How an advertising blitz helped Congress to turn tables on BJP

There is no doubt that the bulk of India was not impressed by the BJP’s “India Shining” slogan of 2004 although it did create quite a hype ahead of the Lok Sabha battle

M.R. Narayan Swamy Mar 03, 2022
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Title: Don’t Forget 2004: Advertising Secrets of an Impossible Election Victory; Author: Jayshree Sundar; Publishers: Vitasta

There is no doubt that the bulk of India was not impressed by the BJP’s “India Shining” slogan of 2004 although it did create quite a hype ahead of the Lok Sabha battle. More than the BJP’s negatives and new-found aggression by the Congress, what dramatically titled the scales in favour of its president Sonia Gandhi was an advertisement drive that was not only professional and every inch a clear winner. 

Author Jayshree Sundar was the President (North) at Leo Burnett after having served Lintas for 17 long years when she got an unexpected invitation from the country’s grand old party. Sundar’s company was shortlisted to make a pitch for a communication strategy and advertising campaign for the general elections. 

This was in January of 2004. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government had decided to advance the elections in the wake of a resounding victory in key state elections in November 2003. Opinion polls predicted a resounding victory for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and a poor showing by Congress and others. In this gripping book, Sundar explains how she and her team, although not politically savvy, gave Congress a solid weapon in the form of catchy ideas which the BJP could not match. Eventually, an over-confident BJP lost and the Congress went on to rule India for a full decade. 

Gandhis’ role 

Sundar admits that she could not have succeeded but for the quiet but critical support extended by Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi and a couple of other party leaders. When opinion was divided within the party’s top echelons on whether or not to keep the expression “Aam aadmi ko kya mila?” (What has the common man got?) and “Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath” (The Congress' hand - poll symbol - is hand in hand with the common man), Rahul Gandhi lent his weight to Sundar’s team. Both turned out to be deadly missiles against the “India Shining” slogan, pulling millions of votes at a time when every vote mattered. And when Congress insisted on cutting the budget for advertisements, it was Priyanka Gandhi who swung the money for Sundar’s company. 

“She has a quiet aggression about her,” the author says. 

Sonia Gandhi, Sundar says, always spoke to the point, economizing her words. “You have to get what she means. She never belabors a point or talks in an insulting tone.” When Sundar’s team went to rural and semi-urban India to find out how many were taken in by the rosy picture of the country the government was painting, and showed the photographs and short videos to the Gandhis, it was clear from their interventions that the advertisement team was “talking to people who have been into villages and district interiors of the country much more than any of us”. 

The Congress leader who liaised almost daily with Sundar’s team included the highly educated and erudite Jairam Ramesh and Salman Khurshid besides Ambika Soni and Ahmed Patel. “Make no mistake, Soniaji approves everything at an overall level. Her buy-in is imperative. She does not unnecessarily quibble… She is not a fidgeter or iterator for the sake of it.  She always surprises us with her in-depth knowledge of India. People, homes, backward classes… As also a Dalit lady or an Adivasi person.” 

Aam aadmi magic 

Once the Congress advertisements began to roll out, the result was almost instantaneous. “Aam aadmi ko kya mila?” starts rapidly gaining credence within a week of it finding its way in the mass media. Slowly and steadily, it makes it myriad points. Much to the discomfort of the BJP, the message begins resonating. Simultaneously, another set of advertisements lists the achievements of earlier Congress governments. This one is aimed at the young voter who may not know or remember the party’s governance track. 

The advertisement company worked with lots of confidential clauses, particularly while dealing with service providers from where leaks could take place. Within the firm, no one referred to Congress or BJP by name; one was called Khanna and another Mehra – both common names in Delhi. One day towards the end of March 2004, the Congress urgently got in touch with Sundar and ordered everyone to change their mobile telephone numbers without any delay. “We have information that your numbers are being tapped.” In no time, everyone was armed with new telephone numbers! 

By now, it was too late for the government or the ruling party to do anything substantial to rebut the Congress blitzkrieg which was reaching everyone through various means. Buoyed by the waves the campaign was creating, the Congress also asked Sundar’s team to prepare its manifesto and vision documents. Again, both were hits. With Sonia Gandhi leading the Congress upfront and the masses beginning to get swayed by the counter to “India Shining”, the election results were astounding. The Congress on its own won 145 seats compared to the BJP’s 137; the Congress-led alliance bagged 220 seats to the BJP coalition’s 185. The 63 seats in Left kitty gave further push to the Congress-led tally, ending the country’s first experiment with a BJP government. 

Ad campaign wins  

The Economic Times rated “Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath” among the top six Indian political slogans of all times. The term “Aam aadmi” (common man) acquired a life of its own, ultimately leading to the Aam Aadmi Party! India got a new Prime Minister in Manmohan Singh. As for Sundar’s company, it won an account every month till the rest of the year and beyond, with clients insisting on hiring the team that worked on the Congress. 

This is an eminently readable book. Everyone interested in politics and the world of mass media and advertisements must read it. And the book has come out just ahead of five critical state elections which could alter India’s political picture.  

Title: Don’t Forget 2004: Advertising Secrets of an Impossible Election Victory; Author: Jayshree Sundar; Publishers: Vitasta; Pages: 284; Price: Rs 495 

(The reviewer is a veteran journalist)

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