Karnataka polls: Politicos pull back on spending and promotion, make political consultants sweat

Bengaluru: It is not only politicians who are sweating in Karnataka, but also political consultants of all hues. From those pitching for full-fledged political advocacy to handling social media campaigns to branding and promotion, consultancies anticipated huge spending and prepared their pitches to parties and candidates accordingly.

 Karnataka polls: Politicos pull back on spending and promotion, make political consultants sweat

JD(S) chief H D Kumaraswamy meets son Nikhil Kumar while campaigning in Kunigal. Image courtesy: Anil Budur Lulla

But uncertainties till the last day and minute in finalising candidates for filing nominations and which party they will represent, plus the short time left for polling day after the last day of withdrawals on 27 April have left an army of so-called game changers for hire out on a limb.

The Rs 500 crore the state Congress' unit spent for branding, sanctioned by a special allocations bill passed by the Assembly, through top firm JWT (J Walter Thompson) during the past year, raised expectations among other agencies of a similar bonanza from other parties. But all they've got thus far is requests for proposals, and the Election Commission limiting spending at Rs 28 lakh per candidate has further dampened spending decisions. All the costly, slick videos and social media strategy campaigns prepared have found no takers among aspirants, old and new.

“We anticipated a large part of the business to come from established politicians who needed to refresh their image”, said Abhishek Shukla, head of Delhi-based agency Politics, who camped for weeks in Bengaluru anticipating good business. “It was estimated that each of them would spend anything between Rs 5 to 8 lakh a month on brand building through social media alone with spends increasing on interviews on TV and media apart from usual advertisements. But sadly, not even a fraction of the expected amount has been spent”.

Big ticket election, but expectations crashed

Kiran Kumar N, partner Media Hanger, a city agency, added that there was a lot of hype and expectation that Opposition parties and candidates "would spend huge amounts of money on such agencies in a short 3 to 4 months as we moved towards the 12 May polling". But in reality, very few politicians signed up except the bigwigs who, in any case, had their party’s support. "Others who'd taken proposals from everyone are trying to replicate them on a smaller scale", Kumar added.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has spent more than Rs 300 crore on himself since September even as the BJP got its act together on social media. “For us, Karnataka was a big ticket election for media advocacy and viewed as a precursor for the May 2019 Parliament elections”, said one PR expert who'd worked with the Chief Minister’s Office for five months before the Model Code of Conduct came into place. “In Bengaluru, with its IT-savvy crowd and highly literate population with a high awareness of social media, we'd expected to rope in parties and aspirants, but multinational corporations entering the fray — despite not having any local knowledge — got a larger piece of the market, leaving bits for smaller companies like us”.

In the past six months, hundreds of proposals have been made and thousands of hours of discussion taken place in coffee shops in this startup city as parties and individual politicians shopped around for professional agencies to manage their election campaigns: PR, media advocacy, curating citizens’ campaigns to booth-level WhatsApp management. But many later dropped whatever plans they had on spending on social media and branding.

Also, as some of the creative heads we spoke to said, even established politicians weren’t aware of the concept of election advocacy. As a result, campaigns, especially on digital media, was done in fits and starts. Take the example of the JD(S). The party’s social media head Sadananda N said initially volunteers managed the Namma Kumaranna Twitter account and Namma HDK Facebook page, “which did not make much headway despite their sincere efforts”.

Finally, Sadananda got JDS leaders, particularly party president and chief ministerial aspirant HD Kumaraswamy, to approve spending on a social media agency. “Now, the page has become very vibrant and the number of followers are shooting up by the hundreds everyday with some posts getting 50,000 plus views”.

Politicians, a tough nut to crack

Alaham Anil Kumar, who brings clients and companies together, says most people in the branding business have small teams which work on various aspects of the campaign. “In my experience, there has always been a mismatch in terms of expectations”, he said. “Either the politician does not want too much gyaan or is simply not willing to listen to a professional”.

Giving the example of a JDS candidate, Kumar said the aborted plan was to stay in the region, do a dip stick survey to understand voter pattern and influences as the campaign there had to be run differently. For example, in Varuna Assembly constituency in Mysuru, where the chief minister's son Dr S Yathindra is contesting, “There is no point in having a big social media campaign as less than 2,000 voters have a Facebook account and almost nil Twitter presence. This is where a hands-on campaign to reach the target audience is needed using traditional outreach techniques, but the candidate was just not willing to take any advice”.

And money is tight, as Naren Kumar, a former AAP member and Independent from Byatarayanapura constituency in Bengaluru city, presently held by three-time Congress winner Krishna Byregowda, the state’s agriculture minister, pointed out. “I do not have money to spend like rich candidates. My resources are limited and most of my work gets done pro bono".

Anil Budur Lulla is a Bangalore-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters

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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2018 17:24:20 IST