A personal tribute to the legend: Working with master strategist Arun Jaitley during 2002 Gujarat elections

Line Sketch of Jaitely by Krishnendu Dutta, former creative director of Mccann

This story dates back to the post-Godhra election of 2002. Narendra Modi the sitting CM of Gujarat, was contesting his first-ever assembly elections. The state was the focal point of a highly motivated opposition and also the supremely charged up media, led by Lutyen’s media Mughals who were camping in Gujarat to ensure a defeat for Modi. These Lutyen gang had fiercely carried out a sustained negative coverage of Gujarat since February 2002 when Godhra massacre happened. Elections were slated good ten months later in December, thanks largely to an overtly watchful Election commission (Remember, James Michael Lyngdoh?), which did not announce elections soon after the assembly was dissolved in July 2002, nine months before Assembly’s term was due to end. The Commission’s interest too seemed anchored in Gujarat as the dissolution of the assembly had been publicly opposed by the Election Commission in wake of the then recent communal violence in the state.

This election was actively supervised by Arun Jaitely, who has also been the chief election strategist for all elections Narendra Modi fought from 2002 to 2012. Days before polling day, Arun Jaitely ji had anchored here in Gujarat and also supervised and finalised all ads that were released in Gujarat’s newspapers and Cable TV then.

Addition Ad Agency was the leading advertising & communications strategy agency of the party which was tasked with the creative duties of the campaign with few other firms. Nitai Pandya, a seasoned ad veteran and also a die-hard fan of Narendrabhai, was at the helm of this creative power-house. I was an associate of this communications firm since 1996. First as a media planning strategist, then also doubling up as a Hindi copywriter. I immensely enjoyed writing numerous political slogans and parody songs for party’s on-ground campaigns during that election.

As was the routine, Arun Jaitely would brief agencies on party’s communications strategies on a daily basis in the morning. And later in the evening he’d sit and select best ad for the next day from the ads the creative alternatives agencies presented him. Invariably Additions creatives won those rounds and many from this agency were handpicked by Jaitely ji. The selected ad would then be passed on to the media agency, Ajit Ads, which handled media releases since Party’s Jan Sangh days.

As the electioneering progressed, no one in the state was ready to predict the outcome of the election since the newly launched 24×7 news TV channels from Delhi were relentless in their negative coverage of the state. Local Newspapers aligned with Congress for decades were all opposed to Modi. The electioneering picked up its fierce pace as the polling day approached.

For the polling day ad’s briefing, Nitai Pandya from Addition went to see Arun Jaitely. Arun ji firmly ruled out any ad for the D-day. He summed up his intentions by saying that since BJP had presented all its points/credential to the people on the issues facing the state, so on the Voting day, he said, “there should be absolute silence. Let the voters decide in their absolute calmness”!

Nitai was a bit disappointed. Regardless, he decided to come back in the evening to present him with a creative that we had written for the polling day ad. When he arrived at party headquarters, Jaitely ji was very busy in fields, supervising polling day’s booth management strategies. He therefore met Nitai very late in the evening — almost well past the deadline when newspapers would close their ad bookings for the next day’s issue.

As Jaitely strolled back to the party office from his outing, he spotted Nitai in the waiting lobby. He dismissively said to him, ‘Bhai no ads for the polling day. I told you na?’ Nitai too pleadingly said, ‘Sir Dekh to lijiye’ (sir at least have a look).

Arun ji sat there reluctantly in the lobby and almost with no interest, he looked at the only creative Nitai had presented that evening. As Jaitelyji saw the ad and read its content, his eyes lit up!! He almost jumped out of his chair and said, “This is what I was looking for! Let’s get front pages in every newspaper of Gujarat tomorrow! Let’s do it!

News had leaked out from newspaper office to Congress Headquarters on Ashram Road that BJP was placing a front-page ad. They too went to book the space, but by that time the bookings were closed.

On the D-day that front page ad had created a huge impact on the polling. The Lutyen Media was hugely flabbergasted and annoyed with the ad. The Sardesais and Barkhas from gang of Lutyenpur were all running live bulletins through the polling day, holding that ad in Gujarati newspapers and crying hoarse by calling it a breach of election code!!

And what that ad was all about? I need not tell you that!

Rajdeep Sardesai on Modi’s spectacular victory on the counting day of December 28, 2002 had posted an open letter to Narendra Bhai congratulating him for the victory. He also graphically described the impact of that ad on the polling day. And sarcastically gave credit to Modi, Jaitelyji for approving that ad!

That ad had breached no publicity code. The polling day’s ad was crafted with two objectives: One to latently remind Gujarat voters on Godhra riots in which innocent train passengers were mercilessly torched. And the other being to ensure better voter turnout, especially for those elites educated upper crust which hardly voted during those days.

The ad had not mentioned anything about Godhra or the riot. It just headlined that legendary song of Lataji.

Aye mere Vatan Ke Logon, Jara Aankh Me Bharlo Paani, jo Shaheed hue hain unki jara yaad karo Qurbani..

The Centre space of the ad had a big Lotus, the election symbol of the party. And there was a base punch line, “Aapka vote hi aapki Shruddhanjali hai” [Your vote is your tribute (to martyrs)]. Who knows, had Jaitely not picked up that ad, or even had rejected it, how would have the history been written. And who knows how the election would have shaped up?

That polling day ad did all the wonders. As all news channels ran day long bulletins, cried foul for using Godhra in a polling day ad. Their bulletins with Godhra’s torched coach’s visuals in the background and their severe criticism of Modi for the riots, had brought the voters alive. Their criticism of Godhra’s handling brought the voter out to the polling station. And Gujarat Recorded 62% polling— much higher than most of the previous polling.

It is for nothing that Arun Jaitely was called a master strategist.

Author: A S Raghunath

The author is an independent Print Media Marketing and Advertising Professional

This post was last modified on August 25, 2019 3:33 pm

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