Friday, May 8, 2009

'Election contests are like marketing new products'

The Mumbai terror attacks may not have prodded Mumbaikars to stir out and vote in large numbers in the Lok Sabha polls but prompted E. Sarath Babu, who was raised in a slum and went to the Indian Institute of Management, to enter the electoral fray in Tamil Nadu.

"Entering politics was in my scheme of things. But the Mumbai terror attacks acted as the triggering point. All these years the political parties and politicians have been successful in keeping the upwardly mobile educated out and the illiterate and poor involved in the political system," 29-year-old Babu, CEO of Foodking Catering Services, told IANS at the end of a hectic day of campaigning.

On Nov 26, 2008, 10 armed militants unleashed a blood bath in Mumbai killing over 170 people. Nine terrorists were killed after a 60-hour gun battle with security forces while one, Ajmal Amir Kasab, was captured alive.

For Babu, whose company has a Rs.70-million-a-year turnover, the incident was an eye-opener. Son of a roadside idli seller from a city slum, Babu through hard work and brilliance went to BITS, Pilani, and then the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

Spurning lucrative job offers, he turned entrepreneur in 2006.

Babu is contesting from the South Chennai constituency as an independent candidate and is pitted against the DMK's R.S. Bharathi, the AIADMK's S. Rajendran and the Bharatiya Janata Party's L. Ganesan. Tamil Nadu goes to the polls May 13.

Babu said: "Contesting elections and marketing a product or service are similar. Both involves communication to the target audience. In politics there are lots of intangible factors in a candidate that have to be communicated."

Believing his dream and inspired by his achievement, around 1,200 volunteers including students and professionals are working for Babu's success in the poll.

The campaign has also been given a corporate makeover. Teams are formed and targets are given to reach out.

"Core groups and sub-groups were formed with rigid tasks (to achieve) and professional service providers were hired for design activities," said R. Vijaykumar, an engineer interning with a software company and part of Babu's electoral team.

Just as in the marketplace, Babu also faced the threat of fakes in politics.

"A leading political party threatened to prop up many candidates named Sarath Babu as independents to confuse the voters," said Vijaykumar.

Babu looks at the acronym of a political party's name as its brand, its voting symbol as its logo. "Realising that, I decided to ask for 'slate' as the symbol. Slate is the first brush with literacy for any person. It is also down to earth and popular. From the beginning I wanted that logo."

Babu says that he can relate to all the sections of society from slum dwellers to the educated middle class to the businessmen.

Mapping out his strategy to target 1.15 million voters in his constituency, Babu said: "The average voter turnout is around 55 percent; of that 75 percent hail from families below the poverty line. There are nearly 100,000 young voters. To romp home, a candidate should get 30 percent of the votes polled."

Babu's personal interactions are concentrated on the poor families while the online promotions are targeted at youth and the educated middle class.

He says his campaign budget is around Rs.1.2 million, raised mainly through donations. The Election Commission stipulates that a candidate can spend up to Rs.2.5 million.

"Major political parties have surrogate candidates to spend more. But I don't have any surrogates."

His service level agreement with his voters is simple.

"I will strive to spread computer and English literacy amongst the slum children, upgrade the facilities in government schools, attend all Lok Sabha sessions and participate in the debates and facilitate access to micro finance."

He said: "Communicating with the masses and launching an intensive marketing campaign in a short time is the lesson that can be applied in this business."

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