Personal branding is about managing your name — even if you don’t own a business — in a world of misinformation, disinformation, and semi-permanent Google records...,” says Tim Ferriss an American entrepreneur, investor, author, podcaster, and lifestyle guru.

And to create a powerful brand, use of digital infrastructure — social media — has become a big tool as you can reach anybody and everybody at the same time, you can raise issues or make an appeal. However, how much influence you make through this tool depends on your personality.

When Rahul Gandhi started his Bharat Jodo Yatra, he was not doing something new as political heavy weights in the past have used Yatras to understand the socio-political dynamics or make a direct connect with the masses. However, like everything else he does, this also attracted attention.

Was Rahul Gandhi creating his brand? Is this how new-age politics will work?

His party colleagues from Congress of course are quick to say : “this is not about marketing. This is about mass connect.”

Social media connect

According to observers, it is about mobilising and activating a platform the Congress was weak at — social media. The Yatra has ensured that the image of Rahul Gandhi is visible 24x7, his photos are engaging, and the visual imagery leave an impact, said a political party watcher.

BJP has used digital infrastructure successfully and there is a recall value to it. In fact, even AAP has used the tool to its advantage.

Besides, virtual visibility what a Yatra does is it that it creates a physical connect with masses, whom today the Congress is also co-opting in the online space.

The endeavour is to create brand value that can be showcased on social media.

Dilip Cherian, a political campaign advisor and policy professional, sees this as less about changing perception of the party, but more in terms of how Rahul Gandhi will perceive the reality of what he is dealing with. “What I mean is that an experience like this will actually forever change his perception of ground reality,” he said. In other words it is something like officers from the Indian Administrative Services and career diplomats from Indian Foreign Service, who soon after joining service, undergo a Bharat Darshan tour to understand their society better and present a better view of the country abroad. The Yatra, in this case could be the political version of that.

“I don’t think it was the original design but this is going to be the end result. This will therefore be like Rahul Gandhi functioning as chairman emeritus. This is not an attempt to groom him. Yes, it is to brand the party as one that is connected to the ground — but the bigger result will be that of Rahul Gandhi making a contribution,” he added.

The Yatra’s aim

But what exactly is the aim of this Yatra?

According to the Congress, the aim of this Yatra, which began on September 7, is to unite India as it passes through 12 States, culminating in Jammu and Kashmir — spanning a distance of nearly 3,500 km over the course of about 150 days. The Yatra seeks to address issues such as unemployment and inflation, the politics of hate and division and the over-centralisation of the political system.

As Harish Bijoor, Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc, puts it, “The Yatra is a typical political marketing tool. It has been used for decades. When a politician or an aspiring political leader finds himself, herself or his/her cause unrecognised by the masses, this is a tool to pick. This has been used by Chandrashekar as well as Lal Krishna Advani — His Rath Yatra is an iconic one.”

“People love to see their leaders get off the television screen, get out of Parliament and get out of the relatively virtual world into the real one. People love to see, touch, smell and feel their leaders. The Yatra helps here,” he added.

YS Jagan Mohan Reddy has done it in the South as has NT Rama Rao, in the past, Bijoor said adding, “Expect a lot more to ape this trend.” As regards Rahul Gandhi, it is introducing the masses to the real man, say his colleagues.

The sum and substance is that a leader you can relate to is created by masses. It is all about branding really, but you also need to have a cause — a title and a name to fit the effort.

Roping in prominent faces to endorse it, editorial coverage, advertising and photo opportunities. Basically a Yatra is about visibility — Big visibility off the Small Screen. Relatibility, is the word here. The Yatra timing also may be perfect as the country is hungry to find a political alternative. But “Poll Booth” management is a different ball game altogether. Whether the crowd which is seen during the Yatra turns into votes only time will tell.

Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook, and other social media channels are aptly used today by political parties to build relationships and increase visibility. A tool which BJP has made very good use of and now Congress is doing it.

While social media does help in enhancing visibility and creating a brand, the tool can also be abused – by fake news and stories. There is no way to check this.

As political battles are being fought now on this visibly invisible platform, concerns over accountability are cropping up. Though measures are being put in place to ensure there is least misuse of social media, it is time for the policy makers also to have a closer look at the challenges and find remedies.