Friday, November 13, 2015

A Communicator’s Takeaway from Bihar Election Verdict

Source: The Indian Express

The defeat of the BJP in Bihar state elections has sent shock waves through the Indian political system, the reverberations of which are being felt in many boardrooms outside India. Never before has a state election been followed so keenly by media outside India. From New York Times to The Guardian, there have been editorials on the implications of the Bihar results.

While there are many conclusions being drawn, the high-stakes election provides a rich source of learning for communicators who often have to win over audiences in a fiercely competitive, regional market with well entrenched incumbents. 

Bihar, India’s third most populous state, is one of the country's most rural societies undergoing rapid economic growth. The really interesting piece is that close to 58% of Biharis are below the age of 25, which is the highest proportion of youngsters of the population of any state in India and indeed anywhere in the world.

Prime Minister Modi is seen to connect well with the youth and in the 2014 national elections, the BJP swept Bihar. So what led to the party's dramatic defeat in 2015? There are multiple factors including a united and superbly coordinated opposition which played the arithmetic game all too well. However, there were some inherent shortcomings in BJP's communications campaign which are now clearly visible in hindsight.

Templatized and undifferentiated messaging: BJP’s messages seemed a copy paste of what would have been said in most other states, as though set into a template. PM Modi talked about the need for change without outlining a clear agenda. He promised electricity access in rural areas which incidentally was the opposition Chief Ministerial candidate, Nitish Kumar’s biggest achievement in the last few years of his reign. This is a clear case when Modi’s research team let him down. The promise of a huge economic package was an in-your-face bait. None of BJP’s messages were cutting ice and the party realized this half way through the five-phase election.

Source: The Financial Express

Lack of local insights and social context: No matter how strong a national brand may be, without insights of local issues and context it will find it tough to influence and ultimately win over a highly segmented audience. Brand Modi continues to be the single strongest political brand across the country, particularly with the youth. So, people did turn up to attend his rallies but those did not convert to votes. For conversion, the strategy needs to be based on local insights which can only come from foot soldiers.  

Source: Business Standard

For instance, BJP leaders kept talking about the return of anarchy (Jungle Raj) to the state if the opposition regained power whereas for most of the electorate the incumbent Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar was the symbol of law and order, thanks to his track record of the last ten years.
Empowering local leadership, who are the source of insights, is paramount. Every region has its well-entrenched influencers. One has to engage with these and turn them into advocates. Since the fight was between locally appealing brand/ personalities (Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad) and an outside one (Narendra Modi and Amit Shah), the outsiders had to put in far more effort to connect with the audience. Without local advocates, even the strongest national brands will find themselves on a very weak footing, as was the case in the BJP campaign.
A negative narrative: When one’s narrative is primarily targeted at maligning the opponent, the chances of it backfiring are very high. The local leaders (Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad) are seen as sons of the soil who have been working for their state for decades. Modi and Amit Shah have precious little to show for their contribution to the state. Attacking locally entrenched leaders without having one’s own track record in place is fraught with risks. The opposition returned fire with fire in a well-coordinated battle which played out in every district of the state. Also, the opposition matched BJP's advertising blitzkrieg with its own, well planned campaign which actually saw the outdoor advertising campaigns going head to head.

Modi's silence on divisive issues: What baffled many of Narendra Modi’s supporters, including myself, was his silence on divisive issues being debated in the country. Even if law and order is a state subject, we expected the Prime Minister to come down hard on hate-mongering. The youth are particularly sensitive to such issues. The opposition played the PM’s silence to its advantage.

While recent national opinion polls have held that Modi continues to be the most preferred choice for PM, it is clear that there is a lot more that people expect from him. Can Bihar outcome be generalized to the whole country? There is no data to suggest that and those making such suggestions are pushing generalizations too far. Moreover, a strong and ‘responsible’ (the word to note) opposition is much desired in any thriving democracy as is the need for strong competition in any ideal market scenario.

This election will prove a milestone for political communications in India. As communicators we are all richer from the experience of one of India's most followed state elections in recent times.