The BJP is deceiving India with a PUBG meets Fortnite meets a cartoon NaMo election campaign. They are constantly adding game-like or, indeed, virtual elements to everyday life, so that people start mistaking propaganda for objectivity and retweets for real accomplishments. Memes, created by paid-for operatives, are spread across WhatsApp groups set up by “volunteers”. And who can forget the NaMo app contest where people could land a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi if more than 100 people used the referral code generated by their token donation to the party’s coffers. The gamification of Indian politics is, of course, inevitable, given the rapidly increasing penetration of the internet and social media. But when unchecked, it is also liable to manipulation through money and political power.
Popular politics is to be welcomed, when it’s based on facts and perspectives that are anchored in reality. An election should be a popular celebration. However, propaganda packaged as truth and delivered as entertainment — where there is a game to be won and villains to be killed — is fatal for democracy.
#MainBhiChowkidar trended worldwide recently and continues to make headline news in India. PM Modi’s latest social media blitzkrieg has caught the people’s attention because everyone in the BJP, en masse, gave themselves the title of “chowkidar” or watchman. On March 31, we were treated to another mass-media assault which was streamed live as well as on the three Namo channels which have been cleverly placed on Dish TV, Airtel, Tata Sky, d2h and Siti.
All of this was done so that Rahul Gandhi’s 2019 mantra — Chowkidar Chor Hai — changes from being an insulting way to refer to Modi and becomes, instead, tantamount to abusing the average Indian, albeit one of a specific socio-economic background. In his inaugural tweet Modi wrote:
“Your chowkidar is standing firm and serving the nation. But, I am not alone. Everyone who is fighting corruption, dirt, social evils is a Chowkidar. Everyone working hard for the progress of India is a Chowkidar. Today, every Indian is saying- #MainBhiChowkidar.”
Apart from the obvious attempt to deflect from the failures on his watch, this latest BJP gimmick reflects a new Indian politics that is leaving the Election Commission (EC) bamboozled. For example, the EC disallows the use of party symbols after the declaration of the code of conduct, but who is going to monitor the #MainBhiChowkidar merchandise that has been launched from Modi’s website?. Stalls selling the merchandise have even been set up in his rallies. From notebooks to pens and from T-Shirts to caps, people can take their pick from the online store. A caller tune has been released and a video interaction planned for March 31 — starring the prime minister — was projected as a “people’s movement”.
Worryingly, the EC doesn’t seem to have an opinion about the massive data-gathering operation conducted under the guise of this “people’s movement”. NGOs like the Association of Billion Minds (ABM), also known as Amit Shah’s team, have been behind much of the relentless propaganda that has been rolled out on behalf of the BJP. They run pages like Nation with Namo, Bharat ke Mann ki Baat and Main Bhi Chowkidar, and, are behind much of the divisive communal content being shared on WhatsApp. Yet, the EC and social media giants like Facebook maintain a studied silence. The BJP, naturally, denies any knowledge of ABM.
The lotus has grown a thousand brand extensions while the EC is busy looking for old-school posters, cutouts, leaflets and hoardings. Most recently, as if causing fires through hyper-nationalistic WhatsApp is not enough, match boxes made by the Kovilpatti Match Consortium, are being sold in the BJP colours with a lotus flower on one side and the slogan “Garv se bolo hum bharatvasi hain” (Be proud and say that we are all Bharatvasis) on the other side.
What has got lost amidst the digital noise and the hysterics of the average NaMo supporter (as compared to the BJP supporter), is a simple truth — which Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav also pointed out: Most people who are part of this “movement” have never had to consider being a watchman in real life. The youth and the farmers of this country, partly because of entrenched caste structures and the lack of opportunities, have had to become chowkidars without wanting to.
We have had five years of a prime minister who treats every question as a personal affront, who sees a press conference as an historical artifact, the truth as a cricket ball to be spun every which way, and, this election as a 20-20 game between two people, rather than an electoral exercise where a billion people will cast their votes.
The great deception is upon us, and we must overcome it.
The writer is Samajwadi Party national spokesperson and a historian, political scientist and poet