Taking the shine off India

SUHEL SETH

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THE last time political advertising was successful was when it propelled Margaret Thatcher to power in England. But even that campaign did not engender the kind of illusions that Indiaís present right-wing regime has inflicted on a hapless nation and that too with taxpayerís money.

I have always decried political advertising with invariably more promise than delivery, and this is precisely what is wrong with India Shining. It talks about another India and that too when the neglected India is equally visible. The problem is not the insularity of the medium, but instead of the idea. How can anyone expect the Mumbaikar to believe in a Shining India when every morning he or she can see thousands defecate on the roads because we havenít been able to provide toilets and basic housing? How can one explain away street urchins and begging children when one actually sees them at traffic intersections.

India Shining, besides being illusory, is also urban in idea and practice. The fact that feel-good has no honest translation in Hindi is adequate proof of the exclusivity of the thought behind the campaign. Political campaigns must embrace, not isolate, and they must be built on the bedrock of a single competitive idea, which the advertising hacks dub USP. It is this competitive edge that is missing from a campaign which is more about mush and less about substance. It is here that the enduring values of the campaign are woefully lacking.

The fact that the government in power chose to unleash this advertising blitz keeping in mind that elections were round the corner reflects an ethics which is bound to have a lasting impact on electoral politics in this country. I believe we have used advertising in a manner that demeans not only the intelligence of an average Indian, it also makes a mockery of elections and how they should either be managed or for that matter won.

Letís begin with analysing the campaign and the backdrop against which it was set. Quite clearly, the fact that this campaign was part of the Finance Ministryís budget tells us that it had something to do with the fiscal progress (or decline) that we as a country have experienced. But the reality is that this campaign has instead become the leitmotif of the BJPís election mantra and is now even plastered on Advaniís rath: yet another example of plagiarism at its worst. The objective surely must have been to raise the investment profile for Brand India globally, to tell the world that we are and have become, thanks to the BJP, a robust and important economic power and that every Indian today is well off, that every farmer uses mobile telephones to inform his wife of his lunch menu and every villager is now experiencing broadband and plushly carpeted motorways. Because this is what the campaign does and this is where it fails.

 

 

The campaign is so generic in nature that it could work as well for a motorcycle company such as Bajaj as it does, say, for Brand India. The imagery used in the campaign is equally contrived: which is at times, certainly the role of advertising, but only when you are selling beauty soaps such as Lux piggyback riding on film actresses, not when you are attempting a prolific and enduring branding exercise for a country! The visuals are unreal to the Indian: they may be of immense novelty value to the foreigner, but then the question that begs an answer is who constitutes the target segment. If the target segment is a person abroad, then the whole story is wrong because quite frankly he is not interested in a historical journey that we in India have travelled to finally attain economic nirvana.

The advertising would then need to be different and placed in different media, which it is not. Hence my suspicion that the campaign is meant for every Indian, or so the makers of this advertising believe. This again is a problem, because which Indian do you wish to address? For the Indian who is currently feeling good, you donít need to remind him of the experience and certainly not by spending so much money. And if itís the other Indian, then let water flow from his taps first before you can get him to buy into your advertising. There is a sharp disconnect in terms of what you say on television and the reality that this particular Indian experiences.

 

 

Take a look then at the timing of this campaign. Very clearly designed to hit the market as it were after one round of state elections and before a general election: state elections in which the ruling party makes visible gains Ė three states out of four. A party that is now gearing up for general elections with the same tired brand, Atal Behari Vajpayee, but one that has clearly understood the might of the media and how it can be pandered to. So it does what all brands in trouble do: blitzkrieg the media and hopefully be Orwellian in approach by making half-truths come across as sharp reality and this is exactly what India Shining has done.

The ambiguity of the phrase allows the slogan to be used across anything: so if you win a cricket match it is India Shining; if Amitabh Bachchan is honoured in Morocco it is India Shining; if Air Canada announces an additional flight it is India Shining; if Air India takes off and lands on time, then it is India Shining. In effect, the entire advertising proposition, because of ambiguity and expanse, has also lent itself to both trivialisation as well as general ridicule, which ideally should have been avoided. There is no ownership that the BJP has been able to establish except that of an advertising line. The truth of the matter, however, is that they should have sought to own an overpowering idea: instead they fell for some copywriterís charm and stuck to sloganeering. It is precisely this easy way out that has left the campaign dry and insipid.

 

 

Letís now come down to the thinking routes employed in this campaign. It is clear from the tone and manner of the campaign that it was set in English, with no rural or vernacular nuances. An English speaking copywriter thought of what is clearly an urban campaign: not one which attacks or soothes the masses who occupy the heartland of India and who, incidentally, are the people who will go out and vote on a hot morning!

The campaign clearly is off-target even in terms of its idiom. And this is extremely dangerous for any political campaign. Political campaigns are built on the belief of the lowest common denominator principle, never on the basis of the highest common factor. India Shining is about the classes and not about the masses; hence the appreciation of the masses is inadequate in what the campaign attempts to do. India Shining could easily have been a bottom-up emergent thought. Instead, convenience determined that it become a top-down campaign, thus failing to belong.

It failed for two reasons: the classes viewed it as just another mushy advertisement, one among the seventeen they see in a two minute break between episodes of a soap opera, whereas the rural folk perceived it as a message of conviction and belief, not trite advertising. This is where even the conception of a basic advertising premise was flawed and continued to remain so throughout the several-part campaign. The thinking behind the campaign did not (and still hasnít) factored in some harsh political realities that can easily be presented to counter the India Shining proposition both on the fiscal as also on the non-fiscal front.

 

 

The blemishes in the campaign with a line as strong as India Shining are several. One can easily talk about the fact that never before under any regime did we in India witness more financial scams than we have under the BJP. Never has more market cap been wiped out because of corruption in our bourses than under the BJP. In fact, the Calcutta Stock Exchange is virtually defunct. Never has India been more suspect in the eyes of foreign institutional investors with what happened to UTI and more recently the IDFC. The fact that this government oversaw a pogrom in Gujarat tells us another shameful story: one amongst many that we in India have experienced.

Where was India Shining when we lost so many brave men in Kargil, ostensibly an intelligence failure? Where was India Shining when the Agra Summit was a dead horse? Or when India experienced humiliation at the hands of the United States, which post 9/11 warmed up to Pakistan like never before. In almost every sphere India has many a time been found wanting. And though this is true of most countries, but then most countries have political parties which do not think it proper to boast of achievements that pale in comparison with their accumulated failures. I am not for a moment suggesting that all country-branding advertising needs to be complimentary or for that matter honest either. The problem arises when advertising is expected to replace the real pain and the real issues that people face from time to time. It is that which we need to understand and display whilst buying such advertising or for that matter releasing it.

I must also spend some time talking about the role of the media. Letís face it, there is a lot of lucre that this campaign has thrown up. Full and half page advertisements in colour mean a lot of revenue for any publication and since the campaign stretches across all media, the avarice and greed factor is substantial to say the least, which is precisely my worry. How can we expect fair play from large parts of the media, which in any case have been submerged with government dole? What stand will these publications or channels take given the fact of a slow buyout of the media by a ruling party? And that too on the eve of elections. And with a campaign, which by the nature of its core thought, ĎIndia Shiningí, effectively tells the world sab theek hai with India!

 

 

This hyperbole, matched by the intensity of an unending spending spree, is worrying. And if one examines the role of the media, then I am not very wrong. Post the launch of the campaign, the media has lapped up India Shining like never before. Save for fiercely independent channels such as NDTV and papers like The Statesman or magazines such as Outlook in the urban mediascape, almost every other paper or channel or magazine has been effusive in its praise for the campaign. So am I the only cynic left along with some die-hard communists who believe a great disservice has been done to the consumer or the voter per se? Clearly, what this campaign and the overall process has also achieved is a subtle purchasing of the media.

The sell-out of the media has never been more comprehensive, in any case under this government, and thus the campaign itself is merely the icing on the cake! More than any other government in independent India, it is the NDA which has given more television programmes to editors, taken more journalists to international junkets and elevated some of this tribe to the Rajya Sabha, besides putting them, their wives and at times even their mothers-in-law on government committees. If such is the trend that the government has assiduously followed, then India Shining is only a natural corollary, not something that is accidental or strategic in nature.

 

 

Another aspect of such campaigns is the unfairness of strength, which should be a cause for concern for to those who run the election machinery in this country. I completely disagree with the Election Commissionís logic that no advertising of this nature is permitted after the notification. Advertising campaigns have a gestation period in terms of delivering an impact and here we must remember that the advertising went through a learning curve which no notification would have either stunted or stymied.

The Commission should have observed the unethicality of the process and not merely the timing. To my mind the Commission has inadvertently damaged future election frays by telling the world, albeit tacitly, that if you are in government go ahead and spend the taxpayerís money if you want to return to power Ė a self-defeating thought in itself. The fact that the Commission has condoned as it were this huge expense, signals an inequality which any democratic system will now be saddled with.

Take the India Shining case as a prime example: a government in power spends your money and mine and leaves a hapless opposition to scurry for money that will eventually have to be its own. The ruling party thus benefits from a double whammy: it is able to whip up a campaign that it does not have to pay for and collects money that it does not have to spend on advertising, whereas for the opposition it is a no-win situation right through. I have earlier argued for streamlining the funding process for elections and making it more transparent, but I guess that is a thought much like Samuel Beckettís Waiting for Godot!

One must also confess that the India Shining campaign and the movement it has spawned is rather Roman in its nature and belief Ė a shoddy attempt to make things look good when they are not. It is an attempt to deceive rather than inform and whatís worse, an attempt to colour peopleís judgement about good governance by showing them an India that is more at home in coffee table books rather than in reality. For a manufacturer of candy to do this may be fine, but for the state to impose such conditioning is not only tragic, it smacks of an arrogance that can only come out of too much power going to oneís head too quickly.

Finally, stable and sound practitioners of advertising, especially political advertising, will tell you that campaigns with embedded hyperbole are resorted to only when the politician and the party are desperate. If India was truly shining, then would we need to be told? Would we need to see more government advertising than for all the FMCG goods put together?

I see the India Shining campaign as a desperate attempt by some desperate people who are more fearful than confident of going back to the hustings. These are early warning signals of a setting sun, not of a rising one. The campaign with its shrillness attempts to conceal more than it reveals and therein lies its faultline. For once the communication will be vastly tangential to the reality and more and more people will perhaps remember the advertising and fervently hope they forget the product!

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