Opinion: The slogan war of 2019

R Jagannathan
BJP and Congress Logo

BJP and Congress Logo

Which slogan, the BJP’s slogan built around the personality of the PM, or the Congress’s, built around the idea of redistributive justice to the poor, will win?

All elections are about parties and candidates discussing issues that are important to the voter. But in a diverse country like India, especially in a first-past-the-post electoral system where a minority of voters can deliver a majority verdict in favour of one party or one pre-election alliance, politicians often have to micro-cast different messages to different segments of people. This is often done through the issue of manifestoes, which tend to long-winded and exhaustive, covering almost every issue from A to Z.

Manifestoes tend to be all things to all people. They are sometimes too complex to be understood by the ordinary voter, and hence ignored, or too vague for even experts to critique them. Ultimately, a party seeking to win an election needs to simplify its message so that its core voter base is enthused, and the undecided voter at the margin finally makes up her mind. Victory and defeat thus depend on the choices made by undecided voters. This is where campaign catch-lines and slogans play a crucial role. Sometimes these slogans fall flat, when they fail to grasp voter moods, but, at other times, they gain traction by hitting the right spot.

In 2004, the NDA under Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost when its India Shining campaign failed to connect with people who felt left out by the then recent growth spike. The Congress party capitalised on this with a simple slogan, Congress ka Haath, Aam Aadmi ke Saath. Simple, yet effective and inclusive.

In 2014, as the economy was tottering under UPA-2 and corruption scandals were erupting all over, the Narendra Modi campaign tapped into latent voter angst about inflation and reducing opportunities by promising “Achche Din.” It proved a winner.

But how will 2019 play out? Five years ago, the BJP was merely tapping into pre-existing voter anger and did not need to provide anything beyond hope for a better future. But in 2019, having ruled the country for five years, it has to stand on its own record and not talk only about the future. Last year, on the fourth anniversary of the NDA government, the message was Saaf Niyat, Sahi Vikas (Good intentions, good development). But in the meanwhile, the Congress party has been busy raking up issues of jobless growth, and alleging corruption in the Rafale combat aircraft deal, among other things. Having accused the government of being a suit-boot-ki-sarkar as far back as in 2015, Rahul Gandhi decided that the Rafale deal, especially the choice of its private offset partner, was the right issue on which to corner a government which claimed a corruption-free tenure. It took up the cry, Chowkidar Chor Hai, even though the Supreme Court and the Comptroller and Auditor General did not find much wrong with the Rafale deal. The reference to Chowkidar came from Modi’s 2014 promise that he will play guardian to the nation’s wealth, and not let politicians steal it.

But in politics, perceptions matter as much as reality. When confronted with cries of #ChowkidarChorHai in Rahul Gandhi’s public rallies and Twitter feeds, the NDA decided that there was no way to duck the issue. This is when its strategists hit upon the idea of using the same Chowkidar meme to turn the tables. Overnight, the Prime Minister sought to rally the nation behind him by pointing out that all citizens needs to be vigilant chowkidars, and not just the Prime Minister. This was the start of the #MainBhiChowkidar campaign. The PM’s Twitter handle quickly became Chowkidar Narendra Modi, and soon all his cabinet colleagues called themselves Chowkidars – Chowkidar Suresh Prabhu, Chowkidar Sushma Swaraj, or Chowkidar Dharmendra Pradhan. Pro-BJP handles on Twitters followed suit.

This campaign had a huge impact for it quickly rallied not only the party faithful, but a broader support base outside the party, by inviting them to be a part of the movement to root out corruption. The hashtag #MainBhiChowkidar was trending for several days last month. The reason why this happened is because citizens feel most enthused about their government when they feel they are a part of it.

From #MainBhiChowkidar, it was just a hop, step and jump away to the Modi campaign’s final tagline: Phir Ek Baar, Modi Sarkar. Having gotten thousands of people to identify with the Chowkidar, it became easy to call for a vote in the name of Modi rather than offer voters a wish-list of items in the manifesto. The Modi tagline worked well with another campaign slogan, Majboot Sarkar versus Majboor Sarkar. Given the rag-tag nature of the opposition to Modi, the progression from #MainBhiChowkidar to Majboot Sarkar and Phir Ek Baar, Modi Sarkar was smooth.

This brings us to the Congress party’s response. Given the strong personality-oriented campaign of the BJP-led NDA, the strategists around Rahul Gandhi realised that their campaign could not be presidential in nature. They had to bring hard issues to the fore, and these issues had to be hitting at the weak spots in the Modi’s performance over five years. Hence the focus on jobless growth, and farm distress – both indicative of the need for people to see more money in their pockets.

This is how Congress strategists hit upon the minimum income scheme for the poorest 20 percent of the population. The party has promised Rs 72,000 per annum (or Rs 6,000 per month) for nearly five crore households under a scheme called NYAY – Nyuntam Aay Yojana.  The naming of the scheme takes a leaf out of the Modi playbook, where schemes are named evocatively to serve both as acronyms and to deliver a message (Example: Saubhagya for reaching power to the last household, Jan Dhan for inclusive banking, etc). In sharp contrast to the Modi campaign revolving around a larger-than-life personality, the Congress campaign seeks to deliver a direct cash benefit to a large section of voters and also something intangible (nyay, or justice). The NYAY scheme may be fiscally costly to implement, but it panders to voters who ask (“what’s in it for me?) even while suggesting that this is some form of redistributive justice. The subtle subtext is that justice will be delivered to the poor, which also serves as an indirect hint that the present government caters largely to the rich. This logically led the Congress to its campaign slogan – Ab hoga Nyay. It has a double meaning, one material in nature, and the other subliminal.

When voters head for the polling booths, they will have many choices, some regional, some national. For some time now, Lok Sabha elections have become a bunch of regional elections rolled into a national election. But combining all issues into one slogan are the two contrasting slogans: the BJP’s Phir Ek Baar, Modi Sarkar, and the Congress’ Ab Hoga Nyay. Both are short forms for two different ideas for voters to accept-reject. One asks voters to trust in a tall leader who tirelessly works for them, and the other asks voters to invest in an idea of self-interest combined with the larger idea of justice.

On 23 May, we will know not only which party has won, but which slogan got more traction with the voter.

- R Jagannathan, Editorial Director, Swarajya magazine