Thursday, January 5, 2012

Politics is the art of sloganeering


Year 2011 ended with arguably the most devastating political statement to have come in recent times. Ridiculing the Congress-led UPA Government for running away from a vote in the Upper House on the Lokpal Bill on December 30, senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley, who is also Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, said of the act, “It was freedom at midnight on August 14, 1947. It was fleedom at midnight on December 30, 2011.” The remark may well set the tone for the confrontations that we will witness between the Government and the Opposition in 2012 and beyond till the next general election.

This was clearly an issue between the right and the wrong, and it brought the Left and the Right on the same page. But that will not always be the case on many other matters, where the two will clash on ideologies rather than on the rightness of the subject. Twentieth century American poet and author Richard Armour had once remarked, “Politics, it seems to me, for years, or all too long, has been concerned with right or left instead of right or wrong.”

But the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ are often perceptions more than a reality, and that is more so in the maddeningly complex political situation that we fondly refer to as the ‘vibrant and dynamic Indian democracy’. This complexity tears into conventional wisdoms and constructs vessels of theories that have a hollow base and collapse with the first hard rattle. But, never mind, political leaders are adept at manufacturing new vessels with even more hollow bases with a speed that perhaps only light can match.

The people, reduced to bemused bystanders in the swirling developments around them, are supposed to make sense of the chaos and vote consciously — or take sides in the daily political grind. What means do they have that will assist them in making such a crucial choice, besides their ‘sixth sense’ which they deploy in desperation more often than out of conviction about its accuracy? It’s here that slogans play a role.

Voters are generally swayed by ‘slogans’ that parties create and hard-sell and these slogans often become the face of the parties’ ideology. To put it more accurately, slogans often end up replacing a party’s ideology that, in any case, is either beyond the comprehension of the lay voter or not too different from that of a rival party’s. Mr Jaitley’s “fleedom” remark may have been an instant response to the fraud the UPA Government committed, but it has the potential to emerge as a political slogan for the party, with some touching-up, because it is at least original.

Slogans have changed the course of the country’s history during its struggle for independence, and thereafter, played a major role in the rise of political parties. ‘British, quit India’ became the call in every street and was on the lips of every Indian pining to be freed from foreign rule. On July 14, 1942, after the Cripps Mission failed, the Congress Working Committee approved a resolution which declared that “the immediate ending of the British rule in India is an urgent necessity both for the sake of India and for the success of the cause of United Nations”. This ponderous statement could have scarcely energised the people; what did were the three words — ‘British, quit India’ — that emerged following a call to the British by Mahatma Gandhi two months before the resolution came into being. He said, “Leave India to god. If this is too much then leave her to anarchy.” The phrase ‘Quit India’ was chosen by the Mahatma after he reportedly rejected the options: ‘Get out’ for being too offensive and ‘Retreat’ for being too mild.

After the country gained independence, slogans took on a new role. While they were as strident as before, they naturally became more party-specific. The causes these slogans reflected were not always national but also partisan. Nevertheless, they served their purpose. Mrs Indira Gandhi rode to power in 1971 on the slogan of “Garibi hatao”. As Mrs Gandhi was to explain: “My critics say ‘Indira hatao’. But I say, ‘Garibi hatao’.” The two words worked like magic although her opponents later mocked at her, saying she had succeeded in eliminating the poor but not poverty. Yet, ‘Garibi hatao’ remains one of the most successful political slogans.

Jayaprakash Narayan, who led the protest against Mrs Gandhi in the months preceding the 1975-77 Emergency, borrowed a line from celebrated Hindi writer Ramdhari Singh Dinkar: “Singhasan khaali karo, ki janta aati hai...” This became the powerful counterfoil to the Emergency regime’s slogan: “The leader is right, the nation’s future is bright!” Mrs Gandhi lost the 1977 general election.

Mrs Gandhi was to return with yet another strong poll line within a couple of years. Slamming the post-Emergency Governments led by Morarji Desai and Charan Singh, she asked the people to repose trust in a “Government that works”, that is, a Government led by her. The results of the 1980 poll vindicated the power of that slogan.

The subsequent arrival of regional parties which promoted caste over everything else changed the colour of political slogans. ‘DS4’, which in an elongated form read as Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, was a precursor to what we now know as the Bahujan Samaj Party led by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati. That outfit and the BSP in the very early days came to be associated with a brazenly casteist slogan as a slap on the face of the so-called upper castes: “Tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inko maro joote char”.

But, while this offensive slogan fetched political gains for the BSP, Ms Mayawati soon realised it was inadequate to help maintain her hold over Uttar Pradesh’s politics, and that alienating powerful sections of society would eventually boomerang on her ambition. Deftly, she did a U-turn, and the BSP reinvented itself with a new, if completely contrasting, slogan spun around its election symbol, the elephant. This was: “ Hathi nahin Ganesh hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh hai ”. It was clearly meant to appease all sections of Hindus instead of only the Dalits. Interestingly, this slogan too worked wonders for Ms Mayawati, as the 2007 Assembly election showed. She managed to win over Brahmin voters, besides retaining her Dalit vote-bank.

However, long before Ms Mayawati burst on the scene, ‘casteist’ slogans existed, though they were more refined and open to multiple interpretations. For instance, Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna, a leader of immense political standing in Uttar Pradesh, more so in Allahabad, drew mileage from a specially crafted slogan, “Prayag ka chandan, Hemvati Nandan.” While the ‘chandan’ represented his Brahmin identity and pushed his political case among Brahmin voters, it also symbolised the fact that he was the pride of Allahabad.

The shrewd PV Narasimha Rao, who became the first Congress leader outside the Nehru-Gandhi family to complete five years in office as Prime Minister, attempted to reverse the trend of exploiting caste in sloganeering.

He gave the line, “Jaat par na pat par, mohar lagegi haath par”. But that went unheeded because the voters remained unconvinced by the sudden turnaround of the Congress which has always cultivated caste and communal vote-banks.

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