[Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the first cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, in South Block, New Delhi, on May 31, 2019. Photograph from pib.nic.in]
“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation to come.” ~ Steve Jobs
When Jobs was brought back as Apple’s CEO and tasked with the daunting challenge of rescuing a haemorrhaging company, one of his first moves was to redefine how Apple is marketed to the entire world. The result: Apple’s ‘Think Different’ campaign.
Jobs understood the critical role storytelling can play in revitalising Apple. It helped in rebuilding a loyal customer base which would buy anything it produces. A mission-oriented culture re-emerged, and the market performance significantly improved.
The inexorable rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) culminating in its thumping election victory last month is powered by an equally powerful storytelling approach. Like Apple’s loyal customer base, BJP commands vocal support from its evangelists (some call them bhakts—devotees). And much like Apple’s mission-oriented culture, BJP seems to have everyone, right from the leadership to the booth worker, aligned to the purpose of the party.
BJP’s dominance today remains unchallenged. From being in power in just five states in 2013, the BJP juggernaut has now expanded to 18 states in 2019, with back-to-back general election victories in 2014 and 2019. No one—not the opposition, the political analysts or even members of the ruling party—expected that it would outperform 2014 and continue to be in power with 300+ seats (350+ as the National Democratic Alliance, or NDA).
Analysts have attributed various factors to the saffron surge: a mix of brute money power, its formidable boots-on-the-ground political mobilisation and of course, media capture. No doubt, all of these would have contributed in some measure to its success. (Of course, not all of the methods it employed to win elections are directly replicable and may not even pass muster on ethical grounds.) But without a well-honed storytelling approach, none of these on their own would have had the desired effect of building a committed fan base—and a strong preference for pro-incumbency.
So what were some of these precepts?
#1 Every great story needs a hero
We have always been obsessed with heroes. Bollywood movies, children’s storybooks or even the great mythologies of Ramayana or Mahabharata (which with all its characters and fanfare is still eventually portrayed as the story of Arjuna’s triumph)—they all have largely revolved around the story of a hero. And this obsession is only on the rise.
Hence, most great brands have a face to represent it—whether it be Jobs at Apple, Elon Musk at Tesla or the 'Swoosh’ logo at Nike. The cult around them draws more customers than any description of product specification would ever do.
For BJP, Narendra Modi’s mass appeal and clout provided that advantage. In the recently concluded post-poll survey by Lokniti-CSDS, it emerged that one of every three of those who voted for the BJP said that they would have voted differently had Modi not been the prime ministerial candidate. This means over 12% of India (given BJPs national vote share was around 37.4%) voted for BJP simply because Modi is its leader.
BJP was quick to capitalise on this and managed to intelligently turn the Lok Sabha elections into a Modi vs local opposition candidate on all seats it contested, winning by dramatic margins.
Now, this may be more akin to a presidential election, rather than a facet of our parliamentary system. And until the opposition is able to counter it with its own unique face, BJP will continue to use this to its advantage.
#2 Craft a narrative that appeals to a wide range of audiences
India is a land of a billion dreams and aspirations. And having one unifying promise that captures the imagination of a wide range of audiences is key. It has shown the ability to forge a big tent under which a diverse set of aspirants can find what they aspire for. And thereby connect with an enlarged voter base.
- To the aspirations of India as a global force to reckon with, BJP and Modi bring the promise of progressive diplomacy and foreign policy, a renewed approach to defence and security, programs such as Make in India, Swachh Bharat, expansion into clean energy, etc.
- To the aspirations of a reformed India where business thrives, BJP and Modi bring the promise of ease of doing business, reduced corruption and red tapism, energised economy fuelled by strong political intent, transformational programmes such as Skill India, Digital India, goods and services tax (GST), expansion in fintech, and development of building blocks of grassroot infrastructure such as investment into roads, railways and airports.
- To the aspirations of a socially reformed India with economic equity, BJP and Modi bring the focus on basics such as electricity (Saubhagya), jobs (Skill India), toilets (Swachh Bharat), clean energy (Ujjwala Yojana), financial access (Jan Dhan), homes (Aawaas Yojana), farmer support (PM Kisaan), health insurance (Aayushmaan Bharat), etc.
- To the aspirations of those who seek a national identity, BJP and Modi bring the promise of programmes such as Clean Ganga and National Registry of Citizens; construction of monuments such as the Sardar Patel statue; Hindutva politics; promotion of ayurveda, yoga and naturopathy, unani, siddha and homoeopathy through a dedicated ministry; and last but not the least, an upper hand when it comes to military exchange with Pakistan.
Communities, particularly in urban areas, seek a return to the glory days of the past. It isn’t just a phenomenon here, but one that is emerging globally, as this Founding Fuel podcast with Sundeep Waslekar avers. Donald Trump tapped into this aspiration through his ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’ campaign.
Contrast this with the strategy of the principal opposition party, the Congress. Despite a visibly strong manifesto, much of its effort was focused on discrediting the Modi government, rather than carving an identity and a promise of its own. Too little effort was spent on taking the message of Nyay—its minimum income scheme—to the masses. By the time it woke up, it was too late in the day. Most rural folk either hadn’t heard about it or failed to realise its importance. Primarily because there was no storytelling narrative holding it together and making it memorable.
The impact was there for all to see:
- BJP’s narrative propelled it to the most preferred party of choice for all genders, all age groups, all income groups, all castes and all demographics (urban, rural, peri-urban) in 2019.
- On the other hand, the lack of an opposition narrative meant that they couldn’t capitalise on the unemployment and farmer distress, both of which were potentially BJP’s Achilles heel. BJP appeared as the preferred party of choice even in this segment.
Critics may point to the role religious polarisation and Balakot air strikes played and question whether narratives really mattered. There is no doubt that these developments may have helped boost the BJP’s chances in urban areas. While it’s difficult to ascertain the exact impact of religious polarisation, a post-poll conducted among farmers who had not heard of Balakot air strikes reveals that even they preferred BJP over Congress, though by a narrow margin of 3 percentage points.
#3 Make your product as tangible, personalised and relatable as possible. And focus your messaging on the intangible benefits
Consider these key questions: What is easier for people to relate to? What are they more likely to aspire for? What can they tangibly measure?
BJP’s narrative played on the promise of social reforms with visible, tangible benefits accruing to voters, with access to cooking gas cylinders, toilets, bank accounts, loans to build homes, electricity, and health insurance. This was a significant step in converting citizens to beneficiaries and from beneficiaries to committed voters. And the ability to do this at scale was no mean task.
Again, much of the narrative spun by the opposition was focused around the fear that our democratic institutions—the judiciary, media, investigating agencies, the Election Commission—were weakening. While this was perhaps true, for the common man though, it wasn’t quite as appealing as the allure of public services being almost delivered to their doorstep.
Plus, there were significant differences in the style of messaging too. BJP focused its narrative more around the intangible benefits of its reforms, rather than step-by-step specifics of what their plan is and how it is better. It appealed to the larger aspirations of the country, the direction it needs to head towards, safety for women, their enhanced role in society, etc.
This is similar to Nike’s advertising strategy: it sells shoes, a commodity, but never talks about the features of its shoes and why they are better than, say, Reebok’s shoes. Instead, in its ads Nike honours great athletes and great athletics. This creates a bond with its customers by placing more emphasis on who they are and what they are about.
Compare that to how Congress marketed the Nyay scheme, a product which certainly had tangibility, relatability and personal appeal. Instead of narrating the intangible benefits of how the scheme would transform households, change families and meet their aspirations; Congress limited its marketing broadly to just narrating the tangible amount a house will get. In addition, it failed to build any narrative around how this scheme would actually bring the dawn of a new era of nyay (justice) for the country. It stopped at just using Nyay as an acronym (Nyuntam Aay Yojana).
A great storytelling opportunity was lost.
#4 Share your story as widely as possibly
BJP’s formidable media muscle ensured that it dominated the airwaves in ways that this country hasn’t seen before.
- On radio, through Mann Ki Baat, a programme carefully nurtured for five years now, Modi reached a large population, including so-called ‘media-dark’ regions in rural India.
- On Twitter, BJP trended almost every day, with memorable campaigns including #MainBhiChowkidar, #ModiHaitoMumkinHai, #AaygegaTohModiHi. It targeted the youth and first time voters.
- On Facebook, it created a series of pages with videos and memes.
- Influencers (read Bollywood stars) were roped in on social media if not to propagate Modi as a political candidate, then to at least propagate alongside Modi the importance of voting, thus furthering the reach of Modi’s message
- At the booth level, lakhs of WhatsApp groups worked at winning over neutral and undecided voters.
- It ran ads on Facebook and Google, followed by interaction with parents and students, corporate India, farmers, party workers and other beneficiaries over YouTube Live.
- The NaMo app was also used to drive regular engagements.
- On TV, Modi occupied prime time interview spots.
But it wasn’t just about share of voice. There were other innovations too.
Apart from traditional PR warfare, BJP tried its hand at using Bollywood movies as well. The launch of Uri, The Accidental Prime Minister and Tashkent Files were timed to engage audiences just before the elections. (The Modi biography film, however, was stopped by the Election Commision from release).
The party’s extensive on-ground rallies attracted millions of people, and was ably supported by a dedicated cadre of grassroots workers who nudged neutral voters on the day of voting. The result: for the first time in Indian election history, there is now data to prove that higher voter turnout at a constituency level has been pro-incumbency as opposed to anti-incumbency. The power of this grassroots machinery is currently unparalleled.
Empowering this cadre of grassroot workers is an important dimension. An insider within the BJP reveals, on the condition of anonymity, “The Congress leadership failed to realise the behaviour dynamics that operates at the booth level. We gave our booth workers uniforms, mobile phones, bikes, stationery. We empowered them with social status. This not just motivates them to work harder and represent us more openly, it also serves as a death blow to the opposition worker’s motivation. It helps us recruit better as well. Our on-ground presence outperforms them significantly.” Add to that the fact that in many constituencies, BJP was able to pay its workers nearly three times as much as any other rival.
It wasn’t without its share of controversy. The opaque system of electoral bonds introduced by the government two years ago allowed it to build a war chest that left its opponents gasping.
This brute money power on display in the 2019 election has rightly sparked debates on what constitutes a level playing field. Yet even its worst critics will accept that BJP has reset the rules of political storytelling. And as this Washington Post article aptly puts it, Modi is now both the message and the messenger.
#5 Make sure the communication strategy remains agile and responsive
Great brands have agility built into them. And the Modi brand has shown tremendous agility during the course of the campaign, often leveraging on-the-feet thinking and the power of data.
Four examples of agility and real time responsiveness are worth noting
a) #MainBhiChowkidar trumped #ChowkidarChorHai by a margin of 3:1: As the #ChowkidarChorHai campaign was gaining some traction, the BJP communication team responded with #MainBhiChowkidar, which leveraged storytelling, tremendous reach and loyal voter base to engage citizens into signing the Chowkidar pledge. From this point onwards, any allegation directed at the Chowkidar was also directed against a huge pool of citizens, thereby reducing and neutralising the allegation.
While the overall campaign was successful, it did come with its share of risks. An insider says that while the campaign served its purpose on social media, it failed to gain much traction on-ground. “In grassroots India, chowkidar [watchman] is not a very aspirational figure. The leaders calling themselves chowkidar, hence, created some tension with their usual larger-than-life personality, which may be one of the reasons it didn’t pick up exceptional traction,” he says.
b) Actor Akshay Kumar’s interview compensated for the non-release of the Modi film: A core focus of the campaign was also to make Modi more relatable and to reveal his personal side, an agenda which would have been served by the Vivek Oberoi-starrer film. However, with the Election Commission halting its release, the BJP communications team was again quick on its feet to arrange a personal interview with Akshay Kumar. A closer inspection of the interview reveals some further planning on behalf of the BJP communications team as was outlined by Jagdeep Kapoor and other renowned analysts.
- The interview enhanced the unpredictability factor of Modi. Much like demonetisation, surgical strikes and Balakot, the interview came as a surprise to the entire world. This unpredictability factor keeps people continuously engaged in Modi’s regular affairs.
- The choice of Akshay Kumar subtly resonated with the core value of an action hero interviewing another action hero. In addition, Akshay’s clean image (subtly powered by Swachh Bharat) and appeal among youth and women (which he again subtly enforced by wearing pink trousers in the interview) added further value.
- Finally, even better than the paid two hours at the theatre, citizens were able to catch up with the personal side of Modi for nearly two hours during prime time across India’s premium television networks for free.
c) BJP’s attempt to capitalise on the Balakot air strike further played a significant role in transforming the political landscape and voter perception. A case in point, data from Lokniti-CSDS polls show that the farmers who had heard about India’s air strikes on terrorist training camps in Pakistan voted more favourably towards BJP than those who hadn’t.
d) Much before the poll began, BJP’s core strategy was driven by data analytics around the issues that are relevant, the voter profiles that needed to be targeted in each booth, how the rallies should be divided, and so on. There are allegations that at a booth-level, respondent data picked up from surveys done by friendly media houses, and beneficiary lists from official government sources enabled the BJP to specifically target those who had directly benefited from one or more of these schemes. “Let’s say a Muslim woman received benefits under both Swachh Bharat and Ujjwala scheme. Once we have this data point, it becomes easier for us to predict if she would be much more likely to vote for us. At this stage, we would add her name to our interactive voice response (IVR) list and target her more frequently,” says a data analyst employed by the BJP.
Founding Fuel was unable to independently confirm whether confidential citizen data available with the government was shared. But if it was, this would be a clear violation of privacy. And such attempts to target and segment voters is clearly not above board.
In a recent panel discussion organised by the Centre of Policy Research in New Delhi, Yogendra Yadav, president of the newly formed Swaraj India party, candidly compares the opposition machinery to be like schools where students are plainly taught the syllabus through traditional books. Contrast this with the BJP machinery which is more akin to JEE coaching class where professors offer you the next level insights as to which questions require critical focus, how much time to spend on each type of question, how to solve rapidly, so on and so forth.
Catch a glimpse of BJP’s Piyush Goyal, who continues as railway minister in NDA 2.0, narrating some bits of BJP’s data-driven work and predicting months ago that their estimate indicates BJP winning 297-303 seats (which has turned out to be remarkably accurate). Whether the claim back then was based on a genuine calculation or more towards generating optimism in the media, remains to be seen.
#6 Identity takes time to build and requires careful nurturing
Elections may seem like a one-day match. But in effect, building individual brands and grassroot networks are more akin to Test matches. They take time and patience. And consistency.
And BJP and Modi have been at it for more than five years now.
Take for example the first mover advantage BJP had when it came to leveraging WhatsApp. It created millions of groups back in 2014-2015, when the rules of the social media giant were far more lax. Congress, which started entering the WhatsApp group arena much later in 2018, faced significant hurdles because of more stringent rules. In addition, due to his rising popularity carefully nurtured over time, Modi was able to leverage a lot of earned television media in the 2019 elections. And many media houses were happy to play along, in a bid to further their TRPs, chasing him for prime time interview slots.
This identity and image management isn’t new to Modi. Starting in 2002, Modi was able to craft a narrative around a vibrant and well-developed Gujarat that eventually propelled him towards his destination: India’s PM candidate.
There is a clear method in the madness in the way Modi has planned the next phase of his brand journey. It shows that he is also willing to listen to the critics and continually shape his identity. For instance, there has been considerable criticism around using national security as a poll strategy. Or whether some of his actions such as the unceremonious shunting of CBI chief Alok Verma have been in the spirit of the constitution or indeed whether his government can take along the allies.
Modi’s carefully calibrated responses earlier this week show that he’s paying heed. He started by bowing to the constitution (thereby reinforcing his image as someone who believes in the constitution), visiting the war memorial on the day of his oath ceremony (signalling that the national security agenda will continue to be at the forefront) and paying respect to the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (a leader who was known to be collaborative), thereby signalling positive messages towards his allies.
With his resounding victory in 2019, Modi has clearly thrown down the gauntlet for the next phase. It is now for the opposition to stop living in denial, do its own post mortem, and pick up the pieces.
Will the opposition be able to match the speed, agility and the astuteness that Modi has displayed in crafting his and his party’s story? Keep your eyes peeled to the action both on the ground and inside the war rooms.