Communication lessons from a failed Revolutionary Campaign

Pages of history are swollen pink with examples of how it has shaped itself through the hows and whats some influential thinkers and speakers fed it as doctrine. Some of the obvious examples are of course war time super heroes and baddies such as Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, and closer to home, one man communication agency Gandhi.
I’m certain that most readers need no evidence especially from history to highlight the importance of communication. If anything, of successes such as those popular/notorious names mentioned above. However, what this post would like to bring to notice is a failure of youth marketing communication strategy in Indian history which if had succeeded could have meant a different India. I can’t really say what it would have been but different, certainly.
During India’s struggle for independence there was a man named Bhagat Singh, an intelligent, brave man who dreamt of revolution of the French /Russian kinds for the Indian state. However, the history books give him and his fellow revolutionaries about a paragraph and a half in text books while attributing the independence to Ogilvy like Gandhi and O&M like Congress. Governance/Advertising that sells. Nothing wrong with that, nothing speaks more than sales.

As we observe the emergence, rise and downfall of the ideals that Bhagat Singh and the revolutionaries stood for we’ll observe ideas of communication for young brands:
Bhagat Singh and his revolutionary party HSRA (Hindustan Socialist Republican Association) came into prominence post the fatal beatings of Lala Lajpat Rai at the hands of the British during a peaceful demonstration in Lahore, 1928. A young man age 21 decided to avenge not just the death of a popular leader but also the national humiliation through revolt. The HSRA was an antithesis to the Congress governed by Mahatma Gandhi’s doctrine of non violence. It hoped to appeal to the working class of peasants and factory workers and the youth whose pride was hurt. As novel as the motive of the young revolutionaries and as sound as the thinking against hapless Gandhi was, a start stop communication plan hurt them. On their first campaign to avenge Lala’s death the plan was extremely short term revolving around killing the British Officer who had killed a prominent Indian leader.
Also, all of the best soldiers, the leaders themselves were risked in the assassination.

Lessons –
Being a new entrant in the market is no excuse to not have a long term plan to appeal to the youth. High risk campaigns can be rewarding, however a contingency plan is the hallmark of organizational and brand maturity.

On accidentally assassinating a petty officer instead of the planned victim Scott the young leaders spent days trying to flee the police. During this time Bhagat Singh was successful but only by accident (when it really should have been by design) in meeting revolutionaries from Bengal. The likes of Trailokyanath Chakraborti and Jatindra Nath Das passed on knowhow on manufacturing bombs. At the same time, Chandrashekhar Azad who was the leader of the Military wing organized finances from leaders as prominent as Motilal Nehru.

In an entrepreneurial set up one needs to collaborate and attempt to build critical mass inorganically if not organically. This must ideally happen by design unlike in the case of the revolutionaries. However, if it doesn’t by design young brands must be mindful enough to seize partnership and mentorship opportunities which the revolutionaries successfully did.

Their next big act of fame was after a good one year, that of throwing bombs in the Central Assembly to protest against the Public Safety Bill and the Trade disputes Bill. The big concern they had was that although they were making some progress from an organizational point of view they were handicapped in terms of communication because their work by its very nature was secretive. Therefore, execution plan while throwing these bombs was – “those throwing the bombs would surrender themselves” to make people realize that the party was not merely violent. It would be accompanied with chucking of leaflets from a top tier to highlight the methods and goals of the party.Initially, Bhagat Singh was not nominated for the action. However, senior worker Sukhdev rallied for his inclusion and prevailed suggesting that Bhagat Singh was the only one in the party who could communicate the ideology and defend the use of violence. Gandhi described them as “irresponsible young men”.

Youth brands fighting for attention can ill afford too much time elapsed between subsequent campaigns. There should be more than one brand champion and multiple media to convey a single message. The revolutionaries sacrificed their biggest fish to make the deaf ears listen. It was loud and clear but little did they know that their audience was divided into cold and duty bound (British), ignorant (Indians) and egocentric (Gandhi). Knowing your audience is central to any communication.

Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people – William Butler Yeats

Their bravado was met with an expected response. From the very start of the trial the British attempted to frame Bhagat Singh in murderous acts they had no proof he had committed. Bhagat Singh began to use the trial and the jail as means to communicate their ideology: “It was necessary to awaken England from its dreams…” on Gandhi “we have only marked the end of an era of utopian non violence of whose futility the rising generation has been convinced beyond the shadow of doubt”.

Assess your competition before taking an action. Work on small wins while planning to win battles against strong enemy. Why was anti Gandhi political ideology not expressed publicly before the assembly bombs? Going into the jail Bhagat Singh did not have any established political pedigree.

While in Jail the revolutionaries began to make statements. They undertook fasts to protest against unequal treatment given to them as against that provided to the European prisoners. Jatindra Nath Das whose strike and deteriorating health condition was followed across India made a big impact as another real sacrifice. In Calcutta, 6 lakh people waited for his corpse. The real #Dada wasn’t he. Outside the prison however HSRA was near non active with serious lack of leadership in the absence of Chadrashekhar Azad who was in hiding. Gandhi condemned the strike. However Bhagat Singh and his comrade ended the 116 day strike on the behest of the All India Congress. Such was the monopoly Congress enjoyed.

strengthen your products with testaments such as Jatindra Das. Also look for die hard advocates. Do not inexplicably shake hands with competition due to lack of ideas. All important channels of communication should speak the same language at similar amplitudes. The wavelength from the dungeons was much higher than anything that was happening outside of them. But the youth that needed energizing was wandering directionless on the outside. Be part of your audience to hear your messages and reverberate them effectively.

The case that was called the Lahore Conspiracy case became a see saw battle in court between the government and the revolutionaries where the revolutionaries refused to recognize the court for the treatment it was meeting out to the accused. The atmosphere around the country was so charged up that Gandhi took this opportune moment to launch his second major campaign after the non cooperation movement, the Dandi March.

The youth is quick to hope. They are more easily amused more easily influenced by romantic ideals such as revolution. It is as true today as it ever was. If you charge your target audience and do not convert a sale you have only yourself to blame. While Bhagat Singh and team were marketing their ideals the best they could from the court rooms there was no one cashing the cheque in the name of the revolutionaries. Gandhi always had an innovative on ground activation idea or another, hence the Dandi.

The Case had been prolonged enough for intolerant exasperated judges to be changed and bizarre scenes in the court room following a pattern. Of course there were slogans “Long live revolution”, “Inquilab Zindabad” being the most prominent ones. Anyway, eventually the British struck, finding approvers from within the revolutionary party. One would think that was the nail in the coffin. In Vohra and Jai Gopal they had found converts. These men who believed that India had no constitutional means to determine her progress and therefore must resort to unconstitutional means were now ready to wear the establishment of Khadar. Vohra on being asked “did u protest that you were not being let in to party secrets?” (In case of the Saunder’s Killing) responded “I was not expected to protest, nor was I expected to ask any such questions from them according to the discipline of the party” …during this same interrogation Vohra revealed that Sukhdev in “pure and simple outburst of confidence” let him into the same secrets later.

Leadership is one of the most critical factors while managing any brand. Disciplines, hierarchies and protocols must be given a lot of thought before being established. Once established they should be sworn by. What qualifies as an exception should also be given a thought to. And it should certainly not be sudden surge of confidence, instinct or a jolly mood. Vohra in a later correspondence with Sukhdev’s cousin described how he had lost trust in the leadership. It cannot be established still whether he was justified in doing so least of all selling out his comrades, however as a leader one must protect your own esteem by following protocol if established.

The “Kangaroo court” as it was described framed the revolutionaries eventually and it was only a matter of time when it would hang them. The news spread like wild fire across the country and even to England. However, to stall this execution again the whole nation could only look up to one man. And that was helpless Gandhi, who was in a fix as to how he would ride this emotional wave that had taken the youth of the country and forward his own agenda with the British via the congress through the Gandhi Irwin pact. Gandhi intervened late and feebly only for Irwin to politely deny him as if it was dinner Gandhi was inviting him to. At the same time the revolutionary movement was struck with one of its most telling blows outside the jail as Chandrashekhar Azad was surrounded and killed. He died valiantly fighting till the end. Great story but who was telling it. Bhagat Singh in one of his writings in the prison talks about mini compromises building up to major wins as lessons from Lenin’s ideal of revolution. However, as steadfast as Gandhi was in not meeting revolutionary leaders, even the revolutionary leaders did not attempt meeting him to establish a pact towards a common goal. There is no record of a dialogue or even an attempt towards one save a letter Sukhdev wrote to Gandhi while in jail which was articulately dismissed by Gandhi.

A big brand’s recognition of a smaller competitor can sometimes be the defining moment for this smaller brand. Competition is of different types and this is usually determined by the audience you’re going after. Gandhi Vs Revolutionaries (with Indian public as audience) was a different ball game from Gandhi Vs Revolutionaries (with the British as audience). With regards to the latter the revolutionaries should have attempted compromises with Gandhi to gain political acceptance for the party. Especially, since they clearly established that they were not purely a terrorist organization.

In the summer of 1931 Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru and Sukhdev were hanged. They had requested to be shot as war prisoners would be. A request the British denied since they did not recognise the revolutionaries as “soldiers”. Post their death they were a few voices but the soft elderly one of Gandhi resonated the loudest. He said “Bhagat Singh and his comrades have been executed and become martyrs. Their death seems to have been a personal loss to many. I join in the tributes paid to these young men. And yet I must warn the youth of the country against following their example” #iwin. It was the end of the road for the HSRA. Just like that.
Bhagat Singh in his last few days wrote a lot of essays, penned down a few thoughts, letters to his young brother and comrades are all testimony of his maturity beyond his years. Some of the notable ideas that he pursues are:
1. Why he was an atheist. How reason and common sense alone were to be accepted. It was incredible for a leader to harbor such thoughts in a nation of believers of lacs in assortment.
2. The Philosophy of the Bomb. He deplores Gandhi and his methods as being elitist, falsifying the claims that these methods were even working and uses the phrase “compromise mentality”. These writings were a little late coming and did not have enough carriers and media to influence the youth.
3. To Young Political Workers. His appeal was to awaken the proletariat, have a plan in the premise and a set action to follow. Become “professional revolutionaries” which if ingrained earlier would have certainly prevented Sukhdev from taking Vohra or any such into confidence.

For all the bravado with which young brands like the HSRA come into existence one has to aknowledge that they are almost always appraised in relation to the bigger brand, the market leader Gandhi in this case. Unless you’re a rock band or a painter the value of your product isn’t expected to increase posthumously either. Communication delivered late and through the wrong channels is worth nothing. Segmenting and targeting, Internal Communication and training are tools best used in the planning stage of a campaign.
Having said that, what were(are) we doing at 23?

All in all I believe Bhagat Singh and his ideals appealed to a large segment of the youth that was aware of them. However, it was by their own failing that they could not influence and organize more resources and strategize more effectively to contribute more significantly to the freedom fight. On the AIDA sales cycle they did not go past “I”. An established product, a published manifesto and planned communication and partnership could have meant that India won its struggle through a revolution giving it far more confidence and self belief as a nation (belief in the RASTA camp).
As we create young brands as young brand managers, designers, conceptualisers we attempt to study the successes and failings of these brave hearts.

The historical references in the post have been borroed from historical literature on Bhagat Singh.
Readers are encouraged to closely assess the communucation lessons derived.



2 thoughts on “Communication lessons from a failed Revolutionary Campaign

  1. An interesting read.. A parallel drawn in today’s context from the pages of history books is one not seen commonly..
    Although whether using our independence fighters as an illustrative example for modern day lessons on branding is appropriate is something that one may like to question..
    One apparent and critical fact that might have been overlooked is – the ‘rebellious’ voice of the young freedom fighters did not find the right audience and achieve the critical mass, it should have, possibly due to paucity of adequate resources (multitudinous media forms) and a dawdling speed at which the communication would have traveled. Hence, this may render the above chapter a little expendable.
    Nonetheless, there are various aspects where an analogy can be drawn and the novelty of the above idea is laudable.

    Wish you all the very best for many more intellectual emanations which jostle our grey cells out of their stupor.

    Posted by Abhilasha Kumar | June 19, 2011, 6:22 pm
  2. The belief here is that some of the principles in communicating to the youth have not changed, cuz principaly the youth has not changed. We’re also attempting to find reasons as to why that rebellious voice did not find the right audience..why? I wouldnt go as far as to say that “paucity of resources and media forms moving at dawdling speeds” is an excuse but it is certainly an oversight a result of lack of planning. Who stopped them from finding resources and building a criticall mass with the powerful socialist doctrine? The same means of communication were availble to Gandhi (& the Congress) and the British but both these parties established an influence first before channelising their communiqué. For instance a number of current revolutions with the presence of multiple channels of communcation are easier to carry out but more often than not headless. Those in the middle east are a prime example.
    We rightly have an emotional outlook towards matters concerning our struggle for independence. However, the reason why this chapter is described as a “failed” revolutionary campaign is because it did not achieve anything it set out to. Having said that “failure” is not neccesarily a bad thing if lessons be learnt from it.
    Thanks a tonnage for your inputs, we especially liked you questioning us on the appropriateness of using independence fighters to draw branding lessons but thats really the debate we want to start, why learn from one school only…we want to question why Gandhi is branded onto our currency?? its such a massive branding lesson…

    Posted by thinkrasta | June 19, 2011, 8:01 pm

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