What explains Congress’s smug cockiness? Why does such a corrupt and uniformly non-performing entity enjoy pre-eminence in a national election race? Is an unresolved struggle for an ideological anchor reason for BJP’s electoral stagnation and Congress’s relative dominance? Should BJP abandon its historically inherent distrust for expansive government and reorient itself as yet another ‘welfarist’ party and beat the Congress party in its own game by adopting entitlement economics based on state paternalism? Does BJP lack a charismatic face that appeals to the supraminal and subliminal needs of voters? Surely answers to these questions are complex. But if we traverse and segment the electoral landscape, the answers would be a lot more easier.
We realize the danger of sounding facile given the incredible cauldron of complexity that India is but we will still attempt an broad segmentation of Indian electorate based on demographics,geographic and behavioural parameters just as a useful starting point. Segmentation and targetting with tailored messages is an important step in the building of effective overall political marketing strategy.
Segment A -10% middle and upper middle class – thinks (or aspires to think) in English.
Segment B – 25% religious minorities
Segment C- 65% middle India subdivided along regional, class and caste lines
Segment A is essentially a segment that increasingly flocks to Anna Hazare type anarchist movement, mouthing inane platitudes and mistaking it for profound wisdom, wearing its ‘disdain for politics’ as a badge of honor (Ex: 43% voting in Mumbai post-26/11 and full throated renditions like “Mere Neta Chor Hai’)
Segment B continues to distrust BJP. The party itself is to be partially blamed – sometimes its belligerent articulation of nationalist ethos has invoked insecurity among this segment. On the other hand save for few exceptions, religious minorities too have repeatedly demonstrated tendency to vote en-bloc on denominational consideration rather than governance and livelihood issues. Appeasement strategy means BJP gets self-neutered and gives up on issues dear to its ideological core. Though Gujarat under Modi has started attracting this group, the best BJP can achieve in 2014 is to prevent Segment B from registering an aggressive negative vote against it even as the party can slowly attempt to work on long term reconciliation by removing the misgivings of the minority.
Its pretty evident that BJP has to win big in middle India which approximates to Segment C.
As things stand – BJP’s message and the means used to deliver it (Blogs, websites, TV debates, etc.) are targeted principally at Segment A. And therein lies the problem. Congress has perfected the art of marketing to Segment C. And where its largesse falls short, it creates divisionary leaders like Raj Thackeray. It uses a combination of fear and dole to keep Segment C voters poor and beholden to the Congress and its allies. More importantly, rapid urbanization is moving rural segment C voters into urban areas(three out of 10 of the world’s largest cities are in India). The change may be only geographic, with survival continuing to be the defining existential reality. BJP’s traditional,urban stronghold is up for grabs thanks to this demographic change.
Before diving into the ‘how’ of winning the Segment C segment, let us first try to understand its Voter profile.
- Urban: Lower middle class, blue collar workers, migrants, etc.
- Rural: Subsistence farmers, small store owners, daily wage laborers, etc.
- Issues of importance: Survival
- Influencers: Communal inputs, relatives, friends, community leaders, school teachers, religious leaders, etc.
- Channels: Radio, Word-of-mouth, informal human networks, TV (Potential channels: SMS)
- Value Proposition: Handouts: Free power, Fertilizer subsidies, etc.
- Attention Span: Limited to a few minutes/hours a month
- Immediate concern: Survival
But is this profile justified? Is this is an accurate profile or at best an oversimplified caricature? The proof of the pudding lies in voting patterns. If election after elections in the past 10 years (baring a handful of results such as Gujarat, Bihar) are being decided by short term issues and voters are being successfully seduced by color TVs, we knowhandouts are working. Lets remember that even the landslide that Jaya achieved in TN was partially thanks to her strategy of competitive populism -she enlarged freebies on offer. DMK’s defeat itself was more to do with humongous corruption and perception of it being reduced to a family enterprise of looters. It had a reasonably well-acknowledged track record of delivering ‘freebies’ as part of it welfare commitment.
It can be argued that these inducements are working because BJP has failed to present a viable alternative. But what is this alternative?
The alternative (and without an iota of doubt it is the correct solution as well) to handouts is investing in enabling infrastructure – roads, power, water, etc. There is however a critical hurdle(s) in deploying this alternate model as an electoral strategy. Here’s why:
a) Its very difficult to explain it to a Segment C voter who has very little discretionary time to understand this model and connect the
dots. We need a exemplary political communicator to explains the merits of such a model.
b) Benefits of this model take time to accrue.
c) Handouts tend to have an immediate (though fleeting) impact.
d) ‘India Shining’ was an attempt to shape this alternative model into a viable electoral strategy but it failed
To further illustrate the efficacy of this model let us analyze Gujarat’s past failures in attracting this segment and its recent successes with targeting this segment. Over the past 4-5 years, I have argued across several forums (twitter, blog comments, etc.) that Modi’s support base is like an ‘iceberg’ in that a vast pool of Modi supporters remains hidden below the surface, willing to vote for him, but afraid to extend a public endorsement. But what the above model suggests is that most of this support is coming from segment A voters. Within Gujarat, Modi has achieved the rare feat of energizing segment A voters and his ground troops have converted this support into voter turnout on election days. Until (and including) LS elections of 2009, segment C voters have continued to hold back in significant numbers. This is evident from the 11 seats secured by a comatose Congress in Gujarat during LS elections 2009.
However, between 2009 and 2011, BJP has won a landslide in almost every local body election and bye election. The only variable seems to be the series of ‘Garib Kalyan Mela’ programs launched across Gujarat. By any yardstick this is a ‘direct handout’. With one vital difference: A typical govt. handout program sans middlemen. And it seems to have worked. Its success can be attributed to the fact that from a marketing perspective, such programs work at multiple levels.
a) The benefits are tangible and immediate.
b) The causal connection between govt. programs and people’s welfare,is intuitive.
c) There is a clear identification of source of benefits: NaMo and BJP.
d) Efficient delivery of these programs clearly differentiates it from corrupt Congress initiatives which promise much but deliver little.
e) The message is highly portable and can be delivered through various channels – word of mouth, radio, TV, SMS, etc.
f) Political opposition to any such program is fraught with inviting an immediate and massive voter backlash
Does this suggest that BJP should abandon work on key infrastructure projects – Power, roads, etc. Answer is NO. Both ‘Direct Handouts’, infrastructure development and dismantling of license raj must go hand in hand. These are not mutually exclusive. Given the efficacy of ‘direct handouts’ what then should be BJP’s message.Fairly simple: BJP brings you a corruption-free ‘Mai Baap’. Logon ka paisa, Neta ki jeb mey nahi – logon ki jeb mey. Also, this ‘Efficient Mai Baap’ program needn’t be a plain vanilla dole system. There could be creative variations to direct-deposit of government handouts/conditional cash transfers: School vouchers being a good example.
Bottom line: BJP must present itself as a corruption-free mai-baap and contrast itself from Congress the corruption-ridden mai-baap.