Agenda Benders

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From running online campaigns to putting a spin on disasters, the backroom boys of the Congress and BJP are shaping Election 2009, says Manjula Narayan

Many hats LK Advani
Many hats LK Advani

IT’S THE first anniversary of the ‘LK Advani Communications Office’ at 26, Tughlak Crescent in New Delhi, and the mood is upbeat. After lunch, the immaculately dressed Pratibha Advani, the prime ministerial hopeful’s daughter, enveloped in expensively understated perfume, arrives to cut a cake in the party’s war room. The air is optimistic as the group, comprising a mix of researchers, content specialists, technical people, strategists and volunteers, listens to ‘feel good’ speeches from team head Sudheendra Kulkarni and Advani, too, as pages from the party’s website are projected onto a giant screen.

Afterwards, in his cabin dominated by a large portrait of Mahatma Gandhi and bookshelves stuffed by volumes as diverse as US President Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father and LK Advani’s autobiography, My Country My Life, Kulkarni talks about his “force of volunteers” who are so full of evangelical zeal that they put in 15-hour workdays right through the week.

The team at the LK Advani Communications Office
The team at the LK Advani Communications Office
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

“Many of our large body of volunteers have quit lucrative jobs to join us,” says the BJP spokesperson, who is also LK Advani’s speechwriter, a fact generally known but one that Kulkarni himself is loath to talk about. “Their creativity and commitment can be seen in our website,” Kulkarni tells TEHELKA. “Compared to the websites of other political parties, ours is the most comprehensive.”

The content manager of the website is, rather surprisingly, Mallika Noorani, a 23- year-old Muslim from Mumbai who studied in the US and has had stints at Goldman Sachs and the Standard Chartered Bank. “Everything that goes on the website is routed through me,” says Noorani, who is the contact person for all of the BJP’s online advertising and marketing, and steers micro-campaigns like Bloggers for Advani. She has also devised tools like the Bloggers for Advani buttons that link sympathetic blogs to the party site.

The party’s Google group for bloggers has over 180 members. Its advertising partnership with Google has given it a presence on 2,000 of India’s most visited websites. “All this is very novel and has never been done before in Indian politics,” says Noorani, who was attracted to the BJP because it is a “forward thinking, progressive party… a very meritocratic organisation”.

So what’s a girl like her doing in a place like this? “A lot of the middle class working professionals vote BJP — that’s their core constituency. That I’m Muslim makes no difference,” she says, clearly discomfited the question was raised.

If Mallika Noorani isn’t your average BJP enthusiast, researcher Banuchander, 29, an alumnus of Purdue University, US, who has worked with Pricewaterhouse- Coopers, and Harsh Vardhan Chhaparia, 25, a topper from IIM Calcutta, are more typical. Banuchander, an engineer who now works on policy analysis, research contributions to Advani’s speeches and the coordination of the BJP’s student outreach programme, had his moment of epiphany during the year he spent working with an NGO in an Indian village.

‘A lot of middle class professionals vote BJP. That I’m Muslim makes no difference,’ says Mallika Noorani

“I felt that only an association with a political party would help me have a say in what’s happening in the country,” he says. But it was a chance meeting in Chennai with Prodyut Bora, 35, the convenor of the BJP’s IT Cell, which prompted Banuchander to move to Delhi and volunteer at the party’s communications office.

Bora himself has the air of the class topper. Not surprising then that he’s one of the driving forces behind what the BJP claims is the largest political website in the country, comprising 800 pages of text, 400 photographs and some 300 videos. The LK Advani advertisements that have flooded the online space have also been designed here. Bora explains that the internet, which allows the “Cost Per Click” model, is the cheapest advertising medium today. “Our advertisement appears for free,” says the IIM Ahmedabad alumnus. “We pay only if someone clicks on it.”

An impressive 35,000 people visit the BJP site every day. In just a few weeks, though, the party will find out if those numbers are translating into votes or its IT dream will go the way of its muchpublicised ‘India Shining’ campaign that failed to return it to power in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

The JWT advertising team
The JWT advertising team
Photo: AP

BORA HAS ambitious IT plans for the party beyond the elections. By the end of 2011, every BJP office across India would be video-linked, “so you can to talk to anyone, in Gujarat or Thiruvananthapuram,” he says, gesturing towards the video phone on his desk. This communications office is already wi-fi enabled, operates on VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), and has even developed its own online messenger chat system. Earlier this month, ‘Friends of BJP’, a sympathiser outfit that works globally, sent out an SMS to three crore people highlighting the BJP election manifesto. Emails were sent to 75 lakh people.

The BJP’s partnership with Google has given it an ad presence on India’s 2,000 most visited websites

The BJP might be ahead in the Internet wars. But the going isn’t easy in the more traditional media. BJP spokesman Sidharth Nath Singh, who looks after the party’s larger advertising efforts, explains that the BJP campaign projects the party as the stronger option by merely suggesting that the current Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and his government are weak. “All we needed to say was that Advani is strong and decisive and the Congress was trapped,” he says of his party’s campaign, which has been created by Frank Simoes Advertising. When the Congress picked up the popular song Jay Ho from Oscar-winnerSlumdog Millionaire and fashioned an election song around it, “I just had to do a Bhay Ho [Be fearful],” says Singh.

Rohit Ohri, who heads advertising agency JWT Delhi’s campaign for the Congress, however, says that the party’s brief to him was to “not respond at all to anything the BJP did”. To begin with, a panel of Congress leaders — Digvijay Singh, Jairam Ramesh and Anand Sharma — asked his team to build their television and radio campaign around the party’s slogan of Aam admi ke badhte kadam, har kadam par Bharat buland [The common man marches ahead, strengthening India with every step].

JWT MADE 220 films for the Congress in 25 days. Some fifteen of these films have been dubbed in 13 languages. A few were re-shot to include local talent. “For example, for the South, we re-shot with a south Indian farmer to make the film local,” he says. His 20-member team was sequestered in an office space with restricted access to maintain complete confidentiality.

‘A lot of middle class professionals vote BJP. That I’m Muslim makes no difference,’ says Mallika Noorani

“Conceptualisation is a vital aspect of the political battle,” argues the urbane Congress spokesperson, Abhishek Singhvi. He believes the top political parties see the election campaigns not as some show but as a movement. “The conceptualisation, the macro idea, the micro fit, the logistical detail, the vehicle to articulate it, the actual articulation, the spin and the projection are all stages of the same campaign.”

New wave Sonia is the message
New wave Sonia is the message
Photo: AP

A much sought after talking head on the television news channels, Singhvi counters the perception that television is vital. He believes the ephemeral quality of television debates might lead to a situation where political parties officially decide not to speak at all.

“Now, if you say something, 10 channels will run after me for my reaction to it. Actually, whether I react to what you say or not will make no difference to this election. And if I decide not to react, then the issue will have no relevance by the following day. Unfortunately, only one party practises this: the BSP. It has no spokesperson. Really, not a leaf will fall as a result of 90 percent of what’s seen on television,” says Singhvi. He reveals that the line on specific subjects is discussed threadbare at the election control room at the Congress’ headquarters in New Delhi. Here, issues are thrown up, and within minutes, the team finds a consensus. “Then, there is the nuance of the line, of how to put it, how to spin it and how to deal with it,” he says. This is how the party’s reaction was formulated to deal with the political fallout when Sikh journalist Jarnail Singh threw his shoe at Union Home Minister P Chidambaram in early April.

The high energy atmosphere at the office of BJP’s Kulkarni might be very different from the air of assured confidence at Singhvi’s residence in the upscale south Delhi neighbourhood of Neeti Bagh, but both these articulate spokespersons share a reluctance to discuss campaign speeches and their actual authors. Attempts to discover a figure like Jon Favreau, Obama’s speechwriter, at the Congress HQ are dashed when all you learn after much cadging is that everyone in the Congress party, including Jairam Ramesh as also Singhvi, contributes ideas, but no specific person is entrusted with speechwriting.

The quest for a picture of the backroom boys who are shaping the Lok Sabha elections of 2009 has thrown up some surprising facts and confirmed a few old doubts about the two main political forces. All you need to do now is to wait for the great Indian public to decide between the BJP’s corporate style and nationalist agenda, the Congress’ stress on personality, and even the sphinx-like silence of the BSP. The great dance of democracy is reaching its climax, and all its befuddled participants can only watch breathlessly as it plays out.

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