Whether ads make a big difference to election outcomes is, of course, still a big political conundrum. The jury may be still out on that. But some ads are designed, released and media-planned in a way to obfuscate or enrage. They are designed to create chatter-chaos and trigger reaction-traps, rather than harness real electoral advantages.
That is what the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) provocative print ads against the Samajwadi Party are. Those of us who’ve seen campaigns since the demi-dark Arun Nehru designed 80s political ads suspect that Uttar Pradesh elections this time around are going to be won by fine caste calculations, big money, communal flashpoints, and one mesmerising mega campaigner.
A Recent Ad Was a Blatant Dog Whistle
Yet, these print ads were talking about (and note, these are confined to print) are a great example of virtue signalling. Television ads don’t waste time with signals. The attempt, clearly, is to ensure that Yogi Adityanath is seen as some kind of great Messiah (there’s that trigger word choice again) of peace and prosperity for a troubled and impoverished state.
The fact is that the only real reputational advantage he’s confident of being able to defend is that the state has been relatively peaceful during his five years. Whether that’s true is still unproven, in statistical terms, but the fact is that his biggest calling card is that people seem to be willing to believe this idea. That is because under Yogi, the administration has delivered a certain level of ‘law and order’.
This, his campaign insists, is because he has ensured that minorities in the state here have been kept in their place, and, dare not stir, ergo, he’s a Saviour.
A recent opening print ad that triggered outrage among the liberal intelligentsia was a blatant dog whistle to those who have supported his claims of successfully crushing sectarian violence during his tenure. The ad was denounced as Islamophobic since it showed the ‘rioter’ as wearing a scarf (favoured by Muslims a la Modi’s jibe: “identify them by their clothes”). A blatant old chestnut, but one that works each time?
Yogi is clearly aiming to bolster his image as the saviour of Hindu pride. The ad sought to reassure his party and followers who may have begun to feel that he was slacking off or had forgotten his early wins.
The Right Shade of Fanta
After reinforcing his saffron-hardliner image, in the next print ad, Yogi targeted Akhilesh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party leader and his biggest rival for the Chief Minister’s kursi. By making the attack direct, Yogi has also tried to turn the Assembly election into a direct fight with Akhilesh. Other parties such as the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) do not matter now in Yogi’s calculations, if the ads are any indication.
Another ad in the series is, for us in the image management business, a textbook example of ‘gaslighting’. It shows a ‘dalal’ negotiating a deal with a man in a red cap looking on (red signalling an SP boss). It evokes fears that Yogi’s tenure of building highways and expressways (aka ‘development’) could be threatened, and conveniently usurps Akhilesh’s highways boast.
The intention is to remind voters of the old accusations of large-scale corruption levelled against Akhilesh Yadav when he ran Uttar Pradesh.
The ads in print differ starkly from the flood of ads released by the Yogi sarkar across other platforms – TV and digital. Those are purists in their hagiographic intent. A well-upholstered Fanta is front and centre there, with no subtleties of advertising tech – just blunt and bold assertiveness and a reassertion that there are no ambiguities of who will be the next Chief Minister. Their omnipresence and scale, in ‘image’ terms, also convey that Yogi possesses far deeper pockets than Akhilesh. The message is that strength must equal voter conviction; there’s a shrewd flair here for dominance by design.
The general belief is that virtue signallers are concerned not with issues but with themselves. Whether Yogi’s present campaign to return as Chief Minister of India’s most populous state is to be viewed as his vanity and self-aggrandisement or is genuine would depend on what shade of Fanta appeals to Uttar Pradesh voters – if at all.
(Dilip Cherian comments on politics, is an Image Guru, and tweets @dilipthecherian. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)