The battle between the BJP and the rest of the opposition parties in India today is a lot like the iconic Coke vs Pepsi battle. For all the wrong reasons.
Days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bhoomi pujan at Ayodhya, JD(U) and RJD leaders said they also want Sitamarhi to be developed as Janaki Janmabhoomi and a Sita temple to mark it, just like the grand Ram Mandir. This came after leaders of almost every party lined up to chant Jai Shri Ram on 5 August.
Northern India is well and truly in a political ecosystem of copycat, ‘catch-up Hindutva’. This is classic brandjacking. But that’s where the Coke vs Pepsi brand war comes into play.
Pepsi was perceived as being ‘like Coca-Cola’, while Coke continued to run the tagline ‘The Real Thing’. Even though Pepsi wins in most blind sip tests as better tasting, Coke remains the leader brand. That is where the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah’s BJP is.
The BJP’s Hindutva is Coke — a market leader brand today. On the other side are a series of Pepsi-like brands — Congress’ janeu-dhari variety, AAP’s Hanuman Chalisa-chanting, Shaheen Bagh-avoiding variety, RJD-JD(U)’s Sita temple variety, SP-BSP’s Parashuram variety.
No takers for proto-Hindutva
In the competitive, overheated marketplace – not unlike Indian democracy – only companies that invest in creating uniqueness can dominate. If not, you are just seen as inauthentic.
“Who opened the locks?” countered many Congress members ahead of 5 August, referring to Rajiv Gandhi’s act of opening the Babri Masjid in 1985 in Ayodhya and allowing shilanyas in 1989. Their desperate claim to a sort of proto-Hindutva branding is a good lesson in how not to brand-position. After all, it wasn’t enough to have invented the computer, as Sperry Rand did. Nobody remembers the company today. A brand leader is one who dominates the mindspace of the consumer, something that IBM did, wrote Al Ries in his seminal book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. That applies to the BJP and Ayodhya too.
When you have the market leader, why would you opt for a pirated, johnny-come-lately version of Hindutva? Burger Singh instead of Burger King.
Even Shashi Tharoor had warned in 2017 that the Congress shouldn’t copy the BJP. “For Congress, peddling ‘BJP lite’ is like Coke Zero, it will get us zero,” he had said.
Poor imitation almost never pays in the long-term. But it may make a short-term splash. Like it did for Fair and Handsome cream that actor Shah Rukh Khan endorsed in a jaw-dropping relaunch in 2014. It tried to ride on the popularity and recall value of the Fair and Lovely brand (which men were secretly using anyway). But over the years, Fair and Handsome lost its way.
Piling up on the Right
Aside from brand positioning risks, catch-up Hindutva makes Indian politics boringly choiceless for those who truly wish for an alternative to religious fundamentalism. It is also a dangerous slippery slope. When everybody adopts overtly Hindu politics – or some variant of it – the original carrier is forced to mutate, evolving into a more strident version than the others. It is a race to the bottom.
In the last election in Israel, all the parties appeared to be stacked up on the Right. The spectrum disappeared. Closer home, just look at Pakistan. There really is very little that differentiates PPP, PML(N), and PTI from each other – in their pandering to Islamic fundamentalists and the military worship.
Last year, I had argued that Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is offering a new centrism in Indian politics – with a cocktail of Hinduism, nationalism, social liberalism and welfarism. But he has since moved further away from the centre and closer to the Right. His ideological gymnastics is a risky tightrope.
Over time, the lack of a genuine alternative and weakening of a robust horizontal accountability mechanism can lead to democratic backsliding.
Instead of playing catch-up politics, what India’s opposition needs is brand-repositioning.
Only No. 2 can climb up
In the advertising world, the Avis versus Hertz brand rivalry in the rental car segment is the stuff of folklore. Avis was number 2 and Hertz was the market leader. For years, Avis’ message was like Hertz’s – cars, fleet network and so on. Then, Avis embraced its number 2 status, and started saying something like Come to Avis, ‘we are No. 2′, we try harder, our lines are shorter, our cars are in better condition and so on. For the first time, the company started making money. It set itself against Hertz, not like Hertz.
When the market leader becomes too big, it gets entrenched in its own mythology and locked in its ‘best practices’ template. Success makes it less nimble. Instead of a panic-driven, knee-jerk copycat move, Avis sought to exploit the weakness of the successful brand — the lack of need to improve.
It is what 7Up did with the ‘Uncola’ campaign in the cola-saturated market. Or how at a time when American cars were big and flashy, Volkswagen Beetle launched its iconic line ‘Think Small’. Pepsi only came into its own when it began targeting the youth and owning music, featuring Michael Jackson, in its ads. By positioning itself as the youthful choice, it tried to portray Coke as old.
“For a business to grow, you need to find new users or get current consumers to use it more or find new applications for your product. A political party needs to find new believers or increase its relevance among its core base by offering a distinct proposition,” says Shiv Ranjan Sahgal, a brand analyst in Kuala Lumpur.
Who wants copycat Hindutva when you have the BJP’s Hindutva-on-steroids?
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