The cover story in the issue of Open Magazine dated 29 April 2013 sports this headline: ‘The real challenge to Modi’. The text features Bihar CM Nitish Kumar of the JD(U) riding a Royal Enfield Bullet, with BJP’s L K Advani seated in the side car. Flagging them off, or perhaps holding the chequered flag at the end of the ride, is the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav. Besides capturing the complex political scenario that is unfolding ahead of the 2014 elections, the cover symbolically indicates that the real challenge for the BJP’s Narendra Modi is not from the Congress-led ruling UPA. This echoes the general sentiment that the Congress has missed out on projecting what could be a counter to ‘Brand Modi’: the young ‘Brand Gandhi’.
The Gujarat Chief Minister is active on social media, while also making the right noises at public forums. To be fair, ‘Brand Modi’, or ‘NaMo’ as he has come to be called, has been built over time. On a parallel, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi is hitting the road across States, surprising dhaba owners on the one hand and addressing industry leaders with ease on the other. Signs here, that the countdown to 2014 general elections has well and truly begun.
Both Modi and Gandhi carry with them pros and cons. From a brand perspective, which has greater salience? Which is stronger? Which is more reliable? Both have their followers born of political affiliations. What is the role of each brand in increasing the base of followers – and voters – in the democratic mandate? Will Brand Modi’s positioning led by development score over Gandhi, whose political lineage is among many inherent advantages he enjoys as a mass brand?
Deconstructing the brands
Brand Modi comes with a track record of having won three consecutive elections in Gujarat, which is no small feat. He is positioned on the plank of ‘walking the talk’ and is associated with development and achievement. At a time when ‘policy paralysis’ and ‘decision deficit’ are buzzwords, Modi seems to be the perfect antidote for the many malaises that ail India.
R Sridhar, founder and chief executive officer, Integrated Brand-Comm, explains, “Modi is clearly talking about development. As we say in advertising, you must have a unique single minded proposition. This (development) proposition works in the case of educated people and that is probably why a lot of his stuff is online. Further, Gujarat is the case study for business segments and has received vociferous support from the captains of the industry who have spoken of their support for Modi.”
On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi is the scion of the famed Nehru Gandhi dynasty whose governance of India has been celebrated by aam India. He is Congress party’s potential candidate for the 2014 elections. Santosh Desai, chief executive officer and managing director, Future Brands, says, “Apart from the fact that he has dynastic lineage, there is a feel of reassurance and pedigree which works for Gandhi. There is an inherent sense that he is somebody who wants to engage with the complexity of the real India.”
But has the brands’ positioning been communicated effectively? Experts believe that Brand Modi has been very clearly positioned and this has been communicated to people as well. The same cannot be said for Brand Gandhi. Harish Bijoor, chief executive officer, Harish Bijoor Consults, says, “Brand Modi has been very clearly positioned as there is a clear definition of purpose and there’s a very clear definition of will. The moment you think of brand Na Mo, you typically associate it with colour saffron, you think achievement orientation and a successful Chief Minister. If you look at brand Rahul Gandhi, it does not have such a clear definition and you associate it with the colour white and with secularism. But the colour white also comes across as weak as opposed to saffron which comes across strong. A more clearly positioned brand is Na Mo vs. Ra Ga.”
This ‘weak’ positioning could be attributed to the fact that apart from political lineage there is not much that Brand Gandhi stands for and is hence is also viewed with scepticism. Ramesh Natarajan, managing partner, Curiosity Road, opines, “For Brand Gandhi, one doesn’t know what is there in that as he is quite fuzzy. The first and the most important point for a brand is that he must exhibit some interest and initiative to showcase himself as an efficient leader but brand Gandhi has nothing in the cupboard - the cupboard is bare in terms of achievement. Lack of purpose or any proof that he is a strong leader is his single largest drawback. A personality brand needs to be decisive.”
Experts believe that Gandhi has the potential to be a powerful brand but for that he needs to prove himself and do that quickly. He needs to accept party responsibilities, and actively participate in politics. Natrajan states, “He needs to say ‘look I am going to be the leader’ and he has to state a vision. He’s got to bring in the communication element, and create platforms where he can communicate better through social media etc. He has got to become a lot more visible and significantly improve in communication. Everyone in Congress needs to rally behind him speaking the same language.”
Does popularity translate into votes?
Bijoor opines that translation of popularity in to votes is a different calculation as the strength of the brand does not automatically translate into a meaningful number of votes. Experts believe that though both these brands enjoy great popularity, there could be many a slip between popularity and votes.
The Congress party projects Rahul Gandhi as the youth icon as he represents ‘Generation Next.’ So, would the youth be voting for Gandhi? MG Parameswaran , executive director and chief executive officer, Draftfcb-Ulka, Mumbai, does not think so. He says, “I am not sure that the young will vote for the young and the old will vote for the old. By that logic, women should vote for women candidates and men for men candidates. This does not happen that automatically.”
According to Dilip Cherian, consulting partner, Perfect Relations, the youth instead of falling for Gandhi’s appeal are far more impressed with the work done by Modi. He explains, “When it comes to age, the voter is not enamoured by how old the politician is but rather by the methods of the politician and his image. Modi’s biggest support is from the ranks of ‘Young India’. I would say what really is a matter for today’s voters is how clean is the politician’s image, how transparent it is and how global it is. These are things voters look at.”
Modi’s largest target audience is said to be the aspiring middle class of India. But statistics prove that this class is not electorally dominant and generally stays away from the elections when it actually comes to voting. Nakul Chopra, chief executive officer, Publicis South Asia, reasons, “The media often carries reports of Modi going to rallies or some top level corporate events and giving very impressive speeches there. But this is the media that you and I watch. It can con us into believing that he has become a national phenomenon. But the voter that we know is the guy on the road and he is not watching CNBC and NDTV. According to me, the guy in UP and Bihar is still not aware of Mr Modi.”
High profile handicap
Brand Modi also comes with its own sets of disadvantages. He has been reported to be known for his autocratic style of functioning which does not go down well with a lot of his contemporaries. Desai explains, “Modi lacks humility. And I think currently he lacks the ability to build consensus that he is the effective leader for all. He lacks the universal appeal. There is a large customer segment out there who says this is not the brand for me. There are people who are clearly anti Modi; in brand terminology, I think the rejectors are a lot in terms of the people who reject the brand Modi.”
Experts believe that Modi must make amends to reach out to a far wider base of voters across geographies and religion to ensure that he has a successful run in the elections. Cherian feels, “Modi needs to project a more accommodating image because he is seen as a polarising figure, even within his own party. He will also need to, sooner or later, have to deal with the controversies surrounding him and his administration in Gujarat. The rest of India is not Gujarat, and we need to see how he plans to connect with voters in other parts of the country.”
Indian politics is not about brands
There have been strong political brands like Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and AB Vajpayee in the past. For long, the government at the centre is an outcome of a coalition of regional and national parties. And that is likely to continue, if political pundits are to be believed.
Natarajan explains, “If there was a Federal structure like the one in US and we were talking about elections in which Modi is pitted against Gandhi, it is a no brainer that Modi will ace it. Unfortunately, we are a country of coalition politics and lots of local brands creating the overall structure. That’s why it is not Brand Gandhi vs. Brand Modi battle so much as it is still the UPA vs. NDA.”
It will be easier for the political formation that has maintained a ‘middle of the road’ positioning than a rightist view to come through, point out analysts. Sridhar concurs, “We are comparing two groups which are not really going to make it absolutely, as either of them is going to come to power with the support of many partners. From that perspective, Congress having lobbied since years, is better placed. The ability to reach out to wider and more disparate elements will work and there are many people who are actually anti-BJP. The Congress party is probably better geared than the BJP.”
Road to 2014
So while ‘Na Mo’ seems to be marketed better than ‘Brand Gandhi’, the Congress’ legacy is expected to work better at the hustings. If that can be leveraged further through Rahul Gandhi, Brand Gandhi might make a significant difference, believes a senior observer of the Congress who did not wish to be named. It is an agenda that several party loyalists have been waiting to see driven home, he adds.
On the other end, Natarajan believes it is time Modi reaches out to the minorities to widen his core audience and that BJP must announce Modi as its Prime Ministerial candidate, leveraging his brand equity.
Bijoor surmises the road taken by these two brands, and the road ahead: “Rahul Gandhi needs to step up his decibel of talk and Narendra Modi has to step down from his decibel of talk. Fundamentally, one is oversold and the other is undersold.”
The article appeared in the issue of Campaign India dated 3 May, 2013