The Congress Party Ad Campaign for the 1984 Lok Sabha Elections

  I wrote this for Outlook Magazine’s special issue on the year 1984

 The man shuffled into the room, and cleared his throat. Rajiv Gandhi glanced away from the presentation screen that he had been watching so intensely for the past few hours. The four of us who had been making the presentation to him turned and looked at the man too. It was past midnight.  The man noticed he had Rajiv’s attention and he 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. He waited for a moment for more questions and  seeing that none was coming, shuffled out of the room, We e 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 times to come, the assassination would catapult Corazon to the Philippine presidency and end Marcos’ 20-year regime, but right then, it was one more unsettling event of that unsettling year.

    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 thirties and the other two, in their twenties 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 such other turn-ons that befitted a bunch of kids from the IIMs.

    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 the party’s fast dwindling chances in the imminent Lok Sabha Elections. Arun Singh was at Reckitt & Coleman and Arun Nehru at Jenson & Nicholson, two clients for who Rediffusion had just done feted ad campaigns. So, when our clients were called to Delhi, so were we.

    The presentation that we were all peering at was making a significant point. India, in the 1980’s, 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 consistently voting for the same party in every successive election. When we ran these numbers on our computers more deeply we  discovered that these swing voters were very different from the rest; they were literate (in a country still swimming in illiteracy) and they were avid newspaper readers (in a country where newspaper penetration was still miniscule). 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 defense scheme (March 1983), 3000 Tamils are massacred in a genocide in Sri Lanka, sparking off  Tamil separatist  movement ( July 1983),  , Punjab had been on fire all year long and the Indian army had just been sent  in to flush out Sikh militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar (June 2004), half-a-million people are out on the streets of Manila protesting Marcos’ rule and Ninoy Aquino’s assassination (August 2004), …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.

    Will Your Grocery 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. Your vote can make the difference between order and chaos. 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 neighbor 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 number-crunching, that in the middle of all the chaos that India in the five years up to then had grown industrially 4.9% per year compared to a 1.2% growth for the US and a 0.3 % decline for UK. 

    Can You Taste the Difference Between Dependency and Self Sufficiency?  Remember the taste of humiliation in the bread made from PL-480 grain gifted by the US and contrast this to the sweet taste of grain from India’s own Green revolution: 150 million tons in 1983 versus 50 million tons in the 1950’s.
    The campaign was ready to go on four-week notice as the monsoon of 1984 was drawing 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 31st, two trusted Sikh guards in Mrs. Gandhi 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 watch in horror as Delhi goes up in flames.

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

     Would we, ordinary, law-abiding citizens have to now go shopping for acid bulbs, iron rods, daggers to protect our families from the marauding crowds? Would we start looking uneasily at our neighbours because they came from a different community? Would it now become difficult to find an Indian among the millions of Sikhs and Hindus and Punjabis and Tamils and other? Would the country descend into chaos?

    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 with our ad campaign. And this  reality, grimmer than we ever imagined,  heightened the nuances of the words and pictures we had used in the ad campaign and gave them an urgency that 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 that we had advertised so proudly turned out to have been achieved through large-scale imports financed by extensive foreign commercial borrowings; when worldwide interest rates rose sharply and it came time to repay, India was in dire straits.  Unfortunately many, many other countries in the world had also done the same thing that 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.

    The 1989 Lok Sabha Elections, held with this inflation-stoked recession as the backdrop, resulted in the Congress Party being trounced soundly, teaching the Congress Party a lesson that they probably have not forgotten till today: never hold an election in the middle of a recession or inflation. By then, the Tamil separatist movement, that was sparked of by the genocidal attacks on the Sri Lanka Tamils in 1983 would claim Rajiv Gandhi’s own life.


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