woo the electorate through media, both conventional and new. The estimated advertising spends across parties in the 2009 elections reportedly crossed ₹ 3000 crores (₹ 30 billion). While the national parties do put together communication teams to create and monitor campaign effectiveness, this is far from being the science it has become in the US.

In spite of all the interest and effort, election campaigns in India occupy a somewhat mysterious space; everyone gives it a shot but no one quite knows what happens as a result, particularly when it comes to mass media campaigns. Social media can play a tangible role, albeit in a limited sense, as it is capable of mobilising a party’s existing support base, but the role of mass media advertising is far less clear.

Political advertising campaigns therefore face a crisis of ambition. At one level, given the limited role that they play, it doesn’t really matter what they communicate as long as the campaign fulfils the minimum expected standards of noisy visibility, so crucial to traditional Indian modes of electioneering. On the other hand, given the experience of other countries, and the seductive role played by advertising and publicity in every other walk of life, not using a more contemporary approach may make it seem like the party is not current enough in its thinking. However, given the complexity of electoral arithmetic in India, and the relative inaccessibility of voters, the fashionable ideas of targeting and positioning are not easy to apply.

Furthermore, if a campaign crystallises one’s message too sharply and focuses on too narrow a segment or concern—if a campaign amplifies a party’s position too vividly, as good advertising is meant to do—its wide relevance gets diminished, and it also runs the risk of giving the opposition and the media too clear a target to attack. And while that might make little difference to the electoral outcome, it is politically inexpedient for those responsible for a campaign to be identified with its failure, as happened in the case of India Shining. Overall, it seems that gains from such efforts are modest at best, but the potential damage, even if only at the level of political chatter, quite palpable. As a result, political mass media campaigns end up undercutting their own ambition with their anxieties. Unsure whether to go all out and try to maximise gains from advertising or to minimise the potential damage caused by making too grand or pointed a claim, advertising more than often stops at making acceptable noises, feeling relieved that a box has been ticked in the electoral to-do list.

The Bharat Nirman effort reflects this ambivalence about advertising. For once, it focuses on audiences that the campaign in fact reaches, but is careful to couch its promises in more inclusive and politically defensible terms. The commercials themselves seek to distance themselves from earlier political advertising, so much so that some can be mistaken for ads selling other products or services, but eventually, there is nothing particularly new that the UPA can promise.

It is a campaign that tries to change a well established narrative, about the UPA’s lacklustre performance, but attempts to do so by cobbling together a motley bunch of facts without showing too much force or self-belief. Also, when viewed against the sustained and strident hammering that the government takes every day and every night at the hands of a hyper-aggressive media, the campaign is too weak an attempt to spin a new story. At the end of the day, it is a campaign that will not do too much to either help the government or give the opposition something new to shoot at. By attempting nothing terribly smart nor doing anything jaw-droppingly silly, the campaign is a modest failure. And that might well be its success.