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Aam Admi Party & The Battle Of Perception

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When the Indian oral hygiene products company Balsara launched its Promise toothpaste in 1978, it had to contend with entrenched multinational brands like Colgate. In those days, multinational companies had an aura and it was difficult for Indian companies to take them on. The aura is a certain perception in the mind of the consumer – that multinational companies offered better quality. Indian industry in its infancy, struggling to stay afloat might have willy-nilly contributed to the perception. But the issue is perception. Brands have to win the battle of perception to win in the market place. In order to gain a foothold in the competitive market, Balsara had to strategize its launch by offering a differential advantage. It positioned its brand as a toothpaste containing clove oil. In marketing parlance, this is known as claiming first mover advantage. However, industry watchers at the time pointed out that Promise was really not the only toothpaste that contained clove oil but it was the first brand to claim it as a differential advantage. Whatever might be the facts, the claim had helped Promise to quickly achieve the second highest market share in a short time.

What do product positioning and first mover advantage have to do with politics in 2014? Well, in politics, as in marketing, it is the perception that matters.

As an example, consider the two issues, ‘Article 370’ and ‘Uniform Civil Code’. The perception is that the two are part of the BJP’s political philosophy. That ‘Article 370’ which provides the state of Jammu & Kashmir a special status was ‘to be a temporary provision’ of the Constitution is rarely remembered. In the case of the UCC the perception is that the BJP wants to enforce it because it wants to subsume minority identities. Article 44 (Part IV – Directive Principles of State Policy) of the Constitution enjoins that the Indian state ‘shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India’. It too is conveniently forgotten.

Consider another example: the estimated value of wealth amassed by a former AP CM through corrupt means was of the order of Rs 100,000 crore. The former Karnataka CM Yeddyurappa was accused of having accepted donations worth Rs 20 crore to trusts run by his family, allegedly as quid pro quo for favours from his government. The AP CM’s malfeasance is never mentioned, but every time the monumental corruption of other Congress politicians is mentioned, the name of Yeddyurappa is invariably invoked. The reason for this is to create a perception of equivalence (or worse) between the Congress and the BJP.

In the US, presidential campaigns are handled by advertising agencies. Whether it is because of prudishness or because of a hangover from the idealism of the freedom movement, Indian political parties are reluctant to be overtly promoted as brands. They are slowly veering in the direction, but as of now rely more on the news media. Commitment to lofty ideals like freedom of speech and democratic values notwithstanding, the news media has its own agendas, explicit or implicit.

The visual of poor Bangaru Lakshman sitting over a glass-topped writing table accompanies every article that has ‘corruption’ and ‘sting operation’ as keywords. Without stating in so many words, the article creates the perception of a white-as-lily Congress party versus a corrupt BJP, especially as Lakshman happened to be the president of the party at the time of the sting operation.

For some inexplicable reason any party opposed to the BJP is ipso facto perceived to be secular, even if it overtly represents a religion! Strangely, the converse of this proposition makes the BJP communal. It is a perception the Indian media assiduously promotes. Therefore, any alternative to the BJP is welcome. It is into this matrix of perceptions that the Aam Admi Party made its electoral debut.

Since perceptions about AAP are its creation the media has a need to nurture and defend them. Hence the endless stories about Arvind Kejriwal and his cohorts’ simplicity and austerity. AAP’s Delhi ministers don’t drive in cars with revolving rooftop lights. The Supreme Court judgement has nothing to do with it. It is Kejriwal’s yearning for simplicity and austerity! He travelled part of the way for his swearing in by metro rail.

In its unholy zeal to promote a perception about Kejriwal the media has been oblivious to the fact that there were many non-Congress political leaders who led ascetic lives. Is the idea to give Kejriwal the first mover advantage, a la Promise toothpaste?

Back in 1977, when someone knocked on the door of Prof. Madhu Dandavate to inform him he was appointed railway minister, the good professor was washing clothes. Leaders like Morarji Desai, George Fernandes et al. were known for their Spartan life style. On the other hand it was the Congress leaders right from Jawaharlal Nehru down to Rajiv Gandhi who lived life king size! Which other Prime Minister of a developing country had a holiday with family and friends, with a battleship standing by for security?

To put perceptions about the Aam Admi Party in proper perspective, here are some statistics, compiled by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), a left-wing organisation: 3 of its 28 MLAs (11%) have criminal records; 12 MLAs (43%) have assets exceeding 1 crore each. According to another report about a third of its MLAs do not know what the inside of a college looks like!

Will Arvind Kejriwal pursue corruption exposes against his predecessor Sheila Dikshit and Congress’ ‘son-in-law’, Robert Vadra as vociferously as he did when he was just heading a NGO? Or will he find power to be too seductive a mistress to be sacrificed by doing so? 

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