Why Congress has learned the wrong lessons from India Shining

Human beings love a good story. And a good story is complete. If something has happened, there needs to be a ready explanation available for it. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about this in Fooled by Randomness. Taleb recounts watching Bloomberg TV, sometime in December 2003 around the time Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq.

At this point, American government bond prices (commonly referred to as treasury bills) had gone up, and the caption on television explained that this was "due to the capture of Saddam Hussein". Some thirty minutes later, the price of the American treasury bills went down, and the television caption still said that this was "due to the capture of Saddam Hussein".

The question is how could the capture of Saddam Hussein lead to have two exactly opposite things? That is simply not possible. But there is a broader point here. If something happens, the human mind needs a reason, an explanation or a cause for it. Without it, the loop is not complete. Hence, the human mind actively seeks causes for events that have happened, whether those causes are the real reasons for the event happening is another issue all together.

As Ed Smith former English cricketer wrote in a recent column, "The point, of course, is that causes are being manipulated to fit outcomes. They weren't causes at all, merely things that happened before the defeat. The ancient Romans had an ironic phrase for this terrible logic - post hoc, ergo proper hoc, "after this, therefore because of this"."

An excellent example of this phenomenon in an Indian context is the defeat of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. Of the explanations that followed the one that gained most credibility and is still holding on strong, is the India Shining Campaign.

 Why Congress has learned the wrong lessons from India Shining

Manish Tewari, might become the new Pramod Mahajan, the man behind the India Shining Campaign. PTI

Since the results of the 2004 Lol Sabha elections came in, it has been widely held that BJP lost the elections because of the "insensitive" urban centric India Shining advertising campaign, which ignored the aam aadmi. The irony is that even the BJP came to believe this.

As Arati R Jerath points out in a recent column in The Times of India, "Significantly, LK Advani was to acknowledge later that the India Shining slogan was "inappropriate" for an election campaign. In hindsight, many in the BJP realized that the tone and tenor were arrogant and insensitive and that it glossed over prevailing social and economic inequities that the NDA government had failed to address."

This logic doesn't hold true against some basic number crunching. The difference in vote share between the Congress led UPA and the BJP led NDA was a little over 2 percent. The NDA got 33.3 percent of the vote whereas the UPA won 35.4 percent of the vote. As economist Vivek Dehejia, the co-auhtor of Indianomix - Making Sense of Modern India, said in an interview to Firstpost,"That 2 percent difference in vote share can equally be attributed to a number of other explanations, such as bad luck, as it is to anything else. Or let me put in another way; if you look at those results, basically it came down to a coin toss. A third of the voters voted for the NDA, another third voted for the UPA and a third voted for somebody else."

Hence, if the NDA had got 1 percent more vote and UPA had got 1 percent less vote, the situation would have been totally different. And maybe in that situation, people would have been talking about how the India Shining campaign really worked. Given this, it is not always possible to figure out why something happened. The broader point is that India is too diverse with too many issues at play to attribute the win or a loss in Lok Sabha elections to one cause, which in this case happened to be the India Shining campaign.

But such has been the strength of this explanation that it continues to prevail. In fact, the Congress party has gone at length to explain why there recently launched Bharat Nirman campaign is totally different from the India Shining campaign of 2004. "India Shining was hype, hoopla and spin. Our campaign is different. Bharat Nirman is not a poll campaign, it tells the India story of the past nine years," the information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari was recently quoted as saying.

In fact, the India Shining campaign had put too much emphasis on India, people came to believe, and missed out on Bharat. So the Congress has taken great care that the Bharat Nirman campaign caters to Bharat.

That difference notwithstanding prima facie there doesn't seem to be much difference between India Shining and Bharat Nirman. Both are campaigns launched to highlight the achievements of the incumbent government. India Shining was launched well before the Lok Sabha elections and at that point of time, the BJP leaders maintained that the campaign was meant to attract international investment and beyond that nothing more should be read into it. The Congress seems to be doing the same. As Tewari said, "Elections will be held on time. There is no need for speculation."

Eventually, the BJP got caught into its marketing blitzkrieg and advanced elections by six months. The extent to which Congress wallahs have gone to deny the link between Bharat Nirman and the Lok Sabha elections being advanced, leads this writer to believe that most likely elections will be advanced. As the line from the great British political satire Yes Minister goes "The first rule of politics: Never believe anything until it's been official denied". The Congress, like BJP, is in the danger of getting caught in its own spin.

India Shining cost the taxpayer around Rs 150 crore. Bharat Nirman has already spent around Rs 200 crore of the taxpayer money. As an article in the Brand Equity supplement of The Economic Times points out "Sources close to the campaign say that close to Rs 200 crore has been spent on this campaign under various heads. So large is the campaign that in recent months the government has been the single largest consumer of air time and media space on many of the major channels in volume terms."

What hurts is the fact that the revenue stream of the government at this point of time is stretched. The Ministry of Finance has even gone to the extent of running an amnesty scheme for service tax defaulters. A defaulter can declare and pay his taxes and thereby avoid any fines or even other penal proceedings. If finances are so stretched, why is money being wasted on an advertisement campaign like Bharat Nirman?

More than anything else this government has lost so much credibility that any advertisement campaign cannot help. As Jerath puts it "The campaign is a pathetic attempt to sweep the controversies of the past three years under the carpet. A slick film and a lyrical jingle cannot erase the stench from various corruption scandals or make up for non-performance as food prices rise and the economy slows down."

The lesson drawn from India Shining should have been that feel good advertisement campaigns run by the government and paid for by the taxpayer, do not really matter in an electoral democracy as diverse as India. Instead the government, which is seen tom-tomming its own achievement, comes across as arrogant. But the parties in power love it. As the Brand Equity points out, "The temptation has been too great and a campaign of similar proportions has been released. Perhaps the only difference is that 'India' has been replaced by 'Bharat' and 'Shining' by 'Nirman'. While the Congress insists that this is not a political campaign (just as the BJP insisted with India Shining), the timing and the quantum of spends seem to belie that."

The only person Bharat Nirman benefits is the information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari (and the media houses which get paid for carrying these advertisements), who after taking over as the I&B Minister had to show that he was doing new things that could revitalise the image of the Congress party and he has done precisely that. But this benefit might be short lived because in the days to come if the Congress led UPA loses the next Lok Sabha elections (as it is likely to), then Bharat Nirman will be held responsible for it, like India Shining was. Despite the fact that Bharat Nirman will have nothing to do with the party losing.

And then Manish Tewari, might become the new Pramod Mahajan, the man behind the India Shining Campaign.

To conclude, what happens to the taxpayer who finances these expensive campaigns? Well all he can do is sing the old Mukesh song (sung in the style of KL Saigal) Dil jalta hai to jalne de. aansoo na baha, fariyad na kar.

Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 18:46:53 IST