In the vocabulary of political consolidation, party slogans promote unity among both cadres and followers. This election, they have become semantic syllables of slaughter, hysterical with divisive frenzy. ‘Ram, Ram ji’ is the most common and most non-communal term of greeting in most of rural North and West India. Many Hindus and Muslims, even in white attire may not shake hands but will say ‘Ram, Ram’ to each other. No more. Ever since Lord Ram found political ownership, the phrase symbolises majority cultural oppression. ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’, chanted regularly at various political rallies and social events was never a divisive declaration either. Sadly, both Ram and Bharat Mata have been added as factious words to India’s political dictionary.
During the last two phases of the Lok Sabha election campaign, Narendra Modi vociferously castigated Mamata Banerjee for berating BJP workers chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram.’ “If people cannot raise Jai Shri Ram in India, where else can they?” he blasted Didi. Her retort was “Jai Mahakali, Kalkattawali”. The election in Bengal became a dharmayudh between Modi’s Ram and Mamata’s Kaali—ironically both Hindu deities, though Didi only gave providence a secular address. Imitation may be a form of flattery, but in this vote fest, it is just mimicry with meanness. Accused of choosing appeasement over Hindutva, the Opposition is paying the BJP back with invoking Hinduism’s spectacular pantheon. They accuse the saffron party of converting Ram from a ‘god for all Hindus’ to its exclusive political asset for reaping political dividends. Though the lord of Ayodhya is the most revered symbol of faith, many other deities are equally worshipped across the country. Since the scriptures mention that Hindus have 33 crore gods, Modi-baiters are excavating divine antipodes to the excessive Ramification of the Indian political narrative. Most Modi-shatrus including Rahul Gandhi have been temple hopping from one state to another to enhance their Hindu connectivity.
The definite ideological energy driving BJP’s exorbitant invocation of nationalism and religion is scorching the pollscape. The party and the prime minister have concluded that secular discourse and administrative intervention are in collusion to erase India’s intrinsic Hindu identity by supporting sectarian and selective cultural invasions. During the 1990s, the BJP had a game changing epiphany: by finding a slogan or an idea to rally Hindus behind it, its saffron footprint could be extended beyond the Vindhiyas and in the East.
In 1990, L K Advani had laid the road map for a Hindu political awakening with his Ram Rath Yatra. After the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, the BJP blamed radical Islam for the escalating terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir as well as in other parts of the country. Mandir and abolition of Article 370 are BJP’s most effective contemporary slogans, calculated to besmear the entire Opposition with anti-Hindu paintballs. Over two decades, BJP has fine-tuned its ultra-polarising Hindutva slogans into nationalist war cries. ‘India First,’ an oblique reference to a modern Hindu rasthra is its password to victory. Party slogans and Modi’s speeches are disproportionally loaded in favour of voting for nationalism
instead of the government’s performance in the past five years.
Interestingly, the tone and tenor of political chants have been changing with the ascent of individuals over ideology. Slogans were once coined in a manner to define a leader and an alternative model of governance. Till the early ’60s, the Congress dominated India’s political geography under Jawaharlal Nehru. Once Indira Gandhi took full charge of the party and the country, she was directly pilloried by the Opposition and the Syndicate. The Jan Sangh was the first to launch a personal attack with “Indira Hatao, Desh Bachao”.
Her party parried with “Who kahte hein India Hatao, hum kahte hein Desh Bachao”. (They want to remove Indira while we want to save India). In the subsequent elections, the Congress led with the powerful call to arms, “Garibi Hatao” which gave it over two-thirds majority in Parliament. Though Indira lost miserably after the Emergency in 1977, she bounced back 32 months later riding the mesmerising slogan “Elect The Government That Works,” which summarised the ideal alternative to the chaos in the Morarji Desai-headed Janata Party government, which was being excoriated by factional feuds.
Political slogans remained lukewarm until 2014, when Modi stormed the national stage with the promise of ‘Achche din’ and a Strong India. These phrases resonated with voters who ached for leader with the will to fight corruption and deliver. Modi’s track record as prime minister is better than that of many of his predecessors. Yet he has chosen to seek re-election with emotional aggression rather than by explaining his future agenda. In other democracies, well established ruling parties have been overthrown by leaders with combative and impassioned slogans.
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher exploited the labour union menace whose strikes were paralysing the UK economy by asking the British electorate to vote Conservative because “The labour doesn’t work”. Many of Modi’s admirers feel that he could have learned from international leaders who won the polls or were seeking a second term. For example, Barack Obama hit pay dirt first in 2008 by playing to the American innovative spirit with “Yes, we can. Yes we can heal this nation”. Next in 2012, he promised America that he would take the change “forward”. Donald Trump, the dark horse and a subject of ridicule for Washington’s liberal classes reached the White House by promising demoralised citizens that he would “Make America Great Again”.
Undoubtedly pithy, snappy and sharp slogans strike the right chord with the public. Mottos with emotive rhymes and alliterations, spiced with sarcastic puns promising a better, peaceful future would reap a bigger harvest of seats. After considering the good, the bad and the mediocre, the message is clear. A nation as diverse as India needs a slogan which emphasises its diversity and not just nationality. Unless the political context and social sentiment match piercing one-liners, all you’re left with is yet another meaningless catchphrase. The slogans of 2019 have divided India vertically. Hopefully the verdict will not reflect the fury and filth of campaign histrionics.