Ishita Ayan Dutt: Knight Riders to the rescue?

Last Updated: Fri, Jun 01, 2012 19:42 hrs

When traditional marketing strategies are exhausted, companies opt for co-marketing. Political parties, too, are known to use the tool when nothing else works. Dogged by one controversy after another, the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) win in the Indian Premier League Season 5 was almost godsend for West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Much of the optimism and euphoria that greeted Banerjee a year ago when she took charge of Bengal have dissipated. A series of events – ranging from arresting a Jadavpur University professor for forwarding a cartoon, or labelling students Maoists, or painting Kolkata blue – has ensured an erosion of Brand Mamata, who was marketed as Bengal’s change agent not so long ago.

Ahead of the polls in six municipalities, the KKR victory celebration, personally scripted by the chief minister, was the perfect opportunity to deflect attention from the all-pervasive gloom. From the procession (a speciality of Bengal) to mark the victory from Hazra Road, the venue for most of the Trinamool Congress chief’s struggles, to oversized gold chains and the carnival-like event at the iconic Eden Gardens, there was a bit of Banerjee, clad in a purple-bordered sari in sync with the cricket team’s colours, in all of it.

If the event turned out to be over the top for a private club franchise win at a national level, it was meant to be. It had to neutralise the negative image that is emerging about the new government. And what better way to do it than ride on Brand Shah Rukh Khan, known as the Badshah of Bollywood, or his KKR, in a cricket-crazy city.

Last year, Shah Rukh Khan, whom the chief minister often refers to as “my brother”, was roped in as Bengal’s brand ambassador, soon after his appearance at the state-sponsored Kolkata Film Festival as the chief guest. Khan is not charging for his association with Bengal and is understood to be shooting a 90-second ad film to showcase Bengal.

As in all co-marketing deals, it’s a win-win situation for Brand Shah Rukh too. On the more tangible side, KKR got an entertainment tax waiver from Banerjee, something that the Left Front government refused to grant him. Among the intangibles, the frenzy around the celebration, gave Khan and his team the acceptance from a home town torn between the universal “Dada” (Sourav Ganguly) and KKR, till recently.

But co-marketing apart, Banerjee is leveraging the exaggerated celebrations to send out a message: we are not averse to capital.

Earlier in the month, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton met Banerjee and when she went back she praised Banerjee publicly for ending 34 years of uninterrupted Left rule. Clinton has even written to the chief minister reiterating her pledge to support Bengal. Of course, it’s not known whether the support includes investment in retail, something Banerjee has staunchly opposed.

At a macro level, through large-scale celebrations, the chief minister is trying to draw a distinction between her government and the earlier regime.

Predictably, the Left has slammed the KKR celebrations, calling it inappropriate for a pauper state. Banerjee’s penchant for organising grand events was visible even in the Kolkata Film Festival. The glitzy inaugural ceremony had Khan as the chief guest as opposed to Ramananda Sengupta, the veteran cinematographer who was the operating cameraman for Jean Renoir’s film The River. The event was even shifted to Netaji Indoor Stadium from Nandan, predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s favourite haunt, for the first time.

But whether feel-good events can help camouflage the larger issues facing the government is a question that doesn’t have easy answers. Gargantuan debt (admittedly not the new government’s doing, but it has done little to mitigate the problem except for threatening the Centre for a bailout package), high unemployment with hardly any industrial projects, and deteriorating law and order are just some example of the challenges confronting Banerjee.

In the upcoming municipal elections, the Trinamool Congress and the Congress are contesting separately. While the Communist Party of India (Marxist) holds three seats, the rest are with the Congress, Trinamool Congress or the alliance. The civic polls are probably testing ground for both parties for the larger panchayat elections next year.

But the issue confronting Bengal is whether the Paribartan euphoria has ebbed and whether the SRK factor will help turn the tide. There is no clear answer right now. But there is at least one example to show that star power may not translate into votes. The Samajwadi Party, which swept the Uttar Pradesh polls this time, shunned film stars in the campaign for the first time. The result, of course, is widely known.

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