Home >politics >policy >In poll season, Congress and BJP prepare for crucial battle on small screen

New Delhi: They make claims and counterclaims through public meetings and social media, but India’s two main political parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are also focusing their efforts on ensuring they have the right people representing them on TV, and saying the right things.

Both parties have had training sessions for these representatives (the Congress, for instance, conducted one between 15 and 19 September); both have identified their best communicators; and both are focusing on the messages that need to be sent out.

The preparations are in keeping with the poll fever that has built up well ahead of the next general elections due to take place by May 2014. The BJP has already named its prime ministerial candidate, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. The Congress is reported to have finalized the advertising agency (JWT India, although both the party and the agency haven’t confirmed this) that will work on its media campaign, and is running a proxy election campaign through its Bharat Nirman ads directed by Bollywood’s Pradeep Sarkar.

The training is also in keeping with the importance of television. According to a report by audit and consulting firm KPMG, India has 154 million TV households.

The Congress has 36 spokespersons and will add another 20 to that number. The BJP has only seven national spokespersons, but it also has 23 others who have been cleared to appear on TV debates that are a daily staple on prime-time television, across India’s national news channels.

Ajay Maken, head of the communication department of the Congress, said, “The purpose of the workshop was to explain to our spokespersons of how to effectively engage with the media and be well informed across different issues related to the achievement of the party."

Asked about the impulse behind such a workshop, Maken explained, “I personally believe and this is a view shared by other members of the party that the media will have an important role to play in the upcoming elections. There is a gap between the achievements of the government and its perception and we intend to change that."

People who attended the Congress’ recent training programme listened to speeches and presentations by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi (who himself, doesn’t go on TV, instead preferring to address rallies and meetings, similar to the approach adopted by Modi), economists, and experts in sectors such as education and food security—an indication that the government’s rash of populist entitlement programmes will remain at the core of party’s message in the coming elections.

Kumar Ketkar, chief editor of Dainik Divya Marathi, spoke on the idiosyncrasies of the Indian media and what all should party spokesperson keep in mind while interacting with different media outlets, according to three people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified.

“As someone who is not associated with the Congress, I made it very clear that I will be critical of the party in my speech. They wanted to understand how the news media worked and as someone who has worked in the media for the past 40 years, I was able to address them on that," said Ketkar.

In addition, the people familiar with happenings at the training programme said, people were also trained to get across their message most effectively in the shortest possible time—a key requirement on television debates, especially on channels where anchors hog airtime.

The BJP’s approach has been more decentralized—most states with a strong BJP presence have held similar training programmes—although the party does have a central research cell that provides the background for important issues to spokespersons before they appear on TV debates.

“While, we keep an eye out for all form of media, TV is important for us as it helps to deflate the false propaganda that is often times spread by the Congress using this media," said the national media convenor of the BJP, Shrikant Sharma.

And just like the Congress’ focus is on entitlements, the BJP’s is on governance and development.

“Our attempt is to make sure that the elections are fought on issues of good governance whereas that of the Congress is to paint us as communal," said Sharma.

Whenever the issue of communalism is raised, spokespersons have been told to draw attention to the numerous communal incidents that have taken place since independence, especially the ones that have occurred under a Congress government, he added.

The parties are focusing not just on English news channels but also on regional language ones. According to TAM, the number of cable and satellite TV households in the country was 126 million in 2012.

TV debates can’t be ignored, said a media analyst. “Political debate on TV channels has begun to shape political opinion," said journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. “If you look at many missteps of this present government from the Anna Hazare movement to the Coal-gate scam, what has hurt it, is the perception that it appears arrogant in its dealing with public discontent. And TV has worked as a force multiplier in enhancing the poor image of the government."

The Anna Hazare movement refers to a 2011 campaign against corruption led by Gandhian activist Anna Hazare that energized civil society, albeit temporarily. The Coal-gate scam refers to irregularities in the allotment of captive coal mines.

Not everyone is convinced the training will help.

Rajiv Desai, chairman and chief executive officer at Comma Consulting, is one such sceptic. “Politicians need to appear genuine and their claims sincere for their message to get across clearly. Out of the current lot, I see only (Jammu and Kashmir chief minister) Omar Abdullah succeeding in this regard," he said.

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