The audacity of Advani
by azizhp, Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 08:09:59 AM EDT
L.K. Advani, of India's BJP party, is better known for fiery, nationalist, partisan rhetoric than he is for unity and change. At 80 years old, he's more McCain than Obama. However, as he makes his bid to be India's Prime Minister, he's trying to poach from the Obama playbook:
For a few months, a small team of political strategists, computer specialists and management graduates in New Delhi has been studying Obama's speeches and slogans, Web site, campus outreach and rhetoric of change.
"About 100 million first-time voters will enter the election landscape next year. That is a staggering number of young people. And the Indian youth is impatient for change," said Sudheendra Kulkarni, who heads up strategy for the campaign.
"We want to project the image of Advani around the idea of change the same way that Obama's message resonated with people's hunger for change," Kulkarni said.
More than two-thirds of India's 1 billion-plus people are younger than 35, making it one of the youngest emerging economies in the world. Rising income and aspirations, along with rapid urbanization, are forcing political parties to reimagine their old, top-down style of election campaigning.
"Like the Obama brand, we need to create a buzz around Advani-ji," said Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a BJP member of Parliament and a key campaign official, attaching the Hindi honorific "ji" to the veteran leader's name. Naqvi recently returned from a leadership program at Yale University with a notebook full of observations from the presidential primaries.
As the article notes, the default communication medium in India is the cell phone/SMS rather than the web. The Advani campaign will have to genuinely innovate, since while the Obama campaign did make use of text messaging as one of its communication channels, SMS plays nowhere near the same role in US elections as the Internet does. That dynamic is totally inverted for India (and most Asian countries, since for most of them, cell phones were the vanguard of phone access rather than land lines).
If any campaign figures out a way to let a user make a micropayment to their candidate on their cell phone, then that's going to be enormous.
The other thing to be skeptical about is just how well the concept of "grassroots" is understood in the Indian setting. As the article notes, political parties there are very used to top-down, centralized campaigning. Will the Advani campaign be willing to let the grassroots have a genuine voice?
Whether the Advani team understands the principle behind Obama's model, or whether they are just aping Obama in cargo-cult fashion, remains to be seen. But the critique of Obama from the right has been that he is all message and no substance. If that's true, then that's good for Advani, assuming he faithfully reproduces it. If however, the success of Obama is not just the method but the man, then I don't think Advani is going to get much traction at all. Obviously I think the latter case will hold.