Doubling up today as a communication professional and as an involved member of Aam Aadami Party, I have to confront a frequently asked question – “What are the communication challenges that the Aam Aadami Party faces currently?” On the face of it, the question appears quite simple. However, on deeper reflection I realize how complex its answer can turn out to be.
For I perceive AAP not as a stimulus but as an out of ordinary alternative-response to an extraordinary political vacuum emerging globally. A political vacuum seems to have arisen worldwide in the post liberalization age wherein the old institutions and ideology – of various hues and shades – are giving way. It is not an end of ideology age in Daniel Bell’s sense of the term. It seems to be an end of all old ideology – left, right or centre – creating a vacuum. Substitution is no answer as it originates out of the same old spectrum only. A qualitatively different alternative which too can fit all seems to be an inadequate answer. Different unique flowers of possibilities are blooming at different places around the globe. Obama’s piggyriding on change, Argentina’s experiment and Arab Spring may have disparate element defying any apparent unity, they all appear to be bound by unique responses to the extraordinary political vacuum. So has been AAP’s response so India’s unique political vacuum so far. It looks at specific Indian situations and responds through a problem solving approach by taking into account evidence available and by trying to find the best way forward. That is AAP’s ideology – fluid, dynamic, situation-specific and aimed at solving problems.
Let us now see how this formulation works for AAP on ground. Both the form and the content of communication message of a political party are driven by its ideology, its constituency, and priority of the day. A political party makes three decisions in the process – who all will be sending its messages, to whom will the messaging be done, and most importantly anointing the king of all – developing the content of the core message itself. Soon after the party achieves clarity on these issues, rest of it such as deciding the medium follow suit. Once the message flows through the chosen medium, the ripple effect of the intended communication unfolds, and the sender of message struggles to keep a firm grip, scotching deviations, to navigate its direction and velocity.
Barely a little over a year old political party such as AAP, which has graduated in quick succession from an issue based movement to a formal political party and then to a party in power by quirk of its destiny, has had no time to sit back and consciously firm up its ideology and messaging in conventional sense of the term. It is getting baptized by fire.
AAP’s strength first: The most successful bid of AAP on communication was launching of a dynamic website, creating a Facebook and Youtube account and riding on twitter massively to send its messages. Its website and social media platforms played a great role in earning sympathizers and members from across the globe and specifically reaching the youth segment. Today, it has 15 lakhs likes on Facebook, 4.90 lakhs followers on Twitter and over several lakhs hits on its popular website. The success of AAP in raising these online platforms propelled the other political parties to go online majorly prior to last elections. Narendra Modi, adept that he was in spending huge money in going online in his personal image making exercise, engaged notorious PR Agency – responsible for toppling few legitimate governments across the globe – to make over his mass image. But how far all of that was voluntary is widely known today. Dinassorian styled Congress was slow in going online and its resultant disconnect with the middle class is well known today. AAP presented a pleasant contrast to conventional political parties in that all of its online campaign directed at middle class youth was voluntary, not paid. It reached marginalized segment through out of box and inexpensive outreach campaigns by using autorickshaws rear-panels, padyatras, guirilla advertising and by resorting to the unutilised dark media to its hilt.
What are the communication challenges for AAP then?
(1) As a message sender: For traditional media outreach, a media cell consisting of 9 members constituting a class of message senders was formed in AAP. A list of these communicators appears in the official website of AAP. But it is yet to assume clarity on who will get into the role of strategic communication sender and who all will the tactical fire fighters. As a result, we see a free for all situations. AAP has suave and strategic communicators such as Yogendra Yadav, Professor Anand Kumar, and Gopal Rai, and Atishi Marlena – laced as they are with theoretical grooming as well – on the one hand and the rest whose strength lies in handling the tactical bit. No clear policy exists as to who will do what, resulting in a situation when light weight in AAP are pitted against heavy weights opponents appearing in media. Quite the opposite is also true. Arvind Kejriwal multitasks as situation demands and plays ambidextrous role thus. To add to the muddle, we have a new band of self proclaimed and self styled media savvy AAP members from south to west – who speak at will – oblivious quite often of the party’s position on issues of the day that results in conflict with the dominant voice. One such frequent face is a lady lawyer – suffering from an attention deficit – whose name to fame is to present a knee jerked and contrarian view against AAP in every TV appearance. Ironically enough, she flashes her 10 rupee membership with the drop of her hat.
(2)Catering to the receiver: AAP perhaps recognized its constituencies of message receivers pretty early in the game. AAP was able to successfully charge the imagination of the tech savvy middle class youth through its online campaigns. It found its support among auto rickshaw drivers, bus and metro commuters, unauthorized street vendors, housewives through its broom symbols, and urban idealists through its Gandhian caps. Nebulous though it may appear, AAP’s aam aadami metaphor brought into its fold an array of the left over representing upper middle class, middle class and lower middle class citizens in India’s metropolitan cities. Of all, it kindled a hope in a large number of alienated and cynic urban netizens who had lost all hopes in the current political system. It became their messiah since it knew its receivers very well.
However, not been able to recognize clearly the sensibility of the urban constituency consisting of educated women and intelligentsia, it erred on defending its erroneous understanding of law pertaining to women on more than one occasion. It failed to understand that prostitution per se is not an offence if it happens between two consenting adults in privacy; soliciting publicly, pimping, trafficking indeed is. It failed to tame its high profile but loud mouthed leaders who have manuvadi views on women and who still appreciate beauty and brain in women based on their colour preferences. It still does not understand how one of its constituencies is getting alienated – marked by one of its respectable founding members quitting the party – because of its pragmatic appreciation of Khap. Half the population – correctly viewed as better half – consists of women and a political party can ill afford to alienate them. Even educated women sympathizers of AAP have started getting apprehensive of the party’s crass majoritarianism to achieve electoral gains and have started posing question as to what it can mean for women, the minorities, of people with ambiguous sexuality, or for single women. Flaring up majority prejudices for gaining mass support has dangerous consequences, these women feel. As it is, there is a growing feeling that AAP has failed to bring a sense of security and safety to women so far in Delhi. This is emerging as a big communication as well as an action challenge for AAP.
Another class of AAP’s major constituency is its own volunteers in India and abroad. Internal communication crisis arises due to lack of adequate communication between AAP’s headquarter and these foot soldiers. About one crore of them located in and around the country have no way of finding out what AAP leadership thinking and concerns are at a particular point of time. The biggest organization in India – Indian Railways – with a work force of approximately 7 lakh, also have more than 500 officers – belonging to IRTS, IRAS, IRPS, and range of IRES – to communicate to its workforce on day to day basis. AAP volunteers mainly rely on AAP’s website and Facebook which does not satiate their urge to know about the fine prints of issues and happenings. They know that more often than not media stories are tilted; the published interviews of AAP leaders are the only respite. This problem is more acute in far flung states who do not know whom to look up to. The State conveners are not authentically informed and the communication gap is huge. AAP needs to understand the need of this constituency very clearly or else cynicism may set in soon among many of them. One committed and interactive website dedicated to volunteers – under the supervision of media savvy senior leader – may be initiated so that concerns of ordinary and active members spread all over are addressed and feedback taken on major issues of party’s concern. Even the current website can have a feedback or suggestion platform for members of public and if it happens, AAP will be seen as a learning organization and will never run out of ideas.
(3) Communicating what it stands for: The biggest challenge for AAP is to go on creating original content for its messages. AAP started as a protesting party and indulged majorly in what is called negative communication to give vent to people’s suppressed feelings and to ventilate their anger against the decadent political class. It was able to communicate effectively what it opposes – corruption, lack of accountability, VIP culture, dynastic politics – and was able to give rise to a hope that all these ills can be gotten rid of through Swaraj. One may recall that the Khilafat movement in the freedom struggle too rode on anti-sentiments but it started running out of steam because freedom movement leaders realized that negativity has a shorter shelf life. Still it took almost 26 years for them to bring a constructive messaging – Home Rule – which sustained the movement further. What happened in 26 years then can be achieved in one year now, thanks to media explosion today. But AAP needs to understand this challenge clearly.
Deconstructing its messaging available in the form of interviews of AAP leaders, I found that AAP has a lot of positive messaging too on which it has not harped much. For example, it certainly believes in DIVERSITY as against centrifugal tendency, PARTICIPATIVE DEMOCRACY as against representative democracy, and INTEREST BASED POLITICS as against identity based politics. These are core values which AAP stands for, but they have not been developed and disseminated enough to its constituencies and to the media. Had it harped on these positive core values sufficiently, it would have easily warded off certain motivated media attacks effectively. To cite an example, AAP has a deep conviction in protecting diversity and considers it not as its problem but its strength. Had AAP cited DIVERSITY as its core belief and communicated that effectively, it would have more convincingly defended its position on the killing of Arunachali boy in Delhi or media’s alleged racial bias against AAP in Khirki village.
(4) Choosing the medium: Over all, AAP has been very successful in harnessing the social media platforms as discussed above. It has an impressive army of techno-savvy volunteers who act as foot soldiers of AAP. No wonder AAP has surged ahead in online media at a great speed.
AAP’s strength is the knowledge of technology but their major weakness has been a lack of understanding for creating content. For reaching out to the traditional media, the basic principles of preparing press release or press rebuttal are ignored and the feeling is that anybody who knows English or Hindi can make a press release. Going beyond the press release mode and making special steps to acquire media space for photo-stories, feature stories, interviews, and event scheduling are non-existent. The media cell does not have state wise contact details of print and TV journalists who cover political parties. This creates a handicap for AAP to reach out to all states and union territories centrally, when it decides to.
(5) Ignoring advertising route for communication: Last but not the least, despite being in power for more than a month now, AAP has so far not explored advertising route for communicating at least its public interest messages. During the tragic killing of an Arunachali student recently, it could have easily resorted to advertising the latest provision of SC/ST Act which makes calling names – such as Chinki to a north easterners – an offence attracting 5 years of imprisonment. Similarly, it can legitimately resort to advertising government’s achievement every month in public interest for a wider reach by using print media and outdoor sites.
Challenges are inevitable in AAP’s long chartered journey. The path to success lies perhaps in overcoming them creatively. There is no dearth in my conviction that AAP will face these challenges as opportunity to surge ahead.