Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Exclusive Interview with Suryah, Techno Campaign Strategist

Exclusive Interview with Suryah, Techno Campaign Strategist

Suryah SG (25), a law graduate from a premier Law College at Pune was part of the Political Techno Campaign Team of BJP during the 2014 General Elections and four Assembly Elections.  He will be playing a crucial role in the Techno Campaign Strategy Team for BJP in the 2016 Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections.  He is one of the few persons followed by Narendra Modi in his Twitter.  In an exclusive interview for PreSense, he shares his views on this new concept.  Excerpt:

How did you involve yourself in the 'New Age Techno Communication Campaign' of Narendra Modi?

On 24th June 2012, I received a call from the Office of the then Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. I was invited to meet the Chief Minister the following day to discuss the evolving trends of the social media. I was then a law student at Pune.  This phone call proved to be a turning point in my life and provided an opportunity to learn about election communication strategy. The historical interaction with Modi for 20 minutes still lingers in my mind like a dream. I worked for the Gujarat Assembly Elections 2012 and later got involved in different elections to assist the BJP in different capacities thereafter.  The 2012 Gujarat Election Campaign was a landmark in the history of Indian Elections. We integrated all the technology tools like internet, social media, mobile phones, smart phones, 3D Rallies, etc. to connect with people.

What were the strategies planned by your team during 2014 General Elections?

In January 2014, Congress MP & Former Union Minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar mocked the then Gujarat Chief Minister Modi as a Chaiwala. Our CAG Team (Campaign Team that worked for Narendra Modi during the run-up for the Lok Sabha Elections 2014) immediately sprung into action and coined a political event, “Chai pe Charcha” (Discussion over Tea) throughout the country.  As someone who had organised dozens of Chai pe Charcha events across the country it was a totally new and refreshing experience, interacting with chaiwalas (Those who prepare and serve tea at tea stalls) all over the country, live and through video conferences. We were able to capitalise on Modi being a Chaiwala earlier in his life. While the ground activity was executed by the party workers, the idea to conduct such catchy events came from our strategy team.

The importance of the social media is largely underestimated. We normally believe that Face book, Twitter & WhatsApp influence only a particular age group of people.  In reality, the impact of the word-of-mouth campaign spreading through these social media platforms is very huge. One WhatsApp user has the potential to spread the message he receives across an entire village.

Do the senior political leaders and workers accept a team of youngsters?

Political leaders who have toiled at ground level for over three to four decades, do not tend to easily accept the newly sprung up election techno strategists overnight. It takes time for them to come into an understanding that the political landscape in India is slowly turning towards a strategy based activity. These political leaders still do not accept the evolution and adaptation of technology as influential factors in electioneering.


Since I had studied law from a premier law school in Pune, I was fortunate to have friends from different political parties studying with me in my college. I had opportunities to interact with strategists from various political parties like the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Shiv Sena and other small parties during the run up of the Lok Sabha Elections 2014 and the Maharashtra Assembly Elections 2014. Presently, I am also interacting with the strategists for the Assam, Kerala and West Bengal Elections 2016. Everywhere, I find a similar experience cutting across the party lines among the new groups of young techno strategists facing difficulty in being accepted by the old political guards. The seniors in the parties just cannot accept fresh youngsters as potential strategists for the elections. While their worries are totally justified, the recent elections have proven that fresh political techno strategists can walk the talk and give a tough contention to conventional political experts.

In one of the state elections where my friends were associated, the local political leadership had a tough time to amend their ways. This compelled the central leadership to come down to the state for two days, camp there and convince the local political set up that these techno strategists were present only for a temporary period till the elections were over. Till such time this assurance was given by the central leadership, this young group of people were treated like bitter rivals. The existing senior leaders feel unsecured.  At the same time, I also find that some of the pro-active senior leaders encourage the youngsters by supplementing the knowledge with their own experience and wisdom. 

What are the skills needed to become a political techno strategist?

Anyone who wants to become a Election Techno Strategist should have exceptional skills in using technology tools, and smartness to convert every challenge into an opportunity. The Indian political situation is not yet matured like that of the western countries. It needs immense patience and perseverance by youngsters to get into the political setup and become a real strategist and influence the political decisions of the party. With my experience I can boldly say that it is definitely not a cake walk. Ambitious youngsters aspiring to become a politician should behave in a matured manner, if they take the role of a strategist. Exhibiting the political ambitions openly during their role as strategist will prove disastrous and counter-productive.

What is the difference between corporate campaigning and political campaigning?

Political campaign is time-based and sprouts suddenly during the election time. Corporate campaigning needs continuous engagement with stake holders through various agencies and PR mechanisms. While corporate campaigning is well established in India, political campaigning will take some more years to stabilise.

To cite an example, when our team was working for BJP in the Maharashtra Assembly Elections 2015, we formed a Campaign Team Y4D (Youth for Development).  Through this team, we strategised a series of events and meetings to reach the voters.  In Pune, hundreds of volunteers wearing the Modi Mask thronged the streets with printed charge sheets on the misgovernance of the state ruling party.  Using proper strategies, BJP won the toughest seats. After assuming office as Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis invited the entire team for dinner.  In the corporate campaigning, the strategy is different. 

What is the difference in strategies between national elections and regional assembly elections?

I worked for BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha Election and four Assembly Elections. The national elections have a broad perspective, while regional elections are localised. People are smart enough to differentiate between them. BJP which won 7 out of 7 seats in Delhi in the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections, could win only 3 out of 70 assembly seats in the elections held after 8 months.  In Bihar, where BJP had won majority during the Lok Sabha Elections failed to form the Government, largely because of the unification of two rivals factors, RJD and  JDU.

Content-wise, the strategy team will have to create contents on regional issues and they have to be delivered through the communication channels of the party. Regional issues should be the talking point and research has to be done locally. Also linguistic problems arise at every stage both in National and Regional Elections. Four big states viz. Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Assam that are going for Assembly elections in 2016 have strong local languages – Malayalam, Tamil, Bengali and Assamese. National Parties like BJP and Congress are handicapped as they deploy their own Strategists who are not well versed with the local language and culture. Therefore from my experience, I would say both the elections are completely different and the approach should be unique.

What do you think is the future for the Political Techno Strategic Communication experts?  What is the trend among the Indian political parties, both at the national and regional level?

India has very few national parties. Congress and BJP have already started to realise the need for proper strategies. As for regional parties, we saw AAP in Delhi & JDU in Bihar hiring professional agencies to handle their campaign strategies. DMK and a few other regional parties in Tamil Nadu seem to have roped in Techno Strategy teams to handle their Social Media and PR assignments in the run-up of the 2016 Elections.

'Political Techno Strategic Communication' is still a grey area; I do not see much scope for aspirants now, unless they have the right connections politically and a proper understanding of the political landscape and culture of the region. It is a difficult area to even risk and venture upon. Those who achieve success in this field will be sure to be successful everywhere. There is no institute or University to teach Strategy. At the end of the day, everything comes down to the individual’s capacity to deal with complex situations with a variety of factors, at the shortest time.

Surya can be reached at

Interviewed by the Editorial Team

Reproduced from the cover story of Jan 2016 issue of ezine PreSense

New Age Techno Strategic Political Communication

The 2014 General Elections witnessed a new way of political campaigning using various technology tools. The campaign model used in the western countries was tweaked to suit the Indian elections and to promote Narendra Modi.  In any communication, whether it is a political campaign or corporate branding, a powerful message is sent to the audience through effective media tools, with the purpose of creating a positive or negative perception. According to S Narendra, Former Information Advisor to various Prime Ministers of India, it involves a strong strategy to successfully flight the message to the right audience through the right media, distinguishing it  from the competing messages. 

During the freedom movement, Mahatma Gandhi's Dandi March created a strong anti-British sentiment among the people. While Mahatma Gandhi was undertaking the Salt March in North India, Rajaji simultaneously undertook a Salt March in the south, to galvanise the entire country.  In both the events, ‘common salt’ was the message and the 'March' was used as a 'Media' tool, to communicate the message to the people. For any successful campaign, the message should relate and appeal to the audience.  

'Strategic' is a key word that represents the most critical input. A strategy is not very useful without such a critical input, an input that is a force multiplier. The strategic input can be an investment, person, alliance, a message, event or a decision.

The 1947-1990 Era

During this pre-liberalisation period, the radio and print media were mainly used.  The ruling party had the opportunity of using the public sector organisations to promote the achievements of the Government through their advertisements. 

During the first General Elections held in 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress Party contested on a symbol of 'two bullocks tied to a yoke' and won massive majority. In the later days, Indira Gandhi used the 'Çow and Calf' symbol and the Janatha Party used 'a Farmer Within a Wheel'. These symbols were in themselves powerful messages to connect with  the people and
appeal to them. 

In 1971, Indira Gandhi used the powerful message 'Garibi Hatao' and swept the elections. During the 1989 elections, VP Singh used the powerful message of the 'Bofors Scandal' against Rajiv Gandhi.  BJP used the 'Ram Mandir' issue to increase the tally.                                                                                           
During this period, the political parties used conventional methods of the print media.  At that time, only the All India Radio and Doordarshan were the electronic media available and  mostly used by ruling party.  Political campaigns were based on public meetings, personal contact with voters, wall posters, banners, notices, etc. Cinema, stage dramas, street plays and cut-outs were used by political parties in the south to promote their philosophies.  MGR, Karunanidhi, Annadurai, NT Ramarao, Jayalalitha and Raj Kumar emerged from the film industry to acquire political power. 

The 1990-2014 Era

After the economic liberalisation in 1991, the emergence of the television (TV) media changed the campaign strategies.  Political parties started owning TV channels to promote their parties.  In 1993, Sun TV was started as an entertainment channel with an agenda of promoting the DMK political party.  Later on, many more parties started their own channels.

In 1996, the BSP leader, Kanshiram slapped Ashutosh (now a spokesperson of AAP), then reporter in NDTV, when he was asked some uncomfortable questions.  That led to the political parties thinking in terms of engaging professional agencies for handling the media and appointing spokespersons to engage the media. 

The BJP and the Congress parties began using Professional Public Relation (PR) Agencies like Good Relations India and Perfect Relations to handle media relations on their behalf.  After 2004, national parties began using professional agencies in the states they were ruling (mostly in the north and the west), for election campaign.

Soon, national parties set up their own Internal Campaign Managers, to professionally handle the campaign. Arun Nehru (Congress) Arun Jaitly (BJP), Narendra Modi (BJP), Pramod Mahajan (BJP) and Jairam Ramesh (Congress) emerged as good campaign managers. 

The 2004 General Elections saw the emergence of 'theme-based advertisements'.  BJP heavily campaigned under the theme 'India Shining', employing the Advertising Agency Grey, reportedly spending around Rs.600 crores for the campaign. For the first time, the Indian Elections witnessed a corporate type of advertisements. Although the Congress was weak, they used the campaign 'Aap Ko Kiya Mila' (What Did You Get).  Although the economy was upbeat and BJP had spent a huge amount their campaign, they could not form the Government in 2004.  Experts opine that the negative campaign run by BJP on Sonia Gandhi as a 'foreigner' coupled with the 'India Shining' campaign of BJP could not win them the elections.  The common voters could not connect with the 'India Shining' theme. 

Technology was used only to a limited extent in the 2004 General Elections.   BJP projected Vajpayee as PM Candidate.  For the first time in the Indian elections, a candidate was projected as a PM candidate.

After 2004, Political Communication Strategists emerged in a small way to support individual leaders at the regional level. 

In the 2009 General Elections, both BJP and Congress  used technology tools like the social media, SMS / telephone campaign, etc.  Advani and Dr Manmohan Singh were projected as PM candidates of BJP and Congress respectively.  BJP was the major user of technology tools.  BJP lost the elections.

Till 2009, there was no 'paid media' concept.  Political parties appointed advertising agencies to plan and place their advertisements. 

The 2014 (Post Modi) Era

Narendra Modi (BJP) used technology tools like the social media, 3D hologram, mobile phones, smart phones, etc in Gujarat Assembly Elections in 2012. 

Political Techno Strategies were used in the 2014 General Elections.   Professionals like Prashant Kishore supported the BJP campaign. A more professional approach towards the campaign, like survey, big data analytics, and micro-management of the campaign through technology were used.  New technologies like Augmented Reality (QR code) and Virtual Reality (like hologram) were also used.

The campaign branded Narendra Modi as PM candidate.  Slogans like 'Acche Din' (Good Days/Times) and 'Aap ki Bar Modi Sarkar' (This Time, It’s Modi’s Government) attracted voters nationwide.  They involved the youth through the social media.  The campaign was supplemented by a large number of road shows (public meetings) in different states.  The Congress could not match the technology-driven campaign of BJP. BJP and its alliance parties won the election with a big margin, leaving the Congress disappointed.  

The same model was used in other state elections held subsequently in Maharashtra, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Bihar and Delhi.  The BJP lost in Delhi and Bihar, indicating that creating 'hype' alone might not be enough to win elections and that it should be coupled with field work.  This new type of campaign will be adopted in the 2016 Assembly Elections.  Some of the regional political parties have begun employing the expertise of professionals for their campaigns.

After 2009, media houses were encouraging 'sponsored news' or 'paid news' to propagate positive and success stories.  Although the Election Commission and the Press Council of India have banned the 'paid news' concept, excepting a few media houses, many others have been promoting this concept for earning revenue.  Ironically, the same media houses shout about 'values and ethics’, while they go about to the extent of publishing/telecasting sponsored 'opinion polls' in favour of one party or the other.

Traditional Vs Modern Campaign

In the traditional campaign, the political leaders and workers had personal interaction with the voters.  After the introduction of the technology campaign, personal interactions were lost.  Since 80% of the voters are not connected with technology tools, traditional campaign model requires to be supplemented.  The technology tools are useful for creating a 'brand image'. 

In the traditional model, the leaders emerged from the grass root level with knowledge about the nuances of various problems. Vajpayee, Advani, Karunanidhi, MGR, NTR, Kamaraj, Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, Narasimha Rao, Bansilal, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lallu Prasad Yadav, Mayavati, Mamta Banerjee and Sharath Pawar are examples of such leaders who had emerged from the grass root.  But in the technology model, leaders are emerging from the social media, eg. Arvind Kejriwal, and Narendra Modi as PM candidate). 
Hype is created through intensive campaigns using the social media and other technology tools, the projected leader runs the risk of losing his image when the campaign ceases. In other words, the leaders or the brand created out of this hype is unable to stand on their own but rely on a virtual standing.  For this reason, a fair mix of both traditional and technology strategies is necessary.

Presently, political parties suffer from a bad culture of hooliganism, rowdyism, etc.  In future, it is hoped that a balance can be maintained in the political culture, with the emergence of new-age educated leaders.

By K Srinivasan, Editor in Chief

Reproduced from the cover story of Jan 2016 issue of ezine PreSense

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