/Is a witty one-liner enough to win an election?

Is a witty one-liner enough to win an election?

Campaign slogans have a colourful history in India, in part because Hindi lends itself to rhyming and word play, and for centuries has been generating catchy phrases and one-liners on just about everything. In politics slogans aren’t enough to secure victory, but our memories of landmark elections are often encapsulated in the catchiest slogan, usually from the winning side. So with Narendra Modi asking for ‘Phir Ek Baar, Modi Sarkar’, and the Congress promising yet more welfare benefits, which side will coin the defining slogan of 2019?

Today’s slogans have a pedigree that dates back to long before I started following Indian campaigns in the late 1990s. People were still talking about how Indira Gandhi won her crushing 1971 victory under the slogan, ‘Garibi hatao, Indira lao, Desh bachao’. When she was assassinated in 1984, her son Rajiv capitalised on the surge of sympathy, winning the election that year under the slogan, ‘Jab tak sooraj chand rahega, Indira tera naam rahega’. Throughout my campaign travels, Congress slogans have been playing up these two themes: the glory of the Gandhis, and their commitment to helping the poor.

Watching from the backbenches, the BJP wrote slogans that tried to tap popular frustration with decades of Congress rule. Atal Bihari Vajpayee captured the frustration in the slogan that swept him to power briefly in 1996: ‘Sabko dekha baari baari, Abki baari Atal Bihari’. Nearly two decades later the BJP was still milking the same impatience, in a 2014 slogan that went viral: ‘Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar!’

Some of the sharpest attacks on Congress came from the street, most memorably a 2002 ditty my companions and I heard in Dehradun, linking Narayan Dutt Tiwari to the Gandhis by scurrilous reference to rumours about his personal leanings: Na Nar Na Nari, Indira Ke Pujari, Sanjay Ki Savari, Narayan Dutt Tiwari.

As the BJP rose, Congress leaders continued to drink from the Gandhi glamour pool in slogan after slogan. No Gandhi has featured more prominently in Congress one-liners than Indira, still a martyr to millions. In the 2009 election, party slogan writers found her reincarnation in Sonia: ‘Sonia nahi yeh aandhi hai, doosri Indira Gandhi hai’. And three years later they saw her in Priyanka: ‘Priyanka nahin aandhi hain, doosri Indira Gandhi hai’.

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By then the BJP was starting to build the personality cult around Modi, and establish him as the rising star that could block the Gandhi sun. When he arrived at 2012 rallies in Gujarat the crowds would chant, ‘Dekho dekho kaun aaya . . . Gujarat ka sher aaya’. By 2014, BJP sloganeers were implying that Modi, the challenger, had already won: ‘Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi!’

Meanwhile the regional parties were rising as a third force, building up their leaders’ personas through combative punchlines. None were more revealing than those coined to promote Mayawati in UP: her evolution from angry Dalit champion to friend of Brahmins and back again is documented in the shifting tenor of her slogans — from ‘Tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inko maro joote chaar’ to ‘Sarvajana sukhaya, sarvajana hitaya’ and then ‘Satta ki chaabi hum aise jaane nahin denge’. When she tied up with the BJP in 2002, they tried to sell the deal with slogans like ‘Haathi Nahin Ganesh Hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh Hai’. This time, Mayawati is teaming up with Akhilesh Yadav to stop Modi in UP. They haven’t put it in writing yet, but their message evokes a slogan Akhilesh’s father Mulayam used after the destruction of the Babri Masjid: ‘Mile Mulayam-Kanshiram, hawa ho gaye Jai Shree Ram’.

Family dynasties are an integral part of Indian politics and that’s reflected in the slogans. Our election trip group saw that phenomenon play out in its full element during the UP state election in 2017. When we met Akhilesh in his chief ministerial bungalow in Lucknow, he avoided talking about his uncle Shivpal but spoke reverentially of his father. One of his campaign slogans was: ‘Akhilesh ka jalwa kayam hai, uska baap Mulayam hai.’

In addition to establishing powerful personalities and marking caste lines, slogans have often summed up in three words the economic aspirations of the day. The slogan of the 1990s was ‘Roti, Kapda, Makaan’. During our 2002 trip we saw that recast as ‘Bijli, Sadak, Pani’, which was superseded in the next decade by ‘Shiksha, Vigyan, Vikas’. By 2015 Modi had pushed that forward to ‘Padhai, Kamai, Davai’ when we saw him speak at a rally in Muzaffarnagar during Bihar’s state elections. As we travelled back, we wondered whether voters would respond to increasingly ambitious promises when many still struggled to put food on the table, and indeed they did not. The 2015 Bihar election ended in defeat for Modi and the BJP.

This was not the first time BJP slogans had gotten too far ahead of voters. Back in 2004 when pundits around the world were hailing the rise of India, international praise went to the heads of BJP mandarins under PM Vajpayee. The BJP’s boastful English slogan ‘India Shining’ was rejected, particularly by rural voters whose lives were still far from shining. By 2014, the BJP was promising a very different future under the slogan ‘Achhe Din Aane Wale Hain’, and won handily.

Five years later, Congress continues to invoke the poverty-fighting spirit of Indira, and the BJP is still running as the outsider. In its 2019 slogan ‘Ab hoga Nyay’, Congress is making a double play on “justice” and the acronym for its new basic income guarantee.

The BJP responds with ‘Phir ek bar, Modi sarkar’, as if the scales of power won’t be balanced until it has ruled for as many terms as Congress did. That seems risky in a country where voters have been turning against powerful incumbents since the late ’70s. But then Modi has proven to be a master sloganeer like few others in a country obsessed with witty one-liners.

Sharma is the author of ‘Democracy on the Road: a 25-Year Journey Through India’