The top Congress leadership, often accused of the ivory-tower syndrome, seems to have finally bought the wisdom of connecting with grassroots workers, at least in the Punjab where elections are due in 2017.
Captain Amarinder Singh, the maharaja of the erstwhile State of Patiala and one of the lone survivors of Congress' debacle in Punjab in the last general elections, is connecting with the grassroots in a new strategy to woo the voters.
Through initiatives such as Coffee with Captain and Halke Vich Captain, Singh is desperately trying to connect with both the urban and rural youth, and the masses, so as to shed his image of an 'inaccessible maharaja'.
Kick-starting the second edition of his campaign, Amarinder on Thursday launched his ‘Halke Vich Captain’ at Merry Land, Atam Nagar in Ludhiana.
“The day’s event witnessed a large gathering of locals from Ludhiana, nearly 2,500. Captain received 1,760 petitions from locals on their grievances and issues. He interacted with a large number of people and asked us to track the problems bothering people,” a district Congress party source said.
“One Simranjeet Kaur, whose husband got injured in a bomb blast in 1992 and thereafter lost his job, narrated her woes during the interaction and Captain has asked the district president to resolve her issues and provide employment to her,” the source added.
Amarinder Singh as ‘Face of Punjab’
The only dependable face in Punjab Congress right now is Amarinder Singh, former chief minister of the state, who was handpicked by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, due to their Doon School connection, to contest the Lok Sabha polls in 1980, who then won.
However, much has changed over the years and this 1965 Indo-Pakistan war veteran switched over his loyalty from the Congress to Shiromani Akali Dal as a protest against Army action during Operation Blue Star in 1984. He got back to Congress in 2008.
Considering the underlying anger that people had exhibited against the Congress during the Lok Sabha polls, the grand old party of India doesn’t want to take any risk further. Though Amarinder had won from Amritsar against BJP’s Arun Jaitley, there had been a negative perception against him about his inaccessibility.
“Due to Captain sahab’s maharaja status, he always remained inaccessible to the voters of his constituency and this would go against him in any election, including this Lok Sabha election,” an Amritsar-based businessman had told this correspondent in May 2014.
Thus stepped in poll strategist Prashant Kishor, as Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi wanted to give a professional spin to the poll campaigning in Punjab. Kishor, by then had already made a name by helping Bihar CM Nitish Kumar to win the assembly election in 2015.
The Prashant Kishor-led IPAC team, in collaboration with Congress, has crafted an image makeover strategy for Amarinder, projecting the latter as the ‘face of Punjab Assembly Election 2017’.
An astute strategy
The strategists comprising leaders of the Congress party and IPAC have chalked out an exhaustive campaign blueprint with multiple events targeting different audience groups.
• Punjab Da Captain: The aim is to make effective use of social media in order to enhance digital outreach of Congress through ‘Punjab Da Captain’ website and Facebook page. Amarinder connects with his target audience through online contests, 'selfie with Captain', Mere Sapno ka Punjab and digital updates.
• Coffee with Captain: It’s an interaction that Amarinder undertakes with students and youth to discuss burning issues such as drug menace, unemployment, education, etc.
• Halke Vich Captain: A citizens’ engagement initiative through which Amarinder has been trying to establish direct contact with various stakeholders of each of Punjab’s halkas (constituencies). This platform gives the people of Punjab to air their grievances on hyper-local issues — from civic issues and public distribution system to agriculture and industry.
• Lokaan Da Punjab: A session in which Amarinder invites petitions from the common man on problems they have been facing.
• Congress workers’ meet: Amarinder as Punjab Pradesh Congress chief meets and holds an interactive session with local party workers, office bearers, followers and members of the frontal organisations of the Congress.
• Dhaba camaraderie: Congress wants to cash upon the popularity of dhabas (highway side eateries), where Amarinder interacts with the locals, after his Halke Vich Captain programme while having lunch or dinner.
“It was a first-of-its-kind experience for us at ‘Coffee with Captain’ at New Lake, Sector-42 in Chandigarh on 1 April. We, a group of students, posed a volley questions to Captain related to drug menace, poor quality of education and job opportunities in the state. Nearly 1,000 students participated from various colleges in that programme. The response was electrifying,” Jasbir, a post-graduate student from Chandigarh told Firstpost.
The party wants to position Amarinder as ‘Captain’ across various platforms — amongst voters, youth, farmers and media, including social media. “The objective behind emphasising on the word ‘captain’ is to juxtapose Amarinder with qualities of leadership, capability and a man who can bring a positive change in Punjab, as the ‘captain’ of Punjab Congress. Slogans such as ‘Chounda hai Punjab, Captain di sarkar’ (Punjab wants Captain’s government) are having a strong brand recall and identity, which will help Captain in his campaigns,” a member of the strategy team told Firstpost.
Taking on opponents
Amarinder is using all kind of tools, including micro-blogging site Twitter to unleash scathing attack on his opponents Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on each and every social, political and cultural issue. His events are being used to connect with people and gather information from the grassroot level.
“We’re preparing a database of complaints and grievances. After distributing forms to people and collecting feedback, we give a unique identification code to each of them, so that they can track the progress. Once captain’s government comes to power, this database will be used to resolve people’s grievances,” a party source said.