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Playing on a sticky wicket

As if there weren’t too many already, the now-on, now-off, now-on-again Indian Premier League (IPL) has thrown another imponderable into the vast, unpredictable seas of the Lok Sabha election, writes Ashok Malik.

india Updated: Mar 07, 2009 22:24 IST

As if there weren’t too many already, the now-on, now-off, now-on-again Indian Premier League (IPL) has thrown another imponderable into the vast, unpredictable seas of the Lok Sabha election. For some weeks now, political parties have been worried about the impact of India’s flagship T20 cricket event on the election process and on public interest.

In a sense, the Karnataka election of 2008 was a dress rehearsal, given that it coincided with the IPL’s first season. In small towns across the state, empirical evidence suggested political activity and discussion winded down every evening, earlier than usual, because people crowded around television sets to watch the day’s cricket game. Even party activists were affected. This is not an exaggerated anecdote; it actually happened.

This year, the IPL can leave its impact on how the general election is contested. Some parties are believed to have experimented with the idea of a heavy-duty campaign centred on the IPL. However, the League’s governing council decided politics and sport must not mix and proactively banned all election advertising and endorsements.

What this meant was, for all parties, prime-time television advertising potentially became far less important. There was no point sending out evocative ‘vote for us’ messages on news channels and in the breaks between saas-bahu soaps if everybody was busy watching Sehwag hit Warne out of the stadium.

Also altering the election’s media landscape is the presence of some 250 FM stations across 90 towns. FM radio is not just about SUV brats listening to Masakalli masakalli and traffic advisories while driving back home to Gurgaon or Goregaon. From Hissar to Rajahmundry, smaller cities, B and C towns in marketing parlance, have their local FM stations. Regional parties and constituency-level strongmen could find these useful, low-cost options.

Political advertising and individual endorsements on radio are big in, say, the United States. Candidates use stations to reach specific communities or ethnic minorities. The Indian radio market and Indian political canvassing are not as disaggregated but election 2009 could see some action on those fronts.

Whatever the medium, what is the message? In signing up the rights for Jai Ho, the Congress has hit an impressive first-over six. Yet, using a triumphalist slogan is necessarily a high-risk strategy in a sombre, issue-based election without any overarching emotion. Jai Ho could be the Congress’s inspiring anthem; Jai Ho could also, so easily, become the ruling party’s very own ‘India Shining’, the clanger the BJP can never forget.

There is another concern. India’s extraordinary media clutter means public discourse is, to use the jargon, limited to the headline with no time for the subtleties of body copy. The messaging has to be sharp and direct, especially if distractions like IPL are also around. The Congress, however, is selling the electorate a complex product — a five-year fixed deposit with a futures option.

It is a finely nuanced, twin-tracked message. It could have made sense to a generation brought up on the intricacies and nuances of five-day cricket. Would it be lost on the simpler-minded T20 throngs? This is an India, remember, that will probably only read a party manifesto if it comes in the size and form of an SMS.

For the BJP, the challenge is of a different nature. This is not one of those broad-sweep elections built around one catchy theme or charisma. It is a series of cussed, curmudgeonly, nuts-and-bolts arguments — even 543 different arguments. The campaign has to be clever enough to package subjects such as internal security and the economic downturn — ones the Congress and UPA can be made answerable for — into compelling, easily digestible ad lines, without appearing too shrill.

How does one do this? Does “My fiscal deficit is better looking than yours” sound exciting? Does “Uski inflation meri inflation se zyada kaisi”?

The author is a Delhi based political columnist