It is up to the citizen to identify the benchmarks that they actually adhere to and define those that they ideally must

By Gopinath Menon

Do we realize that we have brands all around us?  What are brands? Brands are simply “a benchmark of expectations”.

The expectations vary from individual to individual. My expectations from Horlicks, a malted health beverage, would be very different from those of a professional athlete.

This collective of expectations culminates in what we call brand value—how long would you go before you procure the particular brand you are craving for?

Cigarette brands have loyal customers. As a brand, Coke is more valuable than The Coca-Cola Company.

Brands defy categories. Today we have godmen as brands competing with each other. Countries or cities as brands have always fascinated me. For instance, Paris.

Paris is about romance, laid-back leisure. Paris is more coffee than tea. London is more tea, all business-like and purposeful.

Now, coming to the most important category of brands, one that runs and decides how we live our lives.

Political leaders are a weird tribe. One may evaluate a politician via various benchmarks. Some of these are ability, credibility, vitality, intensity and affordability. These qualities may or may not exist in the same person. Someone may have ability, but no credibility. Someone else may have intensity but seem unaffordable.

Moreover, once you screen a party or tall leader for the fulfilling of benchmarks, you will get different answers. The intersection of traits perceived in a politician is what forms their brand image.

Parties as brands

So we have the Congress, BJP and the Left as national brands. The Samajwadi Party, BSP, Akali Dal, etc., are regional brands.

As we read this, Punjab, Goa, Manipur, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh are in the midst of polls. We have notable brands like the Badals, Arvind Kejriwal, Captain Amarinder Singh, Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh Yadav. Now if you run these names on the five benchmarks I have mentioned, it’s evident each would score very low on at least three counts. This means the reasons they are in power or are likely to be voted to power are not good or logical.

Then what is the magnet that draws to them the masses? It is fear, money power, a lack of options or an optimal mix of all three. There is also lineage or pedigree, as a benchmark.

AAP, under Kejriwal, is one of the fastest growing political brands. It based its stance on corruption and policy paralysis. The party shot to instant fame thanks to the legendary Anna Hazare and names like Shanti Bhushan, Prashant Bhushan, Kiran Bedi and Yogendra Yadav. All educated, successful people—with excellent track records. None anymore in the picture.

Strong leaders have a pattern of seldom keeping capable people around them. Kejriwal is no exception. He is now perceived as brilliantly opportunistic, dictatorial and one who practises grievance politics. Have you heard any AAP leader saying anything good about what’s happening in India?  This is the bitter pill that citizens have been still unable to digest. It is what we call the erosion of brand equity. Once equity is lost it is seldom possible to regain it; and the earlier the AAP and its supremo understands it, the better.

The Yadav family has been through its share of turmoil. Significant work was done by the young CM that will not be easy for the rival parties to erase, inspite of the strong religious and caste equations in the state. It is here that Akhilesh the brand has scored over others.

Modi vs BJP

This is a challenge the BJP is myopic to. When you win an election, it’s Modi who has swung it for them, but when you lose in Delhi and Bihar, it’s the party that loses. This convenient onus-shifting is a dangerous game. An individual may well aspire to be bigger than the party he represents, but if he does without saying so, fragmentation within the party will result in undercurrents that dilute brand equity.

Nine out of 10 political brands do not have a unique image. They are identical in ideology, agenda (or the lack thereof) and methodology. All they want is to hold on to power as long as possible.

It is here that Narendra  Damodardas Modi stands out. He does not have a lineage to fall back on, or an heir upon whom to bequeath his legacy. He works 24×7, 365 days a year. He has connected with the youth and embraced the digital world. He looks snappy, and has a sense of humour. And, above all, he is feared.

But then there are the minuses. Modi does not take anyone’s advice. If the grapevine is to be believed, the previous RBI governor was no puppet and not in favour of demonetisation. The incumbent seems malleable, but clearly not of the same calibre. Neither is he keen to express a viewpoint when asked. This triggers dissonance in the media which, in turn, spreads this view.

When lineage is your enemy

The Congress is facing this challenge. The current leadership is lacking in more ways than one. However, it does not realize it as a culture of sycophancy insulates it from ground realities.

The Congress is doing exactly what its competitors want. It must apologise for its scams. This is not easy.

One reason why the AAP swept Delhi was that Kejriwal said he was sorry to have quit earlier on.  The rest is history.

Hanging on to a cause is equally important. Drug menace and governance are the two things occupying the Punjabi psyche. I am told that the youth from Punjab no longer qualify in the Forces and paramilitary as they did some 10 years ago. Their physical standards, once the pride of the nation, have deteriorated.

In the absence of a solution, the politics of grievance continues, and the AAP has scored. However, that is seldom a smart business strategy in the long run.

As Keynes famously said, “In the long run we are all dead.” But the netas will still play T20’s, not realising that it is the Test that will ensure that they become part of the folklore, a brand to remember.