New Year Issue

India Through Slogans

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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The political art of mesmerising the mass mind with minimum usage of words
History is replete with the tragedy that overtakes a democracy when a leader who has risen to power on the crest of a popular wave or with the support of a democratic organisation becomes a victim of political narcissism and is egged on by a coterie of unscrupulous sycophants…’

This was a letter from then Congress President S Nijalingappa to Indira Gandhi in 1969, expelling her from the party. Within two years, in a bold move aimed at securing a fresh mandate, Mrs Gandhi as Prime Minister had recommended the dissolution of Parliament.

The late 60s had been a tough phase for her. Inspired by socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia’s call of anti-Congressism, Mrs Gandhi’s political opponents, including many within her party, had coined a crisp political slogan (a word that comes from the Gaelic ‘slogorn’, literally ‘war cry’ ) to rally support for their cause: ‘Indira Hatao’ (‘Remove Indira’). In response, she split the Congress and fell back on the party’s socialist policies initiated in 1967 as part of a ten-point programme that included the abolition of privy purses for royals, public distribution of food, land reforms and nationalisation of the insurance sector.

In the run-up to the next polls, the Congress under Mrs Gandhi brandished what was to become one of Independent India’s most potent political slogans: ‘Garibi Hatao’. The message— ‘Remove poverty’— touched an instant chord with most voters, besides its core target audience of Dalits, Adivasis, the unemployed, the poor and the landless. Adopted at first in line with the Fourth Five-Year Plan (1969-74), the catchphrase sounded economic. However, it was used to impressive effect by Mrs Gandhi as part of her campaign strategy to gain mass appeal in the General Election of 1971.

Just how well that slogan and the socialist policies of the Congress resonated with voters nationwide against a background of a sluggish economy, rising unemployment and aspirational ennui, was clear in the results. Indira Gandhi’s party clinched 375 Lok Sabha seats and 48.4 per cent of the popular vote (along with the Communist Party of India). On its own, the party swept the hustings, winning 352 seats and crushing the Congress (O) of the Syndicate leaders who had challenged her authority.

The Indo-Pak war of 1971, coming soon after, catapulted Mrs Gandhi’s image to that of a nationalist leader. She broadened her political base and raised the party’s stature further in the regional elections of 1972. This was significant, given the watershed polls of 1967 which had shown for the first time that the Congress was not invincible; back then, it was said that you could take a train from Delhi to Howrah and not cross a single Congress-ruled state along the way.

The massive 1971 win of the Congress under Indira Gandhi, though, had a flipside that completely transformed the party structurally. It gave the leader cult status and she arrogated all inner-party power to herself. The lack of strong organisational feedback also meant that the party would, in the years to come, grow increasingly distant from the aspirations of its traditional voters, the most prominent of them being upper-caste Hindus, Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis.

Indira Gandhi’s winning slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ for the 1971 polls, however, was not the first time that India had experienced the power of a succinct call to action. It was only the latest in a line of transformative slogans that had animated the public sphere. Consider the signpost naaraas of the nationalist movement. Mahatma Gandhi’s August 1942 call for immediate independence and an orderly withdrawal of British Rule, encapsulated in his ‘Quit India’ slogan, set the course for the civil disobedience agitation. An estimated 60,000 Indians were arrested. Britain’s then Prime Minister Winston Churchill did not oblige, but the political message sent to the British Empire was loud and clear: the Indian people overwhelmingly wanted them out and would not be quelled. Another potent slogan of the era was ‘Inquilab Zindabad’; coined by Hasrat Mohani, it was to become the rallying cry—among others—of the revolutionary Bhagat Singh and his cohorts in the freedom struggle. There was also Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s ‘Jai Hind’ and ‘Delhi Chalo’. Lokmanya Tilak’s ‘Swaraj Is My Birthright’ (“Swaraj”—or self-rule—“mera janamsiddh adhikaar hai,” he had declared) and Madan Mohan Malaviya’s ‘Satyameva Jayate’ (‘Truth alone triumphs’), which was inscribed at the base of the National Emblem, also captured the imagination of millions.

Among the other inspirational slogans of the era that— like ‘Garibi Hatao’ and ‘Swadeshi’ before it—sounded economic but had a political message for the masses was coined during the Dandi Salt March: ‘Don’t Pay Tax,’ as Indians were urged. The Salt March, led by Mahatma Gandhi, culminated in the call for ‘Poorna Swaraj’ (‘complete self-rule’) by the Indian National Congress in January 1930. Together, these slogans and the mass movements they engineered chipped away at another successful-if-self-serving slogan: ‘The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire.’ It did—in 1947.

The most popular of the nationalist slogans in the early post-Independence era was issued during the 1965 Indo- Pak war by former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ came in the context of a country still recovering from a war with China and ravaged by economic misery, poor food production, drought conditions and rising poverty. Shastri had been the Congress party’s consensus candidate as Nehru’s successor and was seen as an unassuming leader till the slogan spelt out his determination to rouse soldiers, farmers and everyone else in taking on the country’s challenges. In four words, he inspired millions of Indians by strengthening their collective national identity. This was the legacy that former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee was drawing on when he added ‘Jai Vigyan’ to it after the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998.

Slogans, communication experts maintain, are condensed history and history itself is made up of slogans. They carry ideologies and promote mass movements and forge aspirations of the times they are contextualised in. All slogans work on the twin premise of communication and representation, and work on the internecine connect between subjective aspirations and objective historical realities. In the pre-Independence era, most slogans were fuelled by nationalism, playing on a people’s collective identity and aspirations to forge a mass movement that could overthrow foreign rule. But while they tended to homogenise the target audience in this period, as one study observes, political and socio-economic slogans of the post-Independence period reflected the realities of the time and tended to tap regional and sub- regional identity aspirations.

As it would play out, some of the strongest such slogans worked to debilitate the Congress over time. Just six years after Indira Gandhi’s landslide victory in 1971, following 19 months of the Emergency she imposed on the country, ‘Freedom and Democracy’ became the popular battle cry of a nation which had witnessed many forms of democratic expression muzzled by her government at the Centre. The Janata Party came to power in 1977, but the internal contradictions among the various groups that came together to form the party resulted in its fall three years later. A politically astute Mrs Gandhi then played the stability card. ‘A Government that Works’ gave her the Prime Minister’s post once again, and she stayed in power until her assassination in 1984.

Says a communication specialist, “Slogans must be short and catchy and derive from the existing cultural, socio-political, economic situation and reflect the aspirations of the target audience in order to capture popular imagination and be transformative. [In 1998], ‘Ab Ki Baari, Atal Bihari’ (‘This time, Atal Bihari’) was the political slogan that catapulted Vajpayee to power at the Centre. In 2014, the NDA’s second crucial bid to capture power at the Centre relied significantly and positively on a throwback to that to emphasise a continuity of sorts when it coined ‘Ab Ki Baar, Modi Sarkar’ (‘This time, a Modi government’). But given the economic doldrums, multi- crore corruption scams, spiralling unemployment and high prices of essentials that marked the end of the UPA’s second tenure, it was imperative to come up with a slogan that promised better times and took cognisance of the growing but unfulfilled economic aspirations of a huge youthful vote bank. ‘Achche Din Aane Waalein Hain’ (‘Good days are to come’) fit the bill perfectly during the elections. It was simple, catchy and telling.”

The specialist cautions, though, that as with the hugely popular ‘Garibi Hatao’, successful slogans sometimes succumb to the law of diminishing dividends and could even prove counter-productive if the promises made are not met in popular perception. One example was ‘Mera Bharat Mahaan’, a slogan coined during the Rajiv Gandhi era on the promise of a significant break from the past based on smart technology and an energetic new leadership that would lead India to progress. Post Bofors, Indians at large were more likely to recall the cynical and quixotic ‘Mera Bharat Mahaan, sau mein se ninyaanve pratishad be-imaan’ (‘My Great Country, with ninety-nine out of a hundred per cent corrupt’) seen on the back of auto-rickshaws.

The gradual but assertive emergence of Other Backward Classes in Indian politics and society marked a watershed across the country. It loosened the grip of the Congress in several states. The empowerment of OBCs and other politically and socio-economically backward castes was a demand first expressed in 1959 by Lohia at the third national conference of the Socialist Party. The proposal that emerged was to reserve at least 60 per cent of government jobs for OBCs. It was the Lohiaite leader Karpoori Thakur who, during his second term as Chief Minister of Bihar, first introduced reservations for OBCs in government jobs and educational institutions in the state. His slogan, ‘Sansopa Ne Baandha Gaanth, Pichchde Paawein Sau Mein Saathh’ (‘Socialists have tied up the deal, backwards get 60 out of a hundred’), summed it up. These words are still heard in pockets of the Hindi belt and no discussion on OBC reservations is complete without a reference to the so-called ‘Karpoori Thakur formula’. As Deputy Chief Minister and education minister of Bihar earlier, he had removed English as a compulsory subject in the state’s matriculation curriculum. As Chief Minister, he would favour unemployed engineers for government contracts. His second term in office saw him introduce a kangaroo quota for the Most Backward Classes, often referred to as the Karpoori Thakur formula. However, it did not find favour with the dominant OBC caste group of Yadavs, who formed his key support base. Thakur himself was of the Nai community, numerically much smaller and socially far more backward.

Thakur’s towering stature and landmark policies on caste- based quotas did, however, make him a mentor (after Lohia) of several current-day leaders of Bihar who rose to power in the cauldron of identity politics over the 90s, including Bihar’s current Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, former three-time Chief Minister Lalu Prasad and Dalit leader and LJP President Ram Vilas Paswan. Analysts argue that Thakur may not have got due credit for his role in furthering the Lohiaite ideology and translating it to policy while in power mainly because of his caste identity—Nais are far fewer than other OBC groups— although he relied heavily on the support of the ‘triveni of upper OBC castes’ of Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris. These communities had no leader of their own at the time, and this continued up to the 80s, by which time the reservation policy had advantaged dominant OBC castes that (along with Dalits) had a new generation of leaders to voice their aspirations and agitate on their behalf.

The realisation of their numerical power made upper-OBC leaders challenge the authority of Thakur. From within his Lok Dal party, Anup Yadav took over as leader of the opposition in the Assembly. The Lok Dal leader Charan Singh also withdrew support to him in the 80s. Anup Yadav was later replaced by Lalu Prasad, who called Karpoori Thakur “kapati (cunning) Thakur”. By the turn of the decade, Lalu had become the primary inheritor of the Lohia-Thakur political legacy, and he worked for roughly half his 15 years in power to accord dignity to Bihar’s thus-far socially backward communities. But later, disenchantment set in among Dalits and the non-Yadav ‘triveni castes’ as well. The disgruntlement became widespread in the state on account of poor governance, corruption and neglect of institutions under Lalu’s rule, worsened by wanton muscle-flexing by Yadavs. This led Nitish Kumar, a leader of the numerically less significant Kurmi community, to power in Patna in alliance with the BJP. His move marked a break-up of the long-standing caste triumvirate, and given the BJP’s predominantly upper-caste vote base, it was a bold move. After four stints as Chief Minister, the recent 2015 Bihar polls saw him re-join forces with his one-time rival Lalu (whose grip on his Yadav support base remains strong) to form an alliance that trounced the BJP at the hustings.

In 1989, the Congress domination of Uttar Pradesh—and the Centre—ended in tandem with the rise of Mulayam Singh Yadav, who, after the demise of Charan Singh, had become the most forceful voice of OBC politics in the 90s. In 1992, the active participation of OBCs in power politics led to the rise of Samajwadi Party, marking a resurgence of socialists. The changeover from the old Congress power-grid was not smooth and has been described as replete with ‘systemic shocks and cataclysmic transformations’. Mulayam became the Chief Minister of UP in 1989, after the formation of the Lok Dal (B). Lok Dal (A), led by Charan Singh’s son Ajit Singh, became constrained politically, weakening the leader’s traditional votebank of Jats and farmers. The Lok Dal (B) later merged with the Janata Party. It was in 1992 that Mulayam formed the Samajwadi Party and emerged as UP’s most powerful OBC leader. Tensions between upper-OBCs and Dalits in this state had already begun to set UP awash in a sea of blue under the baton of Kanshi Ram and his protégé Mayawati. This was the period in which their Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) gained dominance of Dalit politics, most prominently in UP, and the main slogan that saw its ascent was one of caste aggression, ‘Tilak, Taraazu aur Talwaar, Inko Maaro Joote Chaar’, asking followers to hit the defining symbols—as stand-ins for castes—of Brahmins, Banias and Thakurs ‘with shoes’. Another BSP slogan was ‘Vote Hamaara, Raj Tumhaara, Nahin Chalega’ (‘Our vote, your rule, will not do’). Forcing the entire polity to sit up and take notice, the BSP engaged Dalits with other slogans as well, such as, ‘Baba Tera Mission Adhura, Kanshi Ram Karenge Poora’ (Kanshi Ram will fulfill the mission left incomplete by Babasaheb Ambedkar). Through such slogans, the party aimed at rousing Dalits against the so-called ‘Suvarna’ castes at the higher echelons of the social hierarchy, and it succeeded to a large extent.

The BSP’s identity based slogans—unlike their Lohiaite predecessors— ruffled social feathers like never before in UP. They rejected the emphasis on quotas in favour of Dalits grabbing political power for themselves on the back of their electoral strength. The polarisation of Dalits was further encouraged by a vacuum created by the weakening of the Republican Party of India, established by BR Ambedkar in 1956. Not surprisingly, this set Kanshi Ram on a collision course with UP’s OBC leadership. By 1995, the Dalit party had learnt from its electoral experiences and decided to resort to social engineering to widen its appeal base. More than a decade later, Kanshi Ram’s chosen political successor Mayawati, who was once persona non grata in the upper-caste and later OBC dominated socio-political milieu of the state, achieved a remarkable victory in the Assembly polls of 2007. In that election, Brahmins were among the groups credited with the party’s big gain in vote share, and with Mayawati as Chief Minister, they were awarded positions of power disproportionate to their share of the population.

This co-option of upper castes in order to check the upsurge of OBCs, however, diminished the real power of the BSP’s core Dalit voters. But it was packaged and sold to the party’s revised support base with the slogan of ‘Sarvajan Hitaya’ (‘Everyone’s welfare’), a departure from its focus on ‘bahujan samaj . Mayawati was hailed as an astute strategist, surpassing her mentor Kanshi Ram in forming a new social coalition to gain power. There was a trade-off in terms of a subtle inequality within this alliance of those at the lowest and higher rungs of the caste order, but it helped Mayawati emerge as Mulayam’s key challenger in UP.

Some distinctive slogans of the day reflect the thinking in the BSP which transformed Mayawati from a leader of a few social groups to one of a broader cross-section of society, the hallmark of mature leadership. (Her success may have also influenced Ram Vilas Paswan’s move to break out of the exclusive socialist mould and ally with the BJP, though his efforts have not got him very far.) Mayawati’s new slogans reflected the objective of reinforcing her political image as an able administrator who, far from being narrow-focused and Dalit-centric in her political perspective, could adeptly reconcile differences between her core constituency and upper castes. With the reinvention of the BSP’s leadership also came a message that sought to make the most of its party symbol, the elephant, whose imagery was given a makeover. ‘Haathi Nahin Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh Hai’ (‘This isn’t just an elephant but Ganesh, the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh’) was its new catchline. Also, ‘Brahmin Shankh Bajaaegaa, Haathi Dilli Jaaegaa’ (‘Brahmins will blow the conch and the elephant will march unto Delhi’). This reference to the main trinity in the pantheon of Hindu gods worshipped by upper-castes was a far cry from the BSP’s days of ‘Tilak, Taraazu Aur Talwaar’, which was originally espoused by the party’s founder Kanshi Ram in the 1980s. Upper-castes account for 30 per cent of UP’s population, while Dalits make up only 21 per cent. Even with 17 per cent Muslim support, Mayawati could not have elevated herself to power in Lucknow without upper-caste support. As many as 139 of the 403 seats the BSP contested in 2007 went to upper castes: 86 of these were Brahmins; the BJP lost this group’s support in over 35 seats to the BSP. The results were stunning. Mulayam Singh’s SP collapsed to only 97 seats in the Assembly (down from 143 seats won in 2002), while the BSP notched up a tally of 206 (up from only 98 in 2002). She appointed Satish Mishra as the party’s first Brahmin national general secretary and he served as the powerful upper-caste face of the BSP regime.

The shine on the BSP’s repackaged socio-political slogans, however, started to dull with widespread rumours that Mayawati had sold tickets to the highest bidder. She lost the next Assembly polls, in which the SP, with Mulayam’s son Akhilesh Yadav as its spearhead, swept to power. For him, the bicycle—the SP symbol that he rode throughout the state with his young supporters to garner votes—acted as a kind of visual slogan, reaching the man on the street and delivering the message of simplicity, a common touch and a new youthful leadership.

All this left the Congress, which had until the 1980s strode like a Colossus over UP on the strength of Brahmin, upper caste, Dalit and Muslim support, in the wilderness in India’s most populous state. The party wilted under the onslaught of the Mandal and Mandir agitations of the period. From a vote share of 17.3 per cent in 1991, its support shrank to under 9 per cent by the 2000s. With its traditional base vanishing, it turned back to the Nehru-Gandhi family in search of a strategy to revive its fortunes. But the UP electorate would no longer buy a family name as a reason to vote Congress.

Another significant slogan was the one that accompanied the early 1990s’ agitation by the VHP and BJP for a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya in place of the 16th century Babri Masjid. ‘Saugandh Ram Ki Khaate Hain, Hum Mandir Waheen Banaayenge’ (‘On Ram’s oath, we’ll make the temple right there’), as the chant went, was irresistible to vast numbers. The spearhead of the movement, LK Advani, had called the existence of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya an “ocular demonstration against Hindus”, invoking the British historian Arnold Toynbee. On 6 December 1992, the mosque was demolished by a mob, an event that Advani would later describe as a matter of regret. Indian politics, however, was never the same again.