For anyone, selling trust is the hardest thing to do. Brands and companies go to a great extent to sell us trust: easy return policy, 5 years warranty, on-site service, and so on.
Across the world, the people who find it hardest to sell trust are politicians. In developing countries like India struggling hard to escape the middle-income trap, the aspirations of voters don’t match how much money is going around in the economy.
As India missed the manufacturing bus in the 1980s, politicians have no choice but to sell dreams and promise welfare benefits to alleviate the economic stress on families.
Question is, if all three candidates are promising jobs, cash transfers and free electricity, how does the voter decide whom to trust?
One way to sell trust is to make the promises tangible and finite. Farm loan waivers up to Rs50,000 as opposed to a vague ten-point list to work for farmers. But even that has become the norm now.
The party manifesto is just an exercise to keep busy the party elders who need to feel they are being given some work before elections.
We often hear politicians sell trust by insisting this will the first decision of their cabinet, as soon as they come into power. Some give deadlines and dates. Sadly for them, none of this seems to have any guaranteed impact on winning over trust.
Talking of guarantees, the 2022 Assam assembly election saw the Congress party sell their promises as “guarantees”. Even though it didn’t work — the BJP won — the idea of selling promises as guarantees has since then been copied by both the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress in many subsequent elections.
The AAP is killing the word with overuse, reflecting the politicians’ anxiety about selling trust.
“If this was possible”
In the 2019 general elections, the Congress party promised a “minimum basic income scheme” called “NYAY”. They were unable to communicate a nuanced idea (written for them by economists) to the public. What the people understood was that the Congress party was promising to give every family a whopping Rs72,000 per annum.
It seemed too good to be true, making the average voter distrust the promise. I heard one voter say, “If this was possible, wouldn’t Modi have done it?”
Explaining how you will do it is part of selling trust. The people who don’t trust your promise will at least start engaging with the idea of the promise. Some might be convinced by a politician’s explanation about how it can be done.
I’ve done it before
Yet the greatest act of trust is prior achievement. If you have demonstrated some ability in the past, voters are willing to trust you for the next 5 years. This is why it is important for politicians to show a trajectory of their work to voters, like the building of a CV.
The best example of this is Narendra Modi’s 2014 general election campaign when he spoke of the “Gujarat model of development”. He said that he had shown as Gujarat’s chief minister the ability to deliver development and governance.
This helped him win trust. He had been working on this for years, creating the image of having achieved something extraordinary in Gujarat. Be it an annual investment summit or successfully wooing the Tatas to move a car plant from Bengal to Gujarat, Modi had carefully crafted his CV to show voters his qualifications for the prime minister’s job.
When the Aam Aadmi Party contested its first election, the 2013 assembly elections in Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal promised to solve the problem of inflated electricity bills. In 2012, he climbed a ladder to personally reconnect wires and restore the electricity connection of a poor labourer who could not pay his inflated electricity bill.
That was the moment, like David against Goliath, when Kejriwal showed he will go to any extent to keep his promise, even break the law.
Today the AAP is going around selling a “Delhi model of governance”. The idea sounds a lot like Modi’s. Across India today there are people examining whether they should consider voting for the AAP because of this “Delhi model”. Of course, the claims of these various models don’t have to be true.
People just have to be convinced that they are true. When travelling outside Delhi, I hear this question often: Has Kejriwal done good work in Delhi? In education and health?
Why Rahul should have become a minister
The Manmohan Singh-led Congress coalition returned to power in 2009 with more seats because the UPA-1 government had delivered high growth with tangible welfare schemes. People felt they could be trusted. His second term lost the people’s trust.
Rahul Gandhi made a mistake by not becoming a minister in the Manmohan cabinet. It would have helped him show the building of a CV. He could have said he achieved X, Y or Z in his ministries. He thought he didn’t need to do that: he was born to be prime minister whenever he liked.
But there are other examples of Congress leaders successfully selling trust. Most recently, the Congress campaign in Himachal Pradesh promised to go back to the “old pension scheme” for government employees. This promise carried weight because the Congress party’s Ashok Gehlot government had already done that in Rajasthan.
The race to promise the moon to voters is getting heated up in the run-up to the 2024 general elections. We can expect to see a lot more PR campaigns, a lot more gimmicks and many new “models of development” emerge in the battle for the voter’s trust.
Somewhere in this contest lies the greatness of democracy.