How Narendra Modi avoids the ‘India Shining’ trap

[This article first appeared in ThePrint on 22 February 2018.]

One of the reasons for the defeat of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA coalition in 2004 was the election slogan: “India Shining”. Instead, a better slogan would have been “India Rising”, as L.K. Advani later admitted.

There’s a fundamental problem in politicians trumpeting their success and saying “I did it”. Once the story is over, the audience moves on to something else. It looks for other, newer stories.

A successful election slogan doesn’t seek to end the story but keeps you hooked to it. When a movie ends, you don’t even wait to see the credits before you get up and leave. But a TV series ends with some suspense that makes you want to watch the next episode. That is also how successful politicians present their work.

The journey is the reward

Development, vikas or progress is always an ongoing process — the journey is the reward. If your campaign slogan suggests you reached the destination, a new journey may not have you as the driver.

This was, partly, the mistake the “India Shining” campaign made in 2004. All that the Congress had to do was “Aam aadmi ko kya mila?” – what did the common man get? But the slogan about an ongoing process – mera desh badal raha hai, my country is changing ­– is tougher to rebut. What did the common man get? The answer is always in the future.

Neither Akhilesh Yadav nor Arvind Kejriwal understood this.

Akhilesh Yadav’s campaign slogan in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in 2017 was “Kaam bolta hai,” – the work speaks for itself. Like Vajpayee in 2004, he too had a lot of visible change to show — from ambulances that reached villages for the first time ever, to laptops for students and better irrigation facilities for farmers.

But voters questioned the work, rather than appreciate it. ‘Akhilesh Yadav has been good, but…’ Many different kinds of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ arose.

What the Samajwadi Party needed to say, instead, that the work they had initiated was just the beginning.

Similarly, the Aam Aadmi Party’s slogan in the municipal elections in Delhi in May 2017 was “Jo kaha, so kiya” (we did what we promised). The slogan only made voters ask: did they really deliver on their promises? The AAP made the municipal polls a referendum on its own performance as the Delhi state government, which is exactly what the opponent BJP wanted.

Instead, the AAP should have had a slogan that promised to serve Delhi well in the municipal councils, or a slogan that made voters question the BJP’s work in the municipal councils they had ruled for two successive terms.

India Rising, Not Shining

The Modi government has so far shied away from declaring itself successful. It is likely it may not do so even in the 2019 campaign.

Sure, it has spent money on massive PR drives to show its successes in areas such as ease-of-doing-business or the Ujjwala LPG cylinder scheme.

Yet, the Modi narrative about Swachh Bharat, the war against the black economy, the Make in India campaign, and other such efforts have been to assert the journey rather than a claim of arrival.

Critics might point out that it doesn’t have much to celebrate. After all, its biggest gamble — demonetisation — failed.

But there may be more to it. The Modi government’s first year anniversary had two slogans. There was “Saal ek, kaam anek,” (Year one, accomplishments many) and “Modi sarkar, kaam lagatar,” (The Modi government, working non-stop).

The second year slogan was “Saath hai vishwas hai, ho raha vikas hai,” (Together with trust, development is taking place).

The third anniversary slogan was, “Mera desh badal raha hai,” (My country is changing), and the English slogan was, “Transforming India.” There was a song set around the slogan, with the sort of background score you hear when the hero has just begun to come out of trouble.

Dekho aasmaan se sooraj nikal raha hai
Desh ka parcham ab ooncha ud raha hai
Varshon ka andhera roshan ho raha hai
Gareeb ki rasoi se dhuan uth rahan hai

(Look at the rising sun in the sky
The nation’s flag is flying high
The darkness of years is giving way to light
The smoke is disappearing from the hearths of the poor)

The common theme in all of these is the suggestion of an ongoing process. Modi avoids saying “I did it.” He keeps saying “I am doing it.”

Seeking utopia

“Achhe Din” is the Ram Rajya-like utopia that we hope will come one day.

If a government in power says Achhe Din are here, Ram Rajya has been established, how would voters respond? It may not be enough to make them vote for you again, since a vote is an investment in the next five years. Might the opposition be offering even better returns?

People’s expectations are high, their unmet needs are many, especially in a poor country like India. No politician can say it’s all been done. When people are dying of hunger it sounds insensitive to say ‘look, I built roads’. When people are struggling to send their children to a private school whose fees they can’t afford, it seems insensitive to say ‘look I reduced poverty’.

New India — 2022

The UP elections last year were fought in Modi’s name. The outcome was the BJP’s greatest high since 2014. It also doubled the burden of expectations on him and the risks for 2019.

Soon after, Modi launched a new political campaign, called “New India 2022 – Sankalp Se Siddhi” and has spoken about it with practiced regularity.

New India, Modi says in his speeches, will be free of corruption and casteism, everyone will have jobs and housing, there will be no violence. In other words, Achhe Din. When Modi goes to voters in 2019, he will have spent over two years convincing people the new Achhe Din deadline is 2022. People may vote him in again because he’s shown a path, a journey, some work in progress that shouldn’t be interrupted.

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