City Memo - In Which Anna Gives it Those Ones

City Memo – In Which Anna Gives it Those Ones

City Memo - In Which Anna Gives it Those Ones

The marketing of brand Anna Hazare.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

In an apartment in Ghaziabad, Delhi’s satellite town, lives a family that regularly watches Zee TV’s Sa Re Ga Ma Pa L’il Champs, a singing talent show for children. On 12 August 2011, the mother, father and their 12-year-old daughter were pleasantly surprised to see Anna Hazare, the 74-year-old man who has shaken India, as the show’s special guest.

Each member of the family has their own reason to adore Mr Hazare. “His vision goes beyond the Lokpal,” says Tribhuwan Narayana Singh, an engineer. His daughter, Paridhi, says, “He’s old and yet energetic.” Her mother, Payal, a designer, says, “I first heard of Anna in April when he was fasting at Jantar Mantar. His looks and dress is so Indian. When he talks passionately, he reminds me of my father; when he is quiet and looks innocent, I’m reminded of my father-in-law.”

On Sunday, August 21, more than 100,000 people visited the Ramlila Ground in Delhi to cheer Mr Hazare where he is fasting for his version of an anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill. The same day, thousands marched in Bombay. Activists such as Medha Patkar and Baba Amte have also gone on hunger strikes for worthy causes, but they never attracted such a feverish following.

Middle-class Indians seem as emotional about Hazare as liberal Americans once felt for Barack Obama. One slogan calls him the country’s second Gandhi. Is he the modern-day messiah we’ve been waiting for, or just a ranting grandfatherly figure with an astute publicity team?

“Building brands, and communicating with the public at large needs to be based on a singular plinth: honesty,” says Prathap Suthan​, the man behind the India Shining and Incredible India! ad campaigns, and who is the chief explorer at brand and creative consulting firm The Advisory. Explaining what worked with Mr Hazare, he says, “Tomorrow if (industrialist) Ratan Tata decides to go on a fast, he will get media coverage because he has the power and the money to ensure that. But he will not get our goosebumps going. He is too polished, and his accent isn’t mine. What makes Hazare special is that he is a simple, honest, old, frail man who has nothing except public support. He is fire, light, hope, and he is me. For him to stand up and challenge generates inspiration. This is David versus Goliath. Part II.”

India has seen several David-Goliath encounters, but the number of supporters a movement gathers is not just because of the causes that are spoken of. It is also due to the causes not spoken of; silence being a political strategy. It is doubtful that Mr Hazare could have attracted such huge middle-class support if he was vocal in talking about the marginalized people of, say, Manipur, Chhattisgarh, Orissa or Kashmir. Unlike his alter ego, Gandhi, there are no reports of Mr Hazare undertaking a fast-unto-death when parts of India would be hit by communal riots.

Mr Hazare’s politics is as simple as his attire; focused on one issue, corruption. “When you say 10 good things about your product, people won’t remember even one,” says veteran adman Piyush Pandey. “But if you talk about only one thing about the product that comes from people’s need and which promises to address it, then it is always remembered.”

To some, comparing Mr Hazare’s campaign to advertising sounds cynical, but some also feel that the mass hysteria being witnessed at the Ramlila Ground is not only a true response to people’s frustrations, but also partly a manipulation of their emotions by various forces, including the media.

According to News Content Track, a service of TAM Media Research, reports on the Jan Lokpal Bill bagged 77 per cent coverage on the top 10 TV news shows in the first half of August.

Mr Hazare’s fast is India’s first major movement to have been actively driven by online media. After he was arrested by the Delhi Police on 16 August, the day he was to start his second fast in the Capital in five months, 180,000 Internet users signed the online petition to free him. For two days, the Twitter hash tag #isupportannahazare was the top-trending topic in India. Till August 23, Mr Hazare’s India Against Corruption campaign had more than 400,000 “likes” on its Facebook page. Mr Hazare’s video, recorded in Tihar Jail, has been visited by more than 100,000 people on YouTube.

Mr Hazare’s language is simple; don’t read him if you like the multi-layered complexities articulated by activists such as Aruna Roy​. The banner on the stage at the Ramlila Ground is printed with his five sayings, their tone as moralistic and preachy as any in Mao’s Little Red Book.

Explaining what business leaders can learn from Mr Hazare, Simerjeet Singh, a motivational speaker who conducts leadership workshops for companies, says, “First, build a good team by taking in people whose skills you lack. Second, show passion and purpose with no vague talk. Third, display commitment by being ready for any eventuality. Fourth, win support by effectively using social media networks. And fifth, be authentic, for people quickly sniff out fakeness.”

Is Mr Hazare a genuine Gandhian? Mahatma Gandhi’s visibility in the Lokpal agitation has grown in direct proportion to the movement’s popularity. When Mr Hazare staged the fast at Jantar Mantar, the stage’s backdrop had a small image of Gandhi dwarfed by a larger portrait of Mother India​, an icon often identified with right-wing organizations. At the Ramlila Ground, an oversized Mahatma Gandhi has left no place for Mother India. TV news channels have been beaming sound bites of excitable youngsters breathlessly saying that they have seen a second Gandhi.

“Gandhi is a national symbol and you can’t blame Hazare for using him to market his movement,” says Mahesh Bhatt, a film-maker who speaks for causes that don’t always score him points with the middle-class or politicians. “The way Hazare is using Gandhi is similar to the movie industry’s franchisee business. When we made Murder 2 this year, we connected it to the first Murder, and so used an earlier successful brand as a springboard to another success.”

Gandhi was a multidimensional man with constantly evolving views. Is Mr Hazare simplifying Gandhi, stripping him of his complexities and self doubt?

“If someone fasting for a public cause is to feel inspired by Gandhi, three characteristics would need to mark the fast,” says Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Mahatma’s grandson and a former governor of West Bengal. “First, violence must be eschewed, not just in being non-incendiary and non-injuring in a physical sense, but also in thought and word, especially towards the perceived ‘adversary’, who can be challenged, but not threatened, and certainly not insulted. Second, there should be zero animosity towards the people who are to respond to the fast, and there should be a readiness to engage with them with respect and with a readiness to concede as much good sense in them as is assumed in oneself. Third, ego in the person fasting would, like anger in a person praying, be self-defeating. There has to be a readiness to compromise, not on principles, but in programmatic details.”

These qualities are tough to spot in Mr Hazare. On August 20, Mr Hazare roared in his high-pitched voice, saying, “Those who suggest that RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party​) are backing this protest should be sent to a mental hospital.” Next day, he called the government a traitor to the nation. Gandhi was more polite.

Commenting on Mr Hazare’s Gandhian image, Mr Suthan says, “He is rebuilding and re-energizing the Gandhi brand, while building and strengthening himself.” Pointing to the success of the film Lage Raho Munnabhai​ that celebrated “Gandhigiri”, he adds, “It worked because Gandhi and the Gandhian way was contemporized. And suddenly, here’s the play-out of a script that all of us wanted to see in real life. A modern-day Gandhi was waiting to happen.”

To film-maker Bhatt, the ambitions of Brand Anna go beyond Gandhiana. “Like Gandhi, Hazare isn’t corrupt and has genuinely led an austere life. But, unlike Gandhi, he has the greed to become God,” Mr Bhatt says. “Not satisfied with the material crumbs of the world, Hazare wants to be remembered for posterity. He is obsessed with the need to become an Anna avatar. That’s why his marketers have used the reincarnation narrative of Gandhi. Reincarnation, of course, is a part of India’s religious discourse.”

While Mr Hazare’s critics might keep guessing his ultimate aspiration, he has achieved what politicians couldn’t: bringing the privileged middle class to the street.

When Mr Hazare was in Tihar, Anurag Ohri, a senior vice-president at Indiabulls Securities Ltd, drove his Honda Civic to India Gate after office hours and marched in the Hazare-chanting crowd. Next day, he spent two hours outside Tihar. “Anna is not glamorous or a celeb-type,” he says. “He is a no-nonsense crusader.”

Mr Hazare’s team has begun to hint that their struggle transcends the Lokpal Bill and that it is a fight against the system itself. Is it possible for the old man to stir the villages too, like Gandhi?

“Hazare’s campaign has given large sections of otherwise unconnected people a common national purpose. It is an example of how moral persuasion, calibrated into a degree of moral pressure, can impact ruling predispositions,” says Gopalkrishna Gandhi. “Comparisons of him with Gandhi and descriptions of his campaign as a ‘second freedom movement’ need not trouble the historically minded. But if seen as designations conferred by our age, they are in danger of recoiling due to the pitfalls of comparison. Such analogies are best left to future historians, who will view the events with the detachment and dispassion of time and knowledge of results.”

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