Opinion engineering: The war of slogans (Election Special)
It's the type of controversy all politicians will dread, and the Bharatiya Janata Party and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi in retrospect would have regretted.
The BJP's attempt to plagiarise the Shaivite chant of "Har Har Mahadev" to coin the "Har Har Modi" slogan as part of the election campaign has drawn flak from the very people the party wants to consolidate as its vote base. And understandably, this has led to a set of questions about slogan as a political device and its use during elections.
Some slogans we know have produced results in the past. Others have failed miserably, remembered more for their extravagance or flatulence. But there is no denying the importance of slogans as a popular genre of political communication. Then, why do some slogans succeed and under what conditions? Before we go into the current crop of slogans, their purpose and possible efficacy, it would be helpful if we revisit the history of slogans and their use in the country.
Initially for a long time, political slogans held the day in India. Specific economic ones came later. But it has been found that even when there is an apparent economic content in a slogan, the objective is political. The first such documented slogan was that of the Swadeshi (Buy Indian) movement during the colonial rule. There was a specific economic content in the call for boycotting British goods and buying home-made ones. The overt economic strategy had a covert political motive. Other noteworthy political slogans that appeared during the freedom struggle included the Congress' "Purna Swaraj" (Absolute self-rule) , Mahatma Gandhi's 1942 "Quit India" call to the British and Subhas Chandra Bose's "Delhi Chalo" (March to Delhi).
The slogans of the early years after independence were reflective of the time. As a specific type of message presentation, they were aimed at serving an agenda. Slogans like "Growth with Justice" and "Self-reliant Growth" were anchored in specific situations as post-colonial India was finding its feet on the ground. But most of these, including Jawaharlal Nehru's "Aaram Haaram Hai" (Idleness is a sin) to arrest a declining work ethic, did not evoke the kind of popular response as expected, as some have said, because of the disjunctions between the idea and the ground reality in an era of centralized planning and top-to-bottom approach.
The most significant political-economic slogan in independent India so far has been "Garibi Hatao". It was first adopted along with the formulation of the Fourth Five-year Plan (1969-74). But then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used it as part of her campaign strategy with stunning effect in the 1971 elections.
Six years later in 1977, the battle cry was "Freedom and Democracy" as the elections were held after 19 months of Emergency rule. But the internal bickering and ideological difference among the disparate groups that formed the Janata Party led to the fall of the first non-Congress government at the centre three years later. Indira Gandhi again went through her old script and called for stability and "A Government That Works" and returned to power. Her successor Rajiv Gandhi held the vision of a clean, brave new India -- "Mera Bharat Mahan" (My India is Great) -- on the back of smart technology, particularly at a time when the political system to a large number of Indians had begun to look increasingly criminal.
The recounting of all these shows that specific, sometimes extraordinary, socio-political situations have led to their emergence and that explains their popularity and effectiveness. Depth psychologist and communication experts say people can be roused to enthusiasm by a slogan. As a statement of proposition or persuasion, a slogan is successful when it is able to tap the collective consciousness of a people. Seen in this perspective, "Garibi Hatao" touched a chord as every Indian wanted to be free from poverty. It helped Indira Gandhi in her search for what some political commentators called a "winning coalition", which was an agglomeration or co-option of the traditionally deprived, including the minorities and a number of "peripheries" as defined in the traditional and more modern electoral terms.
Also, the success of a slogan depends a lot on its framing and agenda-setting function. The framing refers to the fact that a slogan is a highly condensed form of expression, a message system; while the agenda-setting is all about identifying public issues and shaping public opinion. A slogan, it is said, is most potent and effective when it is short and catchy, that is something easy to understand and represents a positive feeling. As a brief and striking phrase, "Garibi Hatao" was very evocative and yielded the desired political dividend and set a trend in Indian politics as elections thereafter came to depend more on populist slogans and promises.
So, where do the two key slogans of the two major contenders in the 2014 elections stand? Essentially, both are vertical political propaganda to influence the crowd below, at a time of lower economic growth and growing income inequality.
The BJP slogan of "Ab Ki Baar, Modi Sarkar" (This time it's the Modi government) is part of the quasi-presidential campaign launched by the party and implies a decisive and effective leadership. It poses that Modi has a record in Gujarat, which proves he can "deliver", although the claim is open to argument and questioning. At the same time, it invites voters to join a perceived national mood against a government that many see has been dysfunctional and corrupt.
In comparison, the Congress slogan of "Har Haath Shakti, Har Haath Tarakki" (empowerment and progress for all) acknowledges the economic disparity in society and promises to help lift those left out after two decades of economic reforms. Interestingly, it is coming from a party that has been at the head of the government for the last ten years and fighting the election on a promise and not achievement.
Both the slogans are pitching to an internal reality -- the BJP particularly tapping into the middle class disaffection with the present government for failing to create opportunities for growth and the Congress promising to lift those languishing just below.
French sociologist Jacques Ellul in his study says propaganda succeeds when there is pre-propaganda, the necessary objective conditions. For example, propaganda can influence a person who is not completely haunted by poverty, someone who can be reasonably unconcerned about his or her daily bread. Also, he or she may not be totally uneducated or uninformed and therefore can take interest in general matters. Over the last two decades, there has been a certain level of economic prosperity and media penetration is increasing. In such a context, both the slogans are competing for voters' validation.
How are they zapping? We will get to know on May 16.
(Saroj Mohanty is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 01-04-2014)