New Delhi / Mumbai: Purists may scoff at the 20-over Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament but, ahead of a series of crucial polls, the ruling United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress party, has latched on firmly to this newest—and seemingly a hit—advertising platform for upbeat messages on Bharat Nirman, its flagship four-year plan to turn around rural infrastructure.
According to K.C. Meena, the campaign officer in charge at the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity, or DAVP, two spots, of 40 seconds each, per match, had been booked through the first season of the tournament, which began on 18 April. That makes for a total of 118 spots by 1 June, when the final match is scheduled in Mumbai.
While DAVP officials declined to provide the total ad spending, it would, going by the initial rates charged by the organisers, be around Rs10 crore, though it is unclear what the directorate actually paid.
“Perhaps it (Congress) chose cricket because the sport itself has spread out to the smaller towns, which have now begun to produce stars,” says Sudha Pai, professor and chairperson of the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Political Studies. “Seen in consonance with the projection of Rahul Gandhi as a champion of the marginalized, the strategy of publicizing rural development programmes shows that the Congress party is very much aware about just where its potential votes are.”
With a total estimated cost of Rs1.76 trillion, Bharat Nirman was announced in Budget 2005. Targets were set for each of the six components or projects under the programme: drinking water, roads, electricity, housing, irrigation and telephony in rural areas.
By March 2007, though, only 21% of the target for irrigation and 18% of the target for roads, to cite just two examples, had been met.
The Prime Minister’s Office, which oversees the project, however, maintains that more than 70% of work on rural roads, electrification and irrigation will be complete by April 2009 and 100% of targets will be met in rural telephony, housing and water supply.
“The brief was for us to talk about various government flagship programmes, and especially about rural participation. The visuals are real and many of the people shown in the ads are real people, not actors,” said Navneet Kapoor, creative director of Percept/H Pvt. Ltd, the agency that produced the campaign.
“Chale Nayi Azaadi ki Aur (Moving Towards A New Freedom) is the baseline of the Bharat Nirman campaign,” said Kapoor, “There are four films in all, focusing on education, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, health mission and infrastructure development. We are further working on others like tribal programmes.”
Amit Mitra, senior vice-president at Percept/H, said, “Bharat Nirman is a mass campaign and the IPL reaches the masses. In that sense, there’s a natural association.”
Mitra pointed out that this is the second phase of the multimedia campaign, comprising print, television and radio, the first phase of which ran between December and January.
Anil Nair, president, Law and Kenneth Worldwide, said the commercials were reminiscent of the previous government’s India Shining campaign. When the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) lost the general elections in 2004, many analysts attributed the shock defeat at least partly to its ill-conceived campaign that sought to convey a sense of euphoria of a rising power, even as a majority of its population had failed to benefit from economic growth.
“The imagery is much the same; progress, jobs etc., and a catchy music track to boot,” Nair said.
M. Veerappa Moily, a former chief minister of Karnataka (where polls are due next month) and chairman of the Congress party’s media cell, however, said there was little similarity between Bharat Nirman and India Shining.
“Mere slogans will not carry any conviction,” Moily said, “While the NDA approached the issue in a macro way, we are going about it in a micro manner, so that it touches people. But we are able to do so because our government has made unprecedented allocations to the states and the programmes that touch the majority of the population.”
Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a national spokesperson of the BJP, said the Bharat Nirman ads only displayed the desperation of the Centre to distract national attention from the burning issue of price rise. “This government claims to represent the aam aadmi (common man), but that aam aadmi is bleeding due to runaway inflation and an ad campaign will be of little help in this situation,” he said.
Historian and commentator Mushirul Hasan, vice-chancellor of the Jamia Millia Islamia, however, said the government was only using a legitimate political tool. “Even in a society with greater literacy such as the US, political advertising goes on for over a year. In Britain, because it’s a smaller nation, candidates engage in door-to-door campaigning. So, there is space for political communication in every society,” Hasan said. “In the case of the UPA, it has brought in an undeniable social and economic content into governance. Advertising the Bharat Nirman must be seen in this context, along with the Rs60,000 crore farm debt relief and the reservation for candidates of Other Backward Classes in Centrally-funded institutions.”
Sangeeta Singh contributed to this story.