In Election Ads, Congress Bets on Satire, BJP on Hate and Fear

A confident Congress is trolling, spoofing, and mocking the BJP in its commercials and videos that make us chuckle.

5 min read
Hindi Female

It is difficult to elaborately survey an election campaign that works in dozens of states and languages, via radio, TV, hoardings and videos, circulated through social media, but it is quite clear that the Congress party believes laughter is the best medicine, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) believes that fear is the key.

Few will disagree that the current Lok Sabha elections rank, probably, as the most bitterly fought in a long time, perhaps the bitterest since India's Independence. Even the 1977 election that marked the exit of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Emergency rule since 1975 was more significant for its outcome than a vicious campaign.

But, is there a lighter side to the bitter contest? Or, conversely, is bitter necessarily better?

After all, the BJP speeches reek of religious polarisation and the Congress-led INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) bloc's campaigns talk of the fall of independent institutions and a possible threat to the Constitution itself.

BJP's Saffron Surge Has Crossed the Red Line

Unlike consumer products, in which humour and subtle messaging are the holy grail of ads, politics often works on the cookbook of in-your-face slogans, forceful imagery, and visuals that leave little to the imagination.

Not this time. A confident Congress is trolling, spoofing, and mocking the BJP in its commercials and videos that raise eyebrows and make us chuckle. But the BJP still prefers in-your-face videos and caricatured cartoons that are enough to even cross red lines, leading to some of the ads going off the air and the internet.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is obviously the mascot for the BJP, and the word "guarantee" which was made famous by the Congress in last year's Karnataka assembly election campaign, is now as good as the BJP's intellectual property. This is a game in which sticky words don't carry trademarks and patents.

Food grains and farmer benefits are part of the Modi Ki Guarantee campaign but it is all but official that while the two parties are promising socio-economic welfare schemes, the advertisement differentiates centre around religious polarisation and "Muslim appeasement" for the BJP, while the Congress is loaded with innuendos and insinuations on an alleged unholy nexus between big businesses and the ruling party — and the political use of autonomous law enforcers like the Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax Department.

Ground reality might as well add to the Congress campaign's ironic focus on iffy institutions. The Election Commission of India has been largely aloof on religion-linked campaign themes that critics say violate its own Model Code of Conduct apart from the Representation of People Act.

But the BJP's saffron surge has crossed the red line when it targets "appeasement" of Muslims that Congress would call "inclusion". Apart from explicit speeches against job quotas for Muslims and frequent references to Mughals, meat and "infiltrators" that are widely seen as dog-whistle phrases that target Muslims, the BJP even had an animated ad on its official Instagram handle that was controversial enough to be taken off.

While Modi's speeches only subtly hinted at a never-proposed inheritance tax as a tool through which wealth would be taken [mangalsutra (a Hindu symbol) to "those who have many children"], the video in question flew in the face of Modi's claim in an interview that his reference was not to Muslims. The video talked of the wealth of non-Muslims being distributed to "their favourite community". And yes, it spoke of "invaders, robbers and terrorists" in one breath and the "ruin of our temples."

Does that leave anything to the imagination?


BJP's Rehash of Hate Speeches

Talking of imagination, the Congress has also left nothing to the imagination apart from throwing a pinch of humour into it. In one viral video, Modi's face is put on a balloon and the face morphs back and forth with that of industrialist Gautam Adani before a fingernail prick breaks it. It is an evocative play on the finger that presses the EVM button as a powerful tool to break the nexus.

There is another ad in which the Congress party openly mocks Union Minister Smriti Irani by spoofing her bygone days as a TV drama actor. The ad focuses on the Congress party’s Mahalakshmi Scheme which promises Rs 1 Lakh a year to women as Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki’s , the TV drama that made Irani famous, hook song plays while a character by the name “Tulsi” (Irani’s character from the drama) is shown standing in the line to gain benefits. The balloon ad also features a “common man” called “Amit” (not Shah, but you get the reference).

The Congress ad's open reference to Adani may be seen as a below the belt move. Perhaps Mr Adani, the aggrieved party, can take a joke, or he believes that it is better to let a spoofing ad lie than raise its bark levels that come back to bite him. One Congress ad features a television anchor being cuddled by Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah in a sweetheart alliance. No prizes for guessing that he is made to look and talk like Arnab Goswami. Another Congress video that mocks law enforcers is based on a cricket match-fixing theme and is in the in-your-face league.

The BJP is assiduously wooing woman voters, just like the Congress, but one of its ads triggered a row when it showed voters like a bride and the INDIA bloc leaders lined up as suitors. Titled "Dulha Kaun Hai?" (Who is the groom?), the ad's allusion to a potential leadership crisis in the bloc may work well in conservative circles but at least one woman MP lashed out, saying that it only stereotyped the voter like a "woman seeking a groom."

It all goes to show that citizens may laugh at some of the ads, but rival parties can rarely take a punchline.

In a rare instance this year, the Election Commission did ask X (formerly Twitter) to take off a video by the Karnataka BJP that mocked the state's Congress rulers for carving a Muslim sub-quota from the job quotas reserved for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) that officially include backward sections of all communities, but is frequently misunderstood to be only a reference to Hindu castes. The egg-themed ad in which Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is shown feeding Muslims, left nothing to the imagination and clearly went against Modi's claim of not targeting any community.

Animation humour that critics would say is only a rehash of hate speeches is in the in-your-face league, while most Congress ads are like insider jokes that only those with some familiarity with news and social happenings will understand.

Only time will tell if spoofy humour works better than in-your-face videos, but the Congress party believes a chuckle can help relieve political tensions. You can keep your inked fingers crossed as the counting day nears. In the end, what matters is not the out-of-the-box humour but what comes out of the ballot box, or its latter-day electronic equivalent.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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