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Remember Arun Ji, the Master Strategist: AS Raghunath

AS Raghunath pens down his experience of working with Arun Jaitely during the post-Godhra Election of Gujarat in 2002, which were supervised by Jaitely. At that time, Raghunath was associated with an ad agency as Hindi copywriter that was tasked with the creative duties for that electioneering. He traces the first baby steps of BJP’s ascent to power in Delhi from Gujarat, and how Arun Jaitely played a pivot in that journey. 

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 moguls who were camping in Gujarat to ensure Modi’s defeat. These Lutyen gang had fiercely carried out a sustained negative coverage of Gujarat since February 2002, when Godhra happened. Elections were slated good 10 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 the 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 the wake of the communal violence in the state at that time. 

This election was actively supervised by Arun Jaitely, who had also been the chief election strategist for all elections that Narendra Modi fought from 2002 to 2012. Days before the polling day, Arun Jaitely ji had anchored 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 Gujarat, which was tasked with the creative duties of the campaign with a few other firms. Nitai Pandya, a seasoned ad veteran and also a die-hard fan of Narendra bhai, 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 copy writer. I immensely enjoyed writing numerous political slogans and parody songs for the party’s on-ground campaigns during that election. 

As was the routine, Arun Jaitely would brief agencies on the party’s communications strategies on daily basis in the morning. And later in the evening he’d sit and select best ad for the next day from the creative alternatives agencies presented him. Invariably, Addition’s 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 the 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 24x7 news TV channels from Delhi were relentless in their negative coverage of the state. Local newspapers, who had aligned with the 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 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 the 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 the field, 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 waiting lobby. He dismissively said to him, “Bhai, no ads for the polling day. I told you na?” Nitai pleaded, “Sir, dekh to lijiye!” 

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 he 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 page 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. Many ran live bulletins through the polling day, holding that ad in Gujarati newspapers and cried hoarse by calling it a breach of the 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 on the victory. He also graphically described about the impact of that ad on the polling day and sarcastically gave credit to Modi and Jaitely ji 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 of the Godhra riots in which innocent train passengers were mercilessly torched. And the other being to ensure better voter turnout, especially for those elite, 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 main bhar lo 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 shraddhanjali hai! [Your vote is your tribute (to the martyrs)] 

Who knows, had Jaitely not picked up that ad or had even rejected it, how history would have been written. And who knows how the election would have shaped up? 

That polling day ad did all the wonders. All news channels ran day-long bulletins, crying foul for using Godhra in a polling day ad. Their bulletins with visuals of Godhra’s torched train coaches 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 stations. And Gujarat recorded 62 per cent polling – much higher than most of the previous polling. 

It is not for nothing that Arun Jaitely was called a ‘Master Strategist’.

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