Posted by: Vikram | July 9, 2009

Understanding election campaigns in rural India

During election season, India’s ‘national’ news channels go into a frenzy about the ‘campaign’, focusing on trivial, non-issues when the country is facing serious issues ranging from ethnic/religious tensions to climate change and environmental degradation. This leads one to ask, how do politicians actually appeal to the real voters of India, the rural folk who actually do the bulk of voting and also get the bulk of the mis-governance that follows.

In their paper, ‘A Snapshot of a Successful Public Relations Strategy‘, K. Sai Prasaad of Convergence Institute of Media, Bangalore and Ramya Raghupathy describe the election campaign of  K. Raghuveera Reddy for the Legislative Assembly seat of Madakasira in the 2004 Andhra Pradesh Assembly Elections. They chronologically outline his campaign and describe his strategies to communicate and empathize with people, and effectively attack his rival.

Even though the elections were in May, Reddy started his campaign in early January, ‘prelaunching’ a walkathon through his constituency of 336 villages, which included extensive postering, announcements on local radio and commuity loudspeakers. The actual walkathon started on January 10, with the main goal being,

to position the INC as a farmer friendly political party by listening to farmer’s grievances and noting their problems.

The walkathon was a communications and feedback exercise, the problems that the farmers mentioned became the basis for the INC’s actual agenda during the peak election campaign.

The second phase of the campaign started the projection of Reddy as a suitable candidate himself who would fight for the farmers and the quest for positive media attention. Reddy started a,

fasting program to oppose the policies of the previous government.

The fast received maximum local print media coverage. In a country where religion plays a large role in people’s lives it is easy to see why an action like a fast would catch people’s fancy and would garner media attention.

Reddy then began meetings with all the Panchayati Raj leaders from Madakasira followed by,

a caste focused campaign in every village as well, during which the head and prominent members of every caste and religion were met and their demands were noted.

This is an interesting contrast to a state like UP. It seems that the two-party system in AP has better managed inter-community relations by turning them into expressions of cultural rather than political difference. I cant imagine a candidate in UP appealing to all castes in a village.

This reach-out to various communities was followed by interactions with the youth. A youth Congress activists meeting was held, in which the demands of the youth were presented and discussed. Interestingly, the meet included organizing sports events (i.e. cricket tournaments) where cricket kits were distributed. The meet also included,

music releases – audiocassettes about Raghuveera Reddy, songs praising him and the party, and songs criticizing the Telugu Desam government. … Street plays were arranged, allowing talented youth to capture the attention of voters and spread the message of the INC. Folk music and folklore were used extensively as well, with folk songs sung by the Lambani.

Later, a bike rally was organized, in which 10,000 riders including members of Reddy’s family participated. Entertainment personalities were also used to garner attention, both from the people and the media, with director Dasari Narayan Rao and actress Nagma entertaining and addressing crowds on Reddy’s behalf. After this, Reddy’s family organized a health camp to offer services to the aged and sick, this was done as a response to the opening of a health clinic by the rival candidate.

After this, the candidate used the religious festival of Ram Navami to reach out to the population arranging for,

free mass marriages in the constituency; this time nearly 500 couples were married. Gold Mangalsuthras (sacred threads), new clothes for the couples, and food were provided.

Thus the religious occasion was used to reach out to the public and potray the candidate as a benefecator interested in the personal welfare of the people, especially families.

Then came the stage to file nominations, even this was spun to grab media attention and potray the candidate as the man of the masses,

the youth committee organized a very different nomination ceremony. He had to travel nearly 30 km to file his nomination. This he did on a bullock cart. Thousands of such carts from throughout the constituency followed him. … Such a scene was very unique and, thus, the candidate garnered a lot of coverage for this event.

Reddy left no stone unturned when it came to divine intervention,

There is a superstition in Andhra Pradesh that people with skin problems should not rule the state because this brings famine and bad luck. The then-incumbent chief minister, Chandra Babu Naidu, suffers from a pigmentation problem, and in his two terms of rule, there had been no rains, only famine. The day he resigned from his post, there were showers throughout the state.

This was emphasized and publicized by Reddy and received much press attention.

The campaign ended with more inter-community outreach,

Nizamuddin, the parliamentary candidate, campaigned jointly with Raghuveera Reddy. This campaign was called the Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai campaign and became a major media event.

The campaign thus focused intensely on community outreach and garnering positive press in the local media. This is to be contrasted with the recent campaign efforts of various personalities from urban Indian, although they were campaigning in a different environment. Campaigns in rural India, are in many ways similar to the advertising strategies adopted by multinational and domestic companies in reaching out to middle class Indians. The use of religion and culture to give the appearance of being a part of the local community, the show of strength by advertising the global reach or size of a company and the use of local personalities to push their message, these should all be very familiar to middle class Indians.

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Responses

  1. I could not access the journal from the office. But Vikram,several point is missing in yours analysis.
    Local politics is not cup of cake as appearing in this writeup. No view about opposition candidates were made. Neither the population distribution wrt caste and religion, nor the money power was told in this article. It cover lot of issues but you could have given as more detail about margin of win and genaral mood of citizens about previous governance. Still, It was ok effort from your side. Thanks for that Vikram.

    • Yayaver, if anything the writeup emphasizes the complex nature of politics in rural India, where religious and social institutions have to be used cleverly to ensure victory. Indeed the title of the paper is an example of a successful public relations strategy and therefore the writeup was on the side of the winning candidate.

      Of course, money power might be a big factor, but it did not seem to enter into the equation directly here, instead it was seen indirectly, through the distribution of the cricket kits and the mangalsutras, which must have cost quite a lot.

      Btw, the margin of victory was over 100,000 votes and as I mentioned in the post the prevailing mood in the constituency was that the previous government was anti-farmer.

  2. Interesting. Congress has always been quite strong in AP. How ‘Praja Rajyam’ is going to fare in the future is going to be quite interesting too. Looking at the amount of work that has gone in, and the amount of time that has been put into it, just imagine how much of resources needs to be invested to get to power!!

    Destination Infinity

  3. It seems that the two-party system in AP has better managed inter-community relations by turning them into expressions of cultural rather than political difference

    Vikram, I didn’t quite understand this. Could you elaborate a bit?

    Thanks

    • Well, let me clarify what I am not implying first: I am not saying that a two-party system overcomes the socio-cultural barriers of caste. But it does prevent them from being overly politicized to the point where elections are for the most part caste wars. Uttar Pradesh is a great example of the latter and the impact on governance is there for all to see.

      https://vikramvgarg.wordpress.com/2008/12/30/political-trends-in-the-uttar-pradesh-and-future-ramifications/

      Again, I am not saying that caste is not a factor in states with a two-party system, but that the simple logic of having to get more than 50% of the votes to win necessitates a politics that cannot have caste as the sole mobilizing force. And it is easy to see that states in India that have two-party systems (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, AP, Punjab and Haryana) are more developed, whereas states with a single dominant party (West Bengal) are often stagnant and states with many parties are in a very bad situation (Bihar, UP).


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