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Repeat Sloganeering Feat. Narendra Modi: Does the BJP Have Nothing New to Offer?

Big money and big advertising firms handling election campaigns of major political parties have not thrown up creative slogans. Political communication was far more exciting and reflected social realities more vividly when people who struggled at the grassroots for decades wrote them.
A man holds a poster reading 'Janta hai taiyar, phir se Modi sarkar (The public is ready for another Modi government)'. Photo: X/@narendramodi

Phir ek baar, Modi sarkar – does this slogan expose the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s intellectual crisis? Has the stale slogan, used in 2019 and repeated verbatim in 2024, unwittingly announced Narendra Modi has nothing new to offer?

This slogan has been modified and recycled for over two decades now. When the BJP first came to power in 1999, their slogan was ‘Abki baari, Atal Bihari‘. The BJP came up with different ideas in 2004 instead of reproducing the same old stuff after five years. The leadership demonstrated full faith in the performance of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and launched an ambitious ‘India Shining’ campaign. The Congress, which had sewn up a formidable national coalition, punctured the India Shining campaign with a sharp inquest – Aam aadmi ko kya mila (What did the common man get)? Development is an open-ended process and a slogan like ‘India Shining’ in a country where millions of voters still grappled with wretched poverty went against the socio-economic rationale of the country and crashed against the pragmatism of “Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath (Congress’s ‘hand’ – its election symbol – is with the common man).” The aspirational logic of ‘India Shining’ couldn’t survive the weight of ground realities.

Though many people sprang up in 2014 to claim ownership of the successful political mantra – Abki baar, Modi sarkar, this was basically stolen from the ‘Abki baari, Atal Bihari’ slogan of 1998-99. But there were many creative additions to cover all spheres of life, from price rise to women’s safety, and the remedy that caught the nation’s fancy – “acchhe din aane wale hain (better days are coming).” The slogans reflected the ground reality so powerfully that they haunt Modi even after ten years for not fulfilling his promises. Slogans like: “Bahut hui mahngai ki maar/abki baar Modi Sarkar” and “Bahut hua mahilaon par war/abki baar Modi Sarkar”.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

In 2019, Modi chose to repeat the main slogan, adding another – Modi hai to mumkin hai (With Modi, it’s possible) – to re-emphasise his continuing popularity. It is difficult to guess if that worked, because that election acquired an exceptional dimension in the post-Pulwama phase. Modi repeated the same experiment now, adding ‘Modi ki Guarantee’ to the main slogan, presuming that his contract with the masses is not yet over. This presumption will be tested this time, and there are no indications that the slogan “Phir ek baar Modi Sarkar” has generated any enthusiasm among the people.

The Congress has again deployed the same strategy with its catchphrase ‘hisab do (give us the accounts)’, highlighting Modi’s failures and problems like unemployment and rising prices. While ‘hisab do’ is more aggressive than ‘aam aadmi ko kya mila’, the Congress offered an alluring alternative by weaving a justice narrative around its 25 guarantees. In 2019 also, the Congress theme song was “Ab hoga nyay (Now there will be justice)”, but it failed to spread its word beyond the mist of nationalist frenzy created by the “surgical strike” into Pakistan. In 2014, when the Congress was maligned and decapacitated to a great extent by the propaganda on corruption, its creativity also took a hit as the main slogan was: Har haath shakti, har haath tarakki.

Big money and big advertising firms handling election campaigns of major political parties have not thrown up creative slogans. Political communication was far more exciting and reflected social realities more vividly when people who struggled at the grassroots for decades wrote them. Now, marketing strategists have depoliticised messaging and even stopped recreating the feel of the grassroots. The smell of the cultural milieu of the target audience and the nature of the political contest are scarcely reflected through the slogans. In the last round of assembly elections, the BJP hawked ‘Modi ki Guarantee’ against the dominant discourse of his inability to deliver on his lofty promises.

The best example of a corporate-designed campaign turning out to be a disaster is from Uttar Pradesh, when Amitabh Bacchan was roped in for the video with this slogan: UP mein hai dum/Jurm hai yahan kam (UP is strong, there is little crime here). The Mulayam Singh government was notorious for crimes and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, probably the party that has come up with the best slogan in India, promptly countered it by this incisive slogan that offered a solution: “Chadh gundan ki chhati par/Mohar laga de haathi par”.

The BSP’s political trajectory too is manifested in slogans. It went from “Tilak, taraju aur talwar/ Inko maaro joote chaar” — the reference in the first line is to Brahmins, Banias and Rajputs — when it was consolidating its position among Dalits, to “Haathi nahi Ganesh hai Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai” when it decided to try and bring Brahmins into its fold. Such powerful symbolism, strong on content and rhythm, is missing today. Mayawati’s reliance on the Brahmin-Dalit combination was reflected in another slogan: “Brahmin shankh bajayega/Haathi badhta jayega.” One of the most effective slogans came out of the alliance between Samajwadi Party and BSP in 1983: “Mile Mulayam-Kanshi Ram/Hawa mein ud gaye Jai Shri Ram.”

Political communication can’t be disconnected from reality. In 1984, when the Congress won more than 400 seats exploiting the sympathy wave for Indira Gandhi after her tragic assassination, the slogan was simple but emotionally appealing: “Jab tak suraj chand rahega/Indira tera naam rahega”. In the post-Emergency period when she was ousted from power, Indira went to Chikmagalur in Karnataka to contest a by-election despite a concerted effort by the Janata Party leaders to block her from entering Parliament. To describe her solo fight, the Congress gave this slogan: “Ek sherni, sau langur, Chikmagalur, Chikmagalur.” In 1971, when the opposition chanted “Indira hatao”, she punctured it by giving a call for “gareebi hatao”. But the political dynamics changed post-Emergency and the “Indira hatao, Desh bachao” slogan became a powerful anthem in 1977.

Slogans can’t weave magic without political logic. When the BJP launched a ferocious political attack in Bengal in 2021, the ‘khela hobe’ slogan emerged as a potent weapon in Mamata Banerjee’s fightback. But the ‘UP ke ladke’ slogan boomeranged in Uttar Pradesh because the voters could not digest the duplicity of the Congress. The Congress ran a massive campaign on the state’s miserable plight, with the slogan ‘27 saal, UP behaal’ – and suddenly did a somersault to align with the ruling Samajwadi Party. Individual-centric slogans have a chequered history; they have  succeeded at times, bombed many times. Indira knew this better than other prime ministers. Now Modi is being tested, as the BJP has doubtless put all its eggs in the same basket.

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