Brand Narendra Modi and Brand Rahul Gandhi can take credit for their respective party’s performance in the Gujarat election as their personal charisma has played a key role in gaining votes. With the general elections slated for 2019, what does the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress showing mean for both these leaders – one an established one on the national stage while the other being tested in his new role as the Congress party president?
Though Brand Modi has emerged intact, the BJP’s image has been eroded to some extent in Gujarat, say brand experts. The leadership of Modi has remained unscathed, however. “Gujarat takes a lot of pride in Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the policies of the government like demonetisation and the GST (goods and services tax) have impacted the large business community in Gujarat and the BJP’s performance in the assembly elections is a proof of their anger,” says Alpana Parida, president, DY Works – a global brand strategy and brand design firm.
One thing is clear though. Rahul Gandhi cannot be anymore dismissed as the ‘pappu’ – a word often used to describe the Congress party leader by his critics. It was largely expected that Gujarat would be a walk-over for the BJP. Whoever would have thought there would be a contender in the form of the Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi no less, asks Parida.
To believe that Brand Modi and the BJP continue to enjoy the support of a large populace is an assumption that has been busted at the hustings. Did the tide turn for Rahul Gandhi though, is the question. “I feel the Opposition has by and large rallied around the image of Rahul Gandhi. To that extent it is only Rahul Gandhi who can be credited for the Congress’s victory,” says Harish Bijoor, brand strategy expert and founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. He believes leadership is often about the faces that represent their parties. So on that premise, Modi and Gandhi are seen as the party by their supporters. But Bijoor hastens to add that the elevation of Gandhi as the party president did not impact the elections as it were. Being made party president is primarily an internal matter of the party and elections here are by like-minded people, he said. “I think the Gujarat election is the first coming of Rahul Gandhi as a brand,” says Bijoor, for getting 80 seats is no mere feat, he said.
There are various angles to look at with regard to the the results of the Gujarat assembly elections. Just as there were a few to show support, albeit for the first time, to Gandhi, there are others who feel it is a case of coming to too-soon-a-conclusion on the newly anointed president of the oldest party of India.
“It is true that the structural policies put in place by Prime Minister Modi will take some time before it can give out results and that could have impacted the party’s fate at the polls. But I am doubtful when the media says the Congress has performed well or that Brand Rahul has made a comeback. Gandhi has only improved on his performance and there is a long way for him to go to become a national leader of stature,” says Siddharth Shekhar Singh, associate professor of marketing at the Indian School of Business (ISB).
Singh feels that too many local factors helped the Congress and many of them were not in favour of Modi but they were definitely not in favour of the Congress party either, he says.
If Gandhi is not to be credited with the party’s performance at Gujarat, doesn’t he warrant to be seen as a face in the Opposition that is strong enough to face the BJP? Some experts feel Brand Gandhi must be given credit. “Brand Rahul has transformed into a possible alternative narrative to the Modi narrative which is vitriolic and brash and personal at times. Rahul Gandhi and the Congress have shown up as more balanced and rational by asking party veteran Mani Shankar Aiyar to apologise and then suspending him from its primary membership for embarrassing the party with his remarks,” said N Chandramouli, Chief Executive Officer, TRA Research, a brand data insights company.
Chandramouli says that though Brand Rahul has emerged strong from the Gujarat assembly elections, it does not mean that the party with Gandhi at the helm will be able to win the 2019 general elections. “One thing is sure. Brand Rahul has infused confidence in his team that the party will not go down without a whimper. There is a balance narrative to it, for now,” he says.
There are lessons for both Brand Modi and the BJP and likewise for Brand Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. But though there is a general consensus among brand experts Firstpost spoke to that Brand Rahul Gandhi has been able to make a difference to the Gujarat assembly election results, all are cautious about his future role as it has to be ‘consistent’, they aver. Bijoor says that if a Brand Rahul version of 1.0 emerged in Gujarat, there can be a 1.5 version in the interim between Gujarat and Assembly elections provided the party is able to make a difference in Karnataka when the state goes for polls in 2018. “That could be the acid test for Gandhi,” Bijoor said.
If the Karnataka assembly elections do prove decisive for the Congress and Gandhi fritters away his chances after the good showing at the recently concluded elections in Gujarat, then the ‘Pappu’ tag will stick on to Gandhi, cautions Parida of DY Works.
The assembly election verdict must be taken seriously by the BJP though. The perception is that the party has not offered anything significant to a state like Gujarat beyond a ‘vibrant’ tag — not many new projects, jobs, etc. If it continues to ignore these issues, the electorate will respond like it did in Gujarat, where it even lost the prime minister’s home seat of Unjha. “That is a warning for Brand Modi,” says Chandramouli.
Clearly, both Brand Modi and Brand Gandhi have a lot of work to do to bring back the lustre of yore for the former and to retain what it has gained for the latter. Whether they have succeeded or not will be answered by the electorate every time the leaders and the parties go to them seeking their support.