If you travelled in Uttar Pradesh two months ago and asked people about Akhilesh Yadav, you’d hear he’s trying to deliver but his family isn’t letting him do it. Akhilesh’s image was being overshadowed by the long drawn-out family feud for control of the party, and not the various welfare schemes or infrastructure projects he had implemented.
If you repeat the exercise today, you will hear people say Akhilesh has delivered. Significantly, many upper caste voters of the Bhartiya Janata Party and Dalit voters of the Bahujan Samaj Party will acknowledge this. They say they will still vote for their favourite parties but yes, Akhilesh has delivered. What exactly has he delivered on? Most people will count 2-3 things. Some will count ambulances in villages and the fast response of Dial 100 police vehicles, others will point out new roads and electricity fee waiver on irrigation pumps.
How has Akhilesh Yadav achieved an image makeover in faraway villages? Delivering itself doesn’t always convert into a positive image. There’s been a clever communication campaign behind this, much of it run by Steve Jarding, a public policy professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Headed by Jarding’s former student Adwait Vikram Singh, a team of 100 people in Lucknow are co-ordinating the campaign. Mostly, they give Akhilesh strategy advice, they don’t implement campaigns themselves.
Jarding started working with Akhilesh in August. He has been to Lucknow five times, and on such occasion even visited Etah district with the chief minister. At Harvard, Adwait Vikram Singh had taken Jarding’s famous ‘Making of a Politician’ course. Jarding has been a political consultant for politicians around the world, including for Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh.
Sources in the Samajwadi Party close to the chief minister have given us a glimpse of how Jarding’s team has made a difference.
The team is exclusively focused on rural areas, as Akhilesh Yadav’s conventional messaging reaches urban areas anyway. In rural areas, however, they found a major challenge. Rural youth were still besotted with Narendra Modi. Modi has been building his image for years and had a massive 2014 election campaign, whereas Akhilesh is just a first time chief minister. The main challenge was to convert rural youth into seeing Akhilesh in a positive light.
Village Ambassadors Of Brand Akhilesh
The team mapped all of Uttar Pradesh’s polling booths, which number over a lakh. Each polling booth has been listed in ten categories, such as caste, its past electoral behaviour, demographic, how many SP cadres it has, and so on.
Thereafter, designing a strategy for every booth, they recruited lakhs of party workers across the state. The target for this is 30 lakh by the end of January. While this process was going on, Shivpal Yadav had replaced Akhilesh as the party’s state unit president. These workers were turned into Samajwadi Vikas Yojana Pramukhs, thereby creating an almost parallel cadre structure for Akhilesh Yadav.
Connected to the Lucknow office of Steve Jarding & Partners through smartphones, the Yojana Pramukhs are acting as ambassadors of various schemes. The schemes include the Samajwadi Pension Yojana, the Kamdhenu dairy scheme, the promise of smartphone after the 2017 elections, ration cards and irrigation schemes. There are Yojana Pramukhs even for law and order and the Jan Dhan scheme launched by the central government. Yojana Pramukhs send grievances to Lucknow as well as move the local administration. After getting people’s problems solved, the Pramukhs are able to say it’s Akhilesh Yadav who got it done.
These workers have been recruited from across caste and demographic groups, depending on the electoral dynamic of the constituency. But a major mandate of the scheme is to expand beyond the Samajwadi Party’s core voter base of Yadavs and Muslims. Communities that are being particularly targeted are youth, women, non-Jatav Dalits, mainly Pasis, Brahmins and members of the trading community whose business has been hurt by demonetisation.
One way in which Pramukhs are being identified is by going through lists of beneficiaries of schemes. One such is the Smartphone Yojana, under which 1.5 crore people have already signed up. The scheme promises a free smartphone should Akhilesh Yadav be re-elected.
Over and above the Yojana Pramukhs, there are “trust circles” at the booth and block levels, which are made up of local influencers.
‘Sustained Indirect Campaign’
The work of the Yojana Pramukh network was scaled up significantly in November, the result of which is seen now on the ground. But there has been a lot more, mostly indirect campaigning so that the voter doesn’t see it is party propaganda. That is how grassroots perception of Akhilesh Yadav has been changed.
Apart from Yojana Pramukh network, localised media campaigns, Whatsapp, SMS, IVR calls and other means have been used.
“A lot of perceptions have been changed indirectly rather than directly,” the source said. “The government created a feedback system, where it started calling up citizens and asking them for feedback on the schemes. This helped create recall value about them,” he said.
It is this state-wide communication network that gives Akhilesh Yadav the confidence that he can win this election despite a last minute change of symbol. “We have human and technological reach to 98% households in the constituencies we are focusing attention on,” said a source. This also explains why Akhilesh Yadav is ok fighting on a symbol other than the cycle, should he fail to get the cycle symbol before the elections. “In a few days every voter will know what our new symbol is,” he said.
The buzz is that Akhilesh Yadav is keen on the motorcycle symbol, which is a free symbol with the Election Commission, and will help communicate progress from the cycle.
Managing Perceptions On The Family Feud
Early on in their conversations, Steve Jarding explained to Akhilesh Yadav that he had to be seen as taking ownership. If Akhilesh was seen as blaming his father or uncle for a bad decision, he would in turn be seen as a man who cannot take ownership. While it is ok for Akhilesh to share credit, he was told he is alone in taking the blame. That explains why Akhilesh Yadav wouldn’t accept the merger of the Qaumi Ekta Dal in the Samajwadi Party.
“No consultant can tell Akhilesh how to speak to his father or uncle. But what they did was to advice Akhilesh on how to manage public perception of the family feud,” the source said. “They said the messaging had to be clear and swift to turn the crisis into an opportunity.”
Times of major crises in parties can end up in bad press for either side. The crisis in the Aam Aadmi Party that led to the exit of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan was an example. To pre-empt the family feud from hurting Akhilesh’s public image, Jarding’s advice to him was to never publicly say anything against the family, while at the same time emphasise that the people of the state mattered to him over his family. The result of this strategy was seen in a video in October, called “UP is my family,” a phrase coined by a close Akhilesh confidante.
The team refused to get into the messy business of ticket distribution, only giving the right profile for each constituency. “In some cases the CM got back to them with a set of names and asked which one they’d pick for the constituency,” the source said.
More importantly, the team has been managing perceptions even about the opposition. In each constituency the BJP has 20-40 contenders for tickets. Seeing the BJP as their main opponent, Jarding’s team has been using its network even to create negative perceptions of potential BJP candidates.