Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Opinion | Indian elections and the power of persuasion

The politician’s main medium of communication is face-to-face interaction that helps generate empathy

India is in the midst of yet another season of general elections. On the surface, it might look like a tamasha involving politicians and some of their followers. But if we were to take a closer look, one would see a very different picture.

There are more than 900 million voters in India. These voters are characterized by a large number of what political scientists call “structural cleavages" in terms of their age, language, income, religion, caste and occupation. According to Arun R. Swamy, professor of political science at the University of Guam, Indian political entrepreneurship plays a role in either creating or superseding various structural cleavages that exist in Indian society.

The essence of a politician’s job is the task of persuasion—persuading the electorate to vote for him or her. How does the Indian politician go about persuading people who belong to such a varied set of backgrounds and segments?

The most common tool used by most organizations to influence their target audience’s behaviour is the 30-second commercial aired on various television channels and digital media platforms. The Indian politician knows that mass media channels cannot even reach half of his 900-million-plus target audience. So, what media vehicles does the Indian politician use? The politician has internalized one of the fundamental rules of persuasion—to achieve efficient persuasion, be as close to the target audience as possible. The politician’s main medium of communication is house-to-house visits and street corner meetings. These face-to-face interactions help forge empathy between the politician and his target audience. By the time voting day arrives, the vast majority of voters would have met someone in the election machinery of a political party at least once.

The typical organizational persuasion strategy utilizes a fleeting, impermanent medium to convey a message. But the politician knows that even a foundation stone laid to inaugurate the construction of a bridge is more powerful than a handful of television commercials because it is a permanent reminder of a dream that is about to be fulfilled. What if cement companies, instead of wasting money on a television advertising campaign, sponsored the construction of a village school building?

How do Indian political parties manage to achieve such a high level of personal interactions with the electorate? This is achieved thanks to the superb organizational structure of these political parties. There are over 600,000 villages in India. It is difficult to find a single village in the country where major political parties do not have a presence. The organizational structure of the Indian political party is built ground up. The typical Indian political party has active units at the ward, panchayat, block, district, constituency and state levels, apart from the national level, of course. They have different organizations for students, youth and women. Many have trade unions across all major professions.

Organizational structures that touch every segment of the electorate are put in place because of the core belief of every political party that every vote counts. This is in sharp contrast with most companies’ persuasion strategies, which focus on their “core target audience". Messages developed and media planning strategies devised are optimized to appeal mostly to only that core target audience. But the Indian politician has an all-inclusive persuasion strategy.

All this persuasion comes with no financial incentive either—no salaries or monetary rewards await the office bearers of any party. They have made full use of two effects that economists are just discovering—that financial incentives crowd out intrinsic motivation and that identity shapes most of our decisions.

Holding even a minor post of a political party at a panchayat level provides an identity to that individual in the local community. That identity is good enough for her to get minor tasks done for the people. As George Akerlof explained in his Nobel prize winning contribution to economics, this sense of identity and its associated emotional rewards is often the greatest motivator.

The Indian urban elite’s image of a politician is that of a person surrounded by National Security Guard (NSG) commandos, far removed from the masses. This is because such city-dwellers rarely interact with politicians. But the story is different in rural India. In a village, the local political leader is the one to go to for help—for settling disputes, or for easing interactions at the local police station or panchayat office.

The local politician is always ready to provide help. Most of these acts of succour are not based on any money exchange—this is where the power of helping out lies. It is a belief embedded in the human brain, right from our early days of evolution, that one needs to reciprocate a favour. It is during elections that the politician activates the reciprocity. Many a times, a vote is a thank-you note for favours received. This web of reciprocity that the politician creates around him is at the core of his persuasion strategy.

Many organizations are involved in developing persuasive communication to achieve various type of behaviour changes. Executives involved in developing behaviour change campaigns should travel in the campaign van of an Indian politician for a few days. The lessons in persuasion that he will learn along the way will be far more valuable than an executive education programme at the best university in the world.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behavioural architectural firm.

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