What campaign slogans, speeches and songs reveal about Bengal’s polls
In recent years, election campaigns in India have tended to be high-pitched, but the one in Bengal seems to be shriller than usual. That has partly to do with the high stakes involved. For the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), it is an existential battle. For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Bengal is a prize that it has long eyed for both ideological and electoral reasons.
Many analysts have dismissed election campaigns in India, particularly the current one in Bengal, as hitting the lowest registers and missing the real issues. But that does not take away from the importance of campaigning and its impact on voters, particularly the undecided ones.
The BJP has picked on the theme of poriborton or change that the TMC so successfully used in 2011 against the Left Front’s 34-year rule with the memorable slogan, Hoy ebar noy never, (this time or never). To make a distinction, the BJP has added ashol (real) before poriborton. The BJP’s election manifesto also promises a return to Sonar Bangla, or Golden Bengal, borrowed from Rabindranath Tagore’s classic song. This has been supplemented with the rhetoric of the Jai Shri Ram slogan, which was alien to West Bengal, and is now being used for both communal and caste mobilisation. The TMC has pushed back against the BJP’s Hindu nationalist rhetoric by resorting to Bengali nationalism and labelling the BJP as bohiragato or outsiders. It has also encouraged the use of the slogan Joy Bangla to counter Jai Shri Ram. During campaigning, the TMC unveiled its slogan, Bangla nijer meyekei chaay (Bengal wants its own daughter), which combines the centrality of Mamata Banerjee in the party’s campaign even while emphasising the outsider tag for the BJP.
The other TMC slogan — khela hobe (game is on), which hints that elections are a playground but also a battlefield, has become wildly popular, with Banerjee almost always referring to it in her speeches. The BJP has responded by saying the game is over. The Left, in a sign of its attenuated state, has tried to revive its fortunes by using a remix of a Bengali song from a B-grade film.
The campaign has, at times, become vitriolic and personal, but this can also be seen as part of the carnivalesque nature, albeit with violent undertones, of Indian elections.
The BJP has referred to Banerjee not just as didi (elder sister) but pishi (aunt) for allegedly patronising her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee. The chief minister (CM) has, in turn, consistently alleged that Amit Shah’s son is a top cricket honcho because of nepotism. And she has not spared Modi or Shah and their physical appearances either, referring to the duo as hodolkoothkoot and kumro potash, Bengali words that are difficult to translate and play on body weight. In a recent speech, she also noted that the growth of Modi’s beard was inversely proportional to the state of India’s economy.
The BJP has countered by mocking Banerjee’s foot injury sustained during campaigning. The party’s state president, known for making incendiary comments, criticised the CM for campaigning with one leg in plaster, advising her to wear Bermuda shorts instead of a sari.
While some of the physical jibes are in poor taste, the symbolism of the body and dress in politics goes back a long way. Anthropologist Mukulika Banerjee has noted that while oratory and wordplay are essential in campaigns, voters also pay close attention to the clothes, expressions and body language of politicians. The CM, for instance, has always been identified with simple handloom saris and slippers. Modi, in contrast, chooses different clothes, depending on the setting.
Social media has become integral to campaigning and mimics some characteristics of physical campaigning, including spreading misinformation. While it has lessened the importance of election rallies, it has not supplanted them. It has also popularised political songs, WhatsApp messages and memes which are not always linked to political parties. One example is a song by prominent Bengali actors against religious intolerance that has gone viral. It takes the good, bad, ugly and silly to make a campaign. The battle for Bengal is no different.
Ronojoy Sen is senior research fellow, ISAS & SASP, National University of Singapore
The views expressed are personal