Anonymous note circulated within Congress highlights failures of its election ad campaign

An anonymous internal note highlighting major shortcomings and procedural irregularities in the Congress’s advertisement campaign for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections began circulating within the party in June. T Narayan / Bloomberg / Getty Images
03 July, 2019

More than a month after results revealed that the Congress had suffered another rout in the Lok Sabha elections, the reasons behind the massive defeat are still coming to light. Details about the failure of its advertisement campaign and the party functionaries believed to be responsible for it have emerged in an anonymous note that has been circulating within the party since June. The note highlights the major flaws of the Congress campaign. It indicates an opaque selection process for advertising agencies that the party appointed, a poorly conceived campaign that failed to communicate its poll promises, and advertisements that failed to reach the target audience.

In August 2018, the All India Congress Committee constituted three committees for the Lok Sabha elections—a nine-member Core Group Committee, a 13-member Publicity Committee and a 19-member Manifesto Committee. The allegations in the internal note primarily concerned the working of the publicity committee. “No due process was followed when selecting the agency to execute advertisements in media (including print advertisements in newspapers, audio-visual advertisements in TV, radio and cinema),” the internal note stated. “These were unilaterally selected and thrust upon the publicity committee.”

Multiple Congress leaders told me that the internal note was submitted to the party president Rahul Gandhi through an internal process that allows leaders to file anonymous complaints. As a result, I was unable to confirm the authors of the note, though several Congress leaders confirmed that they had seen the note and that it has been circulated on WhatsApp across the party. My conversations with members of the party’s communication department, the publicity committee, other party leaders and advertising professionals involved in its Lok Sabha campaign confirmed several concerns identified in the note. They further showed a continuing disarray within the party rank and file on addressing—or in some cases, even acknowledging—the shortcomings of its campaign.

The publicity committee was tasked with key responsibilities—primarily, to engage creative agencies to conceptualise and design the Congress campaign slogan, its posters and hoardings, and to select advertising agencies to execute the campaign at a national and regional level, across television, print, digital and radio platforms. Advertising professionals refer to the latter as “media execution.” According to the internal note, the publicity committee did not follow due process in selecting the advertising agencies for the media execution.

A member of the publicity committee spoke to me about this selection process on the condition of anonymity. For the creative agency, the member explained, advertisement agencies made their pitch to the publicity committee, on the basis of which they were marked and then selected. Accordingly, the publicity committee selected Percept, a Mumbai-based media and communications company, as its creative agency at the national level, and Niksun Ad World, a Gujarat-based agency, as the creative agency at the regional levels.

I spoke to different members of the publicity committee about the selection process for media-execution agencies, but they were evasive in their answers, and as a result, there is little clarity about the details surrounding the same. For the media execution in previous Lok Sabha elections, a member of the Congress communications department explained, the Congress followed a similar process to engage an advertising agency, which would then negotiate with media houses about the advertisement rates. But for this year’s elections, the member said that this practice was abandoned “for the first time.”

According to the communication-department member, the publicity committee had constituted a sub-committee to select agencies for media execution. He claimed that the sub-committee—and not the selected agencies—negotiated with media houses directly to determine the advertisement rates. In contrast to the procedure followed for selecting a creative agency, the internal note alleged that “no due process was followed” for selecting the media-execution agencies. It stated that the procedures established in previous Lok Sabha elections were “scrupulously adhered to with regard to the creative agency,” but that the advertisement agencies were “unilaterally selected and thrust upon the publicity committee.”

“The media houses submitted their rates before the sub-committee directly without the intervention of the execution agencies,” the communication-department member added. “The payment was also made directly by the AICC to the media houses. The role of the execution agencies was to send the release order to the media houses, tell them to place a particular ad in a particular edition, which creative to be released et cetera.”

Over a month after the election results were announced, the Congress leaders I spoke to contradicted each other while explaining the circumstances of their defeat—they appeared to blame each other for the debacle. For instance, the publicity-committee member denied the formation of any sub-committee at all, and said that “Rohan Gupta and Ahmed Patel negotiated the price” for advertisements with the media-execution agencies. Patel is a senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member from Gujarat, while Gupta is a media coordinator in the Congress’s communication department.

In fact, Gupta’s name features prominently in the internal note as well. “The media rates for different newspapers/TV channels etc. were planned and negotiated by Sh. Rohan Gupta on behalf of the INC,” the note stated. It added that initially two large advertising agencies—Leo Burnett and FCB Ulka—had bid for the Congress campaign, and yet, the Congress selected agencies that did not have the size or scale to execute the campaign. “In stark contrast, the BJP’s entire media campaign was handled by Madison World which has an annual billing of Rs. 5000 crores and a team strength of approximately 600 people,” the note continued. “The rates at which Congress Party got media spots on TV, radio, cinema, and in newspapers were two-four times more expensive than what BJP got … This is also because BJP’s rates were negotiated by Madison, which has the size and scale to reduce costs considerably. In stark contrast, INC’s rates were negotiated by Rohan Gupta.”

The communication-department and publicity-committee members both confirmed that they had seen the internal note and dismissed its allegations. “Ninety percent of the things in that note are wrong,” the communication-department member said. He claimed that the sub-committee had adopted a “transparent process” because it was “negotiating directly with media houses” instead of involving any intermediaries. Meanwhile, the publicity-committee member argued that the decision to allow members to negotiate with media houses directly was a “cost-cutting measure.” He said the Congress leadership took the policy decision “because the same thing was implemented in Rajasthan before the December assembly elections and Rohan Gupta handled it.” Gupta denied the allegations in the note about his role in negotiating the advertisement rates, but declined to comment further.

The note identified five agencies involved in the campaign’s media execution, and characterised three of them as not being up to the task. It stated that the publicity committee selected Golden Rabbit Communications, a Delhi-based agency, to plan and execute the advertisement strategy for national print media and regional television media; and that Active Media, a Gujarat-based agency, was in charge of the radio advertisements and the regional print media. The note criticised the selection of both agencies for their lack of experience and resources to handle a nation-wide election campaign.

“Golden Rabbit was unequipped to handle the account,” the note stated. “Neither did it have the bandwidth, nor the skill set, nor the experience to handle the newspapers/magazines business as well as regional TV channels across India.” In a similar vein, the note added, “Active Media had no prior experience handling such a large and complex campaign.” Referring to Niksun Ad World—the creative agency selected for regional levels—the note stated, “This agency has handled all election campaigns in Gujarat from 2002 till 2017,” and added that it was selected “despite the results” in the previous state polls.

All the Congress leaders I spoke to were evasive about the allegations in the internal note and why these agencies were selected. The representatives of the advertising agencies, on the other hand, all admitted to working with the Congress on their campaign, while deflecting any questions about the decision-making process to the party leadership. Asif Kadri, the chief executive officer of Active Media confirmed that his firm had handled the Congress’s media execution for radio and regional print. “We have done this campaign on behalf of Congress, but I am not authorised to speak to the media,” he said. When I asked him who had the necessary authority, Kadri, too, pointed me towards Gupta. “You will have to speak to Rohan Gupta who coordinated the whole campaign on behalf of the All India Congress Committee on the execution part.”

Nikunj Mehta, the chief executive officer of Niksun Ad World, echoed the communication-department member’s response. He believes that the process was more transparent in 2019 compared to earlier years. “It’s true that Pawan Khera and Rohan Gupta negotiated the rates on behalf of the All India Congress Committee and the money went directly from AICC to the media houses. But this is a transparent process because the party is negotiating directly with the media houses and paying them.” Khera, who is a party spokesperson, told me he was involved in the selection of the creative agency, but not the media-execution agencies, and refused to comment further. Mehta claimed that the negotiations were tripartite: “The agencies were involved in the negotiation between the AICC and media houses.” When I asked him if the Congress had ended up paying more for media spots than the BJP, Mehta said, “Maybe in some cases, but I don’t think it is true overall.”

Rashpal Rana, the managing director of Golden Rabbit Communications, too, confirmed that his agency handled national print and regional television media-execution for the Congress. Rana said that the agency and the Congress had both negotiated the advertising rates with the media houses. When I asked him how much leeway his agency had in the negotiation, he responded, “How can I tell you this?” Rana also confirmed that Madison had handled the BJP’s media execution, but denied that the rates were more expensive for the Congress. “I don’t think so,” he said. “We were shortlisted by the Congress based on our experience and we know the prevalent rates for various publications and channels.”

According to Rana, the Congress shortlisted Golden Rabbit on the basis of their media-execution plan. “In the plan, we suggested which papers and channels to advertise in,” Rana told me. We were coordinating with the publicity committee.” Pertinently, Golden Rabbit has previously been associated with the Congress in a different capacity. According to documents submitted to the Election Commission of India, the advertising agency has twice donated Rs 5 lakh to the Congress—in August 2015 and November 2017. Rana confirmed that his agency had made the donations to the Congress. “It is in the public domain,” he said, but declined to comment further.

The internal note was also critical of the Congress’s election campaign and its execution. On 25 March, Rahul Gandhi had announced the Nyoontam Aay Yojana, or NYAY, a minimum-income guarantee scheme that became the Congress’s flagship electoral promise. Within two weeks, it was made the theme of the entire campaign with the formal launch of the party’s election slogan, “Ab Hoga Nyay”—now there will be nyay, which is the Hindi word for justice. It became the focus of the Congress’s publicity campaign for the 2019 general elections, and all of the party’s pre-poll promises, as well as its manifesto, social-media strategy, hoardings and posters, were centred around this broad theme.

However, three Congress functionaries I spoke to said that the launch was too late. Each spoke on the condition of anonymity. One of the functionaries said that it should have been launched in mid March, and added that the party made a mistake by using to the same slogan through all seven phases of polling. “The BJP was dynamic,” the functionary said. “Before the polling in Punjab, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh, they attacked Rajiv Gandhi, and in the Hindi belt, they harped on the Balakot air strikes.” He was referring to the Indian Air Force’s strikes within Pakistan’s territory, in February this year, in response to a militant attack on a Central Reserve Police Force security convoy, on the Jammu-Srinagar highway in Pulwama. BJP leaders had repeatedly invoked the air strikes during their election campaign.

According to the functionary, by February, the Congress leadership had decided to focus its strategy around peoples’ struggles. “But when Pulwama happened, the BJP went big on nationalism and to counter that we decided to focus on nyay,” the functionary added. “Our campaign transformed from Nyuntam Aay to nyay and within this we included the promise of filling 22 lakh government job vacancies by 2020, 33-percent reservation for women in government jobs, a separate budget for farmers, et cetera.” The functionary believed that this strategy of packaging all of the Congress’s pre-poll promises under one umbrella campaign of Nyay had proven ineffective and contributed to the party’s defeat.

Another Congress leader pointed out that the BJP had at least four taglines—“Main Bhi Chowkidar” (I am also a watchman); “Modi Hai Toh Mumkin Hai” (Modi makes it possible); “Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar” (Modi government once again); and “Desh Na Jhuke, Kaam Na Ruke” (The country will not bend, the work will not stop). The Congress leader continued, “We thought they were not very clear, but they managed to link all these to nationalism and were very successful in their propaganda.”

The note was also critical of misplaced advertisements that failed to target the necessary audience. For instance, it noted that advertisements for free check-ups in government hospitals and 33-percent reservation for women in government jobs were written in English and published on the front page of the Economic Times. According to one of the advertisement professionals I spoke to, who was involved in the Congress’s election campaign and requested anonymity, this was poor strategy because the readers of financial dailies do not typically seek to visit government hospitals or reservations in government jobs. The note highlighted a similar flaw in the advertisements. “Ab Hoga Nyay campaign was published in Hindi (but written in the English script) in newspapers,” it stated. “This ad falls completely flat,” the advertising professional told me. “A Hindi audience will not be able to read it since it is not in the Devnagari script, while an English audience will also struggle to read it.”

The internal note also raised other concerns with the execution of the campaign. “The campaign jingle was a rap song—that does not resonate with non-young and non-urban Indians,” the note stated. “Plus, the jingle has no mention of Congress or vote for Congress (all the cues are visual, and no verbal) for the first three phases.” The video of the campaign’s theme song confirms this description—the word “Congress” is spoken once in the minute-long video.

I called Anand Sharma, a senior spokesperson of the Congress, who was a member of the publicity committee, to discuss the allegations in the note. Sharma argued that he did not handle the day-to-day workings of the campaign. “I will not talk to you or meet you in the absence of the convener of the committee who was in charge of the day-to-day execution details,” he said, referring to Pawan Khera. When I pressed further, he responded, “I don’t have a remote control in my pocket, I was travelling in helicopters and planes all over India. Do you think I was remote controlling these things?”