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How an ad campaign foretold a time of unparalleled strife

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The man shuffled into the room, and cleared his throat. Rajiv Gandhi glanced away from the presentation screen he had been watching intensely for the past few hours. The four of us making the presentation turned and looked at the man too. It was past midnight. The man, noticing he had Rajiv’s attention, shuffled along the walls of the long conference room, bent and whispered into his ear. Rajiv stiffened imperceptibly but his face showed no emotion.

“Is she safe?” he asked. The man nodded, and then shuffled out of the room. We returned to our presentation.

It was August 1983, and Ninoy Aquino, that valiant opponent of President Ferdinand Marcos’s long, despotic rule, had just been assassinated at Manila airport. Rajiv had enquired about his wife Corazon. In time to come, the assassination would catapult Corazon to the Philippine presidency and end the 20-year Marcos regime, but right then, it was one more unsettling event in an unsettling year.

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The presentation we returned to was the ad campaign for the Congress party for the forthcoming Lok Sabha election.

As you can imagine, all of this was heady stuff for the four of us from Rediffusion. Arun Nanda and I were in our 30s and the other two in their 20s, and we were watching world history from a ringside seat. Till then, we were content in our little world, exploring the creative limits of advertising, experimenting with the newly emerging personal computer to do snazzy media planning and other such turn-ons as befitting a bunch of kids from the IIMs.

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Rajiv Gandhi had been shanghaied into politics as general secretary of the Congress party; he had, in turn, shanghaied his friends Arun Singh and Arun Nehru into the party to help improve its fast dwindling chances in the imminent Lok Sabha elections. Arun Singh was at Reckitt & Colman and Arun Nehru at Jenson & Nicholson, two clients for whom Rediffusion had just done feted ad campaigns. So, when our clients were called to Delhi, we were as well.

The presentation we were all peering at was making a significant point. India, in the 1980s, had an electorate of several hundred millions, but we had discovered, through rigorous computer-based statistical analysis, that only a very small percentage determined election outcomes; the balance were loyalists voting for the same party in every successive election. When we ran these numbers on our computers in different ways, we discovered that these swing voters were very different from the rest: they were literate and were avid newspaper readers. This insight settled our media plan—we would run the Congress campaign only in print.

As for the creative strategy, much of it suggested itself. Look at what was going on just then. President Reagan had just raised the pitch of the Cold War confrontation by announcing his ‘Star Wars’ missile defence scheme (March 1983); 3,000 Tamils were massacred in a genocide in Sri Lanka, giving new impetus to the Tamil separatist movement (July 1983); Punjab had been afire all year long, leading up to Operation Bluestar (June 1984)...confrontation was everywhere!

We correctly guessed that in this era of uncertainty and turmoil, what the newspaper-reading swing voter wanted was the peace and quiet that only a strong and impartial government could provide.

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Will your groceries list, in the future, include acid bulbs, iron rods, daggers?’ asked the first ad. Ordinary citizens, we argued, need to arm themselves only when governments become weak. Vote for Congress.

Will the country’s border finally move to your doorstep?’ asked the next, casting an eye on the raging separatist movements. Would you soon look uneasily at your neighbour just because he belongs to another community? Vote for Congress and vote for unity, otherwise it is a vote for separatism.

Can you name the country that has a higher growth rate than UK or US?’ asked a third. We discovered, during our numbercrunching, that in the middle of all the chaos, India had in the last five years up to then grown industrially at 4.9 per cent per year, compared to a 1.2 per cent growth for the US and a 0.3 per cent decline for the UK.
And so on.

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The campaign was ready to go on  four-week notice as the monsoon of 1984 drew to a close. We went back to our day job of trying to make soaps and detergents and toothpaste exciting to consumers, awaiting the start signal from the Congress party.

Then came the bombshell.

On October 31, two trusted Sikh guards in Mrs Gandhi’s security detail (how many times we must have greeted these two while on our way to meetings there) assassinated her. We, and the whole country, watched in horror as Delhi went up in flames.

Suddenly the words we had crafted many, many months ago started ringing even truer than when we had written them.

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Elections were called soon afterwards. The ad campaign ran as it was first created many months before that; in an amazing turn of events, reality had caught up with it. And this reality, grimmer than we ever imagined, heightened the nuances of the words and pictures we had used and gave them an urgency we had not seen when we created them.

Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress party won the 1984 election handsomely. But life soon became complicated for him and the Congress. The high industrial growth rate we had advertised so proudly had been achieved, it turned out, through large-scale imports financed by extensive foreign commercial borrowings; when worldwide interest rates rose sharply and the time came to repay, India was in dire straits. Unfortunately, many other countries had done what India did—over-borrow from commercial banks at floating interest rates; when international lenders, fearing large-scale default, pulled back, what we got was the Great Recession of 1989.

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The 1989 Lok Sabha elections, held with this inflation-stoked recession as its backdrop, resulted in the Congress being trounced, driving home a lesson: never hold an election in the middle of a recession or inflation. Eventually, the Tamil separatist movement—part of the turbulent backdrop against which we had devised our ’84 campaign—would claim Rajiv Gandhi’s own life.


(The author is the CEO of rediff.com, and welcomes comments at ajitb AT rediffmail.com)

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