Anna Hazare: PR superstar?
So it has come to an end for now. A fast by a 74-year-old man sparked nationwide protests against the political class in the world’s largest democracy and forced a government, already suffering from graft charges, even further on the backfoot. While we are on the issue of sporting analogies, let’s ask ourselves, how many of the statements made in media and civil society, about the UPA government scoring own goals and making unforced errors, are justified?
To start from the top, a few days before Anna Hazare started his fast against the government’s reluctance to table his and his team’s version of a key anti-corruption bill, called the Lokpal bill, the government’s PR machinery made one blunder after the other.
It allowed a Congress spokesman to use rather strong language on TV against Hazare. And later statements on record by union ministers Kapil Sibal and Palaniappan Chidambaram did nothing to turn the tide of public opinion increasingly turning against the government at its inability to crack down on rampant corruption.
On the other hand, while Anna Hazare’s protest channelised the frustration of the Indian middle class, it certainly needed more than that to succeed. From the beginning, his close advisers, nicknamed “Team Anna” by the media, proved to be adept at handling public relations.
Just moments before he was detained by the police, Team Anna put up a video on YouTube with his message calling for nationwide agitation and for people to turn themselves in to the police. It was a PR coup, as by the same evening, thousands of people had gathered in protest in front of the Tihar Jail gates.
From then on till the fast ended, the ruling coalition stumbled and exposed itself as riven by a lack of leadership, indecision, poor judgement and out of touch with the concerns of a country of 1.2 billion people. This was maybe a chance for Rahul Gandhi to shine and be shown as bringing the situation under control. But in the end, his statement in parliament was certainly a case of “too little, too late.” Also, the government’s constant backtracking on its talks with Team Anna and contentious points in the bill, showed it to be fickle.
Team Anna called this a people’s movement and perhaps backed those claims. At the main protest venue in Delhi, everything from Anna Hazare caps and T-shirts, to daily “lectures” by Kiran Bedi on the various clauses in Hazare’s version of the bill, to updates on any meeting with the government being provided on stage, to the line-up of activists, writers, singers, movie stars et al. turned it into a people’s movement, a circus and a reality show, all rolled into one.
By all accounts, even their interaction with the media, including this correspondent, was very transparent. One usually got quotes and information when one needed it. In the end, if the aim of PR is to promote a brand, then one must admit that Team Anna did “Brand Anna” pretty well.