In September 2015, MK Stalin, heir apparent to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam throne, began a two month long tour of all 234 Assembly constituencies in Tamil Nadu, as a precursor to the elections scheduled for May 2016.

Posters, banners and the DMK’s red and black party flags were put up to announce his arrival. What was conspicuous though, was the lack of the usual innovations by enthusiastic party district secretaries. There were no banners singing praises of the leader – no Thanga Thalapathy (Golden Commander) or Paasa Thalapathy’ (Affectionate Commander) as Stalin’s supporters like to call him. Banners were uniform all along the tour routes with one single image of a morphed silhouette of Stalin being formed out of the Namakku Naamey (We for ourselves) tour logo.

“The Thalapathy’s team sent us this image long back and strictly told us that we have to use only this image and that we need not print any other banner,” said one district secretary of the party who did not wish to be named. “They said they want a uniform look across all districts for better recall.”

This is the result of what the the brand managers hired by Stalin’s son in law, Sabarisan, to do an image makeover for the leader online. The idea was to brand the Namakku Naamey tour itself, create a product out of a political yatra so that voters would identify and connect with the leader. A separate website was created for use on social media along with the hashtag #NamakkuNaamey.

Once the tour was over, the images, along with the hashtag disappeared, to be replaced by symbols bearing the DMK’s symbol – the Rising Sun, for easier voter recognition on memes and messages on social media.

The team comprises around 15 sharp graduates from the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management, led by A Sunil, a key member of the erstwhile Narendra Modi campaign team of the 2014 polls, who are in charge of creating opinion online, manage Stalin’s Facebook and Twitter pages, screen interviews with him and even write statements for him.

A few months earlier, Pattali Makkal Katchi’s heir apparent Anbumani Ramadoss had attempted a similar image makeover. Launching his Obamaesque campaign: “Maatram Munnetram Anbumani”, he too fell back on a back-end corporate communications team to deliver his presence and message to netizens.

In all this, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo Jayalalithaa seems a little late off the boat, but her party’s information technology wing began an online campaign with the hashtag #Mission234 with images of Jaya and Tamil Nadu shown as being inseparable. The master of business administration graduate and IT professional behind this campaign was the former head of the IT Wing, “Aspire” Swaminathan.

DMK chief M Karunanidhi’s team too has been posting regular updates, pictures and snippets of his old speeches and witticisms on his Twitter and Facebook pages.

Message and the medium

Brand managers such as Prashanth Kishor, who have worked with politicians like Narendra Modi as well as powerful regional leaders in northern states of Bihar, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, have been given the mandate to even select candidates in some states. Kishor has, in fact, even been appointed as an advisor to the Bihar government following a successful thumping win by the alliance led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

The southern state of Tamil Nadu, and its politics, however, is different from the northern states. Here the ground level grassroots cadres provide an immense pool of inputs to tailor campaigns. These grassroots cadres gave the primary set of inputs to campaign managers on crucial talking points on the ground. Campaign managers then weave in some element of modernity – peppering speeches with the rhetoric of development and change, using messaging apps such as WhatsApp as well as social media to get the message across. The content of the message though belongs largely to the party and its cadre on the ground.

Insiders in Stalin’s team told Scroll that there was an attempt to reach a diverse variety of people through his campaign – rural, urban voters as well as the huge pool of first time and young voters who number almost a crore.

“The AIADMK has given you Rs 3,000-4,000 worth of freebies but has taken away Rs 45,000 from you by hiking prices of power, milk and bus fares,” said Stalin at campaigns in rural areas.

In urban Chennai’s upper middle class, educated Mylapore constituency, he modified the message: “We do not treat our candidates and allies as slaves, we are brothers bound by affection,” he said, putting an arm on the shoulder of the Congress candidate who is contesting the seat in alliance with the DMK. He went on to speak of how the DMK would ease traffic congestion in the constituency and ensure a clean city if voted to power.

This, in effect, is the change brought in by campaign managers – talk of development and change in campaign rallies, which earlier used to be all about lashing out at or ridiculing the political opponents.

While leaders such as Stalin and Anbumani Ramadoss may be speaking of development and change in small doses, campaign style and rhetoric of both the key leaders Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi remains just the same. Each one attacks the other, while crowing about the schemes initiated by their government.

Political commentators feel that politics of the personality cult is to blame for this unchanging campaign rhetoric. “This time the election campaign has been totally corporatised,” said author and political critic Gnani Sankaran. “All these teams of Stalin, Jaya and Anbumani are exploiting social media. New technology has been applied to do the old style of campaigning. The old style is to attack and belittle opponents and make the leader look big. That continues,” he said.

Brand expert Harish Bijoor said that there is still some way to go before politicians completely understand the power of social media. “Politicians in Tamil Nadu and many in other states are Gen One practitioners of social media,” Bijoor said. “They have to evolve and modify, they are only plucking the low hanging fruit of high decibel campaigning. To that extent it is catering to the lowest common denominator,” he said.

While the medium has changed, the message continues to remain the same as in earlier elections, Bijoor said. “With social media, you are able to arrest audiences, find out demographics and social contours of the audience,” he said. “This can change the quality of communication – tone, tenor, decibel of language can change, it can become more suave, sarcasm can be used depending on the audience. Creativity has not yet been unleashed in this space. It will possibly happen in the next Tamil Nadu election five years from now.”