Bihar Elections: incumbent vs incumbent

The dust has settled, the campaigning is over, results are out, and the incumbent CM has swept the state. It has been one of the biggest electoral victories for any party in a major state, even besting AIADMK’s in Tamil Nadu. It’s a good time to review the high profile, high pressure campaign that was run by both the leading parties in the state.

Election campaigns are different from the campaigns that brands run. Brands look to grow their market share, either by expanding the market, or by eroding competitors’ share. For them competition is a rival that they must battle continuously to grow. The political parties look to decimate the opposing party; one has to win, and other has to lose. In elections, competitors are not rivals, they are enemies. Electoral campaigns are mounted to destroy the enemy, much like war. As in war, the election mass media campaigns are never enough to determine the outcome of an election. To that extent I have only looked at the campaigns the two leading parties ran in mass media.

Both the leading parties carried a two-layered campaign. Brand campaign built on the overall large appeal, a tactical campaign to counter the attack from opposition.

BJP ran the now familiar “Abki Bar Bhajapa Sarkar” campaign in the state, showcasing Modi, and adding Amit Shah to the mix. The campaign was the usual mix of slogans, broad issues, and call for change. The tactical campaign they ran was designed to question the incumbent government on its failures. All of this by now is the template that BJP follows. The campaign was singular in appeal, focused in what it wanted to say, and always had challenge as tonality. The tactical campaign was designed to question the incumbent CM. The tactical campaign was turned into a large-scale social media campaign with a series of hashtags.

JDU ran the campaign squarely focusing on the goodwill and stature of Nitish Kumar with the slogan “Aage Badta Rahe Bihar, Fir Ek Bar Nitish Kumar”.  The campaign was understated compared to that of the BJP, was surefooted in light of the challenge and was singular like that of the BJP. The tactical campaigns on ground were built on two broad narratives: outsider and don’t get deceived. “Bahari Vs Bihari” was a clever twist to expose a chink in BJP’s campaign of not promising a face, and “Jhanse main na aana” to counter BJP’s constant questioning of the CM’s achievements.

The electorate had two clear campaigns to follow and two clear choices to make. Why did one campaign do very well, and why did the other despite a proven template did so badly? The answers may lie in the fact that this was the first election where an incumbent was battling an incumbent.

BJP’s ultra successful “Abki Bar Modi Sarkar” is a clever challenger campaign. It urges voters to vote for a change, to vote for issues that the party focuses on. This has worked in almost all state elections, except Delhi (where the party did not lose its vote share). For a challenger campaign to work, it has to be seen as a challenger campaign. By building the campaign around Modi, the party reminded voters that he is the incumbent, in fact a bigger incumbent than the outgoing CM. By urging for change as the key campaign message, it generated a sense of tired déjà vu. The challenger never rose above the rhetoric of its own making and fell flat because the other party made a virtue of being incumbent.

JDU on the other hand played the game of being a classic defender. The campaign played in the pride of the state built its CM as the insider. By building on slogans like “Bihar main Bahaar ho, Nitishe Kumar ho”, the campaign cleverly hijacked the appeals of BJP. In the incumbent versus incumbent battle, the defender played a solid game, used the home turf advantage to the hilt and left the challenger with very little space to manoeuver. The JDU campaign has lessons for many other incumbents on how to counter the challenger.

Bihar has just endured a long shrill sectarian campaign. The political campaigns need not be always like war. BJP’s campaign was designed to destroy the enemy, the enemy stood resolute. The JDU’s campaign was to engage the competitor. It wasn’t built to destroy the competitor. By being engaging the party was being insightful. Bihar is the land that understands politics, and understands it much better than most other states.

I had said this earlier on social media. As usual Bihar shows the way. Stopped Mrs G. Stopped Advani. Now it has humbled Modi. There is something Bihari’s know that India should learn from. This time they have dispensed lessons in political advertising.

Original published here

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