—Congress slogan for Lok Sabha 2004
In its pitch to the AICC for the Congress account, an advertising agency suggested the Congress look for brand ambassadors like Shahrukh Khan. The agency failed to bag the account, but it left some members of the screening committee in introspective mode, wondering just what the Congress had come to. "When you think your brand has no intrinsic value, you get celebrities to endorse it," quipped a party strategist.
So, even as India Shining becomes part of the popular vocabulary and brand Atal goes global, the Congress is still groping for an emotive slogan. Feelgood seems to have passed the Congress by, with its most wanted alliance partner, the bsp, playing coy and the BJP’s media blitzkrieg swamping the public. "In the Congress, it’s every man for himself, with most people just concentrating on winning their own seats. We’re being reactive, not proactive," admits an MP.
Just what is its USP and what exactly does it stand for? The answer: it is the party of the have-nots. At the same time, it is wary of alienating the middle class. Says spokesman Aswini Kumar: "We’re happy for those for whom India shines, but our concern is the huge majority of people living on the fringes."
Sample some catchlines aimed at them. "Bhrashtachaar aur atyachaar, hai NDA sarkar ka aadhaar (corruption and injustice are the hallmarks of the NDA) is one of our slogans," says party spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi. A complementary slogan, India Cheated, has been coined by Rajya Sabha MP Kapil Sibal. Singhvi says the Congress counter-offensive will bring out all the scams during the NDA tenure. Starvation deaths in a time of food surplus, farmer suicides and growing unemployment, declining capital expenditure, flip-flop on foreign policy and, of course, Gujarat.
But Congress strategists are in two minds whether or not to attack the PM. "Every time we’ve taken him on directly, we’ve lost," says a Rajya Sabha MP. The Kargil debacle, when the Congress was seen as a spoilsport, is still fresh in the party’s mind. So it has to tread a fine line when attacking the NDA government.
A tall order for Leo Burnett and Perfect Relations, which clinched the Congress accounts for handling its ad and public relations campaigns. They’ve been asked to take the stuffing out of the BJP campaign without alienating the middle class (an auxiliary office has been set up at Maharashtra CM Sushil Shinde’s Delhi residence). In the interim, Congress state governments have been told to turn copycat and run a BJP-style campaign trumpeting Congress’ achievements.
The basic theme—‘Congress ka haath, garib ke saath’ (a helping hand for the poor)—is meant to yield variations that will likely form the crux of the campaign. For instance, Congress ka haath, berozgaaron ke saath, mahilaon ke saath...etc, to target the unemployed, women and other marginalised sections. Kiska haath, aapkay saath (whose hand is with you?) will be the catchphrase. Explains Salman Khursheed: "We want to say we will make India shine where it is dark".
While positioning itself as the party of the poor, the Congress also wants to emphasise that economic reforms and liberalisation was its idea. "The BJP now gloats about carrying the process of reforms forward. We have to proactively wrest the credit for economic reforms," says Kumar. Congress think-tanker Rajiv Desai feels too much hue and cry is being made about brand-building. "Politics is about leadership, not brands. The media focus is on hip concerns like lifestyles rather than on issues. This trivialises politics."
The Congress’ most powerful brand is the Nehru-Gandhi family. Priyanka is in the process of setting up her election office. Talking points are being prepared and her tour programme will be finalised in a week. Brand loyalty, the Congress hopes, will outweigh Vajpayee’s born-again media image.