Image Management Guest Author, Amith Prabhu, is a public relations professional who spent a most part of his nine-year career in India and is now based in Chicago working for the world’s largest public relations firm. He was the first ever student to have interned in a major political party. In his free time he blogs and microblogs on all things to do with reputation. He can be followed on twitter at @amithpr
The Indian Presidential election is a game about which political formation manages their reputation best and serves no other purpose. While the new President will take charge in little over five weeks, the intricacies of communication, reputation of probable candidates and the image management techniques used by party bosses is playing out this week. This is a lay man’s attempt to decode the current scenario and a reputation management professional’s understanding of who managed their image and how?
The Indian news media outlets seemed to be the only ones shocked by the three names thrown up by the duo of Mulayam and Mamata. The strong words the outlets used ever since the ‘meet the press’ of the duo took place have been as expected – strange. Terms like tremors of the announcement, crisis ridden Congress Party, allies taunt Sonia and shocker of an offer.
It is unfortunate that we live in a world that thrives on drama and paranoia. There is low trust in political parties and politicians. To add to that news media creates unwanted hype about issues such as these, that one feels there is no one in public left to be trusted.
In an ideal situation the two main political formations discuss in private their probable candidates and announce them. The current scenario has not given the opposition enough room to come up with a candidate. And to top it all Sonia Gandhi played her cards very well as she does most often.
Here is my take on what unfolded on the 13th of June 2012 with regard to selecting the candidate to be India’s 13th President:
That Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party have come to depend on Pranab Mukherjee as principal trouble shooter and man for all seasons is a no-brainer but whether the Congress President reposes enough trust in him to hold one of the two high offices has always been a matter of debate and there is a long history to it. However, Sonia Gandhi is certainly one of the shrewdest politicians of contemporary India despite her many shortcomings. Her silence on the nominee all this while and her opening up to Mamata Banerjee (who has come to become the only problematic ally) at the eleventh hour goes on to show her political maturity. She used the excuse of his indispensability in 2007 though CPI M was in favour of him and this time she made it clear that he was her first choice. Though some interpreted it as a way of dimming his chances, knowing well Mamata would scuttle those plans.
In an ideal scenario as leader of the coalition, she or her spokesperson should announce the candidate but motor-mouth Mamata came out of the meeting and did so and I think the West Bengal CM made a fool of herself and mockery of this high office by spelling out the Congress’s choices.
When have regional leaders, commanding less than two dozen members in the lower house got to decide India’s President! Even if they combined with another regional party and have great numbers in their respective state assembly, dictating the Presidential candidate in this manner has never been heard of. Their combined voting share is 11% in the Presidential Electoral College. Mamata is indeed living in a fool’s paradise. Reports that talk of conspiracy theories and that this tactic is a tacit message to Manmohan Singh that they are not happy with his leadership are hard to believe. Why would they want to see him as President if they didn’t like him? It was merely an attempt at playing one-upmanship.
Mamata’ s silliness only increased Sonia’s stature as a stateswoman and solidified Pranab’s chances. First, by making the announcement of what Sonia thought, then by rejecting Pranab and then by propping the names of the Prime Minister, as well her former bête noir Somnath Chatterjee. But I’m sure Somnath was an afterthought (as some reports indicate) to ensure there was a Bengali in the list. He was overseas and he was not even informed of being in the shortlist. He would have been a good candidate five years ago.
Abdul Kalam is another man who is being used by these regional satraps because of his religion. If he wants to maintain dignity he should have declined another term right at the start, both from being propped by erratic parties as well as to focus on better things he is able to do with his non-profit. It is interesting to note that Mulayam was open to rubbing his communist friends the wrong way by supporting the idea of Somnath and at the same time support two former bureaucrats in the form of Manmohan Singh and Abdul Kalam despite being opposed to bureaucrats for this office right from the start.
If Mulayam and Mamata (M Square) were strategic enough the best thing to do would have been to reach out to Jayalalitha and Naveen Patnaik before committing this silly act. The reason for not doing that could have been Purno Sangma having been already fielded by them. But they could have really embarrassed Sonia by proposing Purno Sangma as a fourth name. The interesting development that some media outlets reported on the night of June 13th was that Pranab stating late at night that he is not interested in running for President, which turned out to be false and mere rumours.
In all this drama the BJP in particular and the NDA at large is completely isolated. What is interesting to note is the second largest party in the NDA – the JDU has shown favourability towards Pranab Mukherjee. One possible ‘real shocker’ for the media, for NDA and for the M Square could be the JDU joining the government with NK Singh being made Finance Minister when Pranab gets elevated. Thereby UPA’s reliance on both Mamata and Mulayam can be reduced drastically. Congress does not have any base in Bihar like the way they do in a small way in UP, so partnering with JDU will not hurt its absence of ambition in Bihar in the short term.
I see this event as a shot in the arm for Sonia at two levels – first Mamata’s rejection led to a broader consensus making her task of nominating Pranab easier and now Sonia can take complete credit for making the Mr Indispensable India’s next President. Mamata will go down in history for coming in his way unless she changes her mind. She missed a golden opportunity of part taking in Bengali pride.
All these events impact reputations of the various stakeholders involved in different ways. The Vice President’s election couple of months later will be equally interesting.
For reputation managers the drama that has unfolded has several takeaways. The key learnings are:
a) To always build consensus (Sonia has been doing this quietly and that is key to winning)
b) To prepare well before going public with news (Mulayam did not prepare enough for the surprise of Somnath thrown at him and the consequence his he wriggled out)
c) To not say more than needed (Mamata should have either waited for the Congress to come back with more and newer options OR should have told Congress of her three preferences before going public)
d) To try and really be everyone’s favourite (which Pranab has ended up being)
e) To realize when to stop being used (which Abdul Kalam needs lessons in)
f) To always have Plan B, C and D ready (which Sonia Gandhi revealed by going ahead without Mamata)