Slogans like "feel good" and India Shining undermine people's intelligence.
The enduring charm of slogans, their stealthy influence on our psyche, their enduring memory in our lives, often gets buried in the rubble of elections. Catchy, pithy, sometimes witty maxims, they capture headlines, force their way into the national discourse, shape our vocabulary and influence our choices. ‘Garibi Hatao’, perhaps the most effective slogan of all time, left an imprint on the national consciousness that persists to this day.
Why, then, has ‘India Shining’, which fulfils all the above criteria, become a standing joke? Why are mobile phones bombarded with ‘feel good’ jokes of the cheapest variety? Perhaps because the voter, that most canny of consumers, realises that he is being sold a lemon in the guise of a mango.
In the marketplace, slogans and catchphrases have always been used to create subliminal associations between products and tempting images. Buy this shaving cream and you will get the woman of your desire. ‘India Shining’ is like a shaving ad. It holds out the promise of immediate gratification and simultaneously appeals to the consumers’ vanity. But it fails to work for one simple reason. Born out of a pragmatic understanding of politics, slogans have been either descriptive or prescriptive. In either case, they have reflected — or at least have been close to reflecting — reality.
Today, the BJP’s aggressive sloganeering, albeit catchy, is far removed from reality to be credible. What we see now is the collaborative creation of an alternative reality by the Sangh parivar and sections of the intelligentsia. A virtual world in which roads aren’t potholed, no one sleeps hungry, GDP growth is stratospheric, stock market bulls are feisty and Bipasha Basu lives next door.
‘Garibi Hatao’ had worked because it did not hold out the promise of overnight prosperity. It set out prosperity as a goal to be achieved through a collective endeavour and thus imparted a sense of partnership with the government. It was a prescriptive slogan. Provocative slogans, on the other hand, appeal to cultural machismo.
Not a single slogan in praise of the present times has been a vote-catcher. ‘Bhutto hum sharminda hain, tere qatil zinda hain’ in Pakistan and ‘Vikaas ke vaaste, Rajiv ke raaste’ in India were powerful slogans at the two ends of the spectrum. The former not only reminded a nation of Bhutto’s tragic end, but also helped his daughter to politically avenge his death. The latter, on the other hand, pegged national aspirations of development on Rajiv Gandhi, in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. It was a slogan that helped an entire nation, its people, its economy to turn its mind from despair to hope in the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi.
By far one of the most powerful electoral slogans with definite overtones of social reform has been ‘Na jaat par na paat par, mohar lagegi haath par’. Go to any part of northern India, the slogan still finds an echo in political meetings. Before secularism was made out to be a four-letter word, a slogan that aptly defined the Indian ethos was ‘Anekta mein ekta, Bharat ki visheshta’. Both these slogans were coined and effectively used by the Congress through many elections. Slogans that ridicule rivals also assume tremendous popularity. Ek sherni, sau langoor, Chikamagaloor, Chikamagaloor, lionised Indira Gandhi and in the same breath demolished the opposition.
As a polemic against the incumbent political dispensation, a slogan is often most effective when it’s witty and appropriate. In the 1998 assembly elections in Delhi, when the incumbent BJP government failed to contain the rising prices of essential commodities, the slogan raised by Congress workers was ‘BJP ka dekho khel, kha gayi pyaz, pee gayi tel’. In the 2003 assembly elections, the slogan that worked in our favour in Delhi for its crisp aptness was ‘Hamne dekhi sabki leela, sabse achhi apni Sheila’. Many slogans have also worked as a threat. Like the threatening ‘Bharat mein yadi rahna hoga, Vande Mataram kahna hoga’ or the violent ‘Mohar lagao haathi par, warna goli khao chhaati par’.
Slogans have also ruined many a political career. A gentleman named Ramdev had apparently angered his constituency in UP by his alleged involvement in the nasbandi campaigns of the late-Seventies. A group of 8-10 men took it upon themselves to avenge the dismantling of their family life by disrupting Ramdev’s political meetings by just one slogan: “Jab kaat rahey the Kamdev, tab kahan the Ramdev?”. This slogan hounded Ramdev to political wilderness.
One may get carried away by ads in newspapers, waking up to the smiling faces that were not only not smiling but were not even visible just a few months back. After spending gruelling days in cities, towns and villages, when one returns home to be told by the TV to ‘feel good’, one may have trouble complying.
The voter is, thus, left to draw one of the two conclusions: either he is missing the ‘feel good’ factor which somehow the rest of the country is enjoying, or his intelligence is being undermined with his own money. Neither is likely to put him in a good mood when he heads towards the polling booth.
The writer is political secretary to the Chief Minister of Delhi
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