Shining kitsch

Every society leaves behind symbolic as well as material debris.  A symbolic archaeology can be as fruitful as the material archaeology of moving around debris of old monuments and ruins. In fact election time would be a good time for symbolic archaeology to examine which slogans and symbols survive and which get transformed. Indian election slogans revolve around ideas of unity, stability and innovation. They are meditations of how parts fit into a bigger whole. Thus, we had the great slogans of garibi hatao, roti kapda aur makan, jai jawan jai kisan, or Rajiv Gandhi's 'India in the 21st century'. Each was a statement of how India was to be united; each a commitment to a nation-state project. Most of the 50 years of Indian independence were dominated by the Congress Party living off its nationalist symbols like the Nehru cap, the Gandhian charkha, Sardar Patel´s integrity or decisiveness, the large dams as temples of modern India, or the Green Revolution. The question is how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) enters this symbolic space. It is a parvenu. It realises its own symbols would not take it too far — the lotus is hardly the Ashok Chakra or the khadi in terms of emotive power. It has to indulge in the politics of brand management. True, it does not have the Sumantra Ghosals or David Ogilvy by its side but it knows it has to fight a semiotic war to redefine nation, state, history, economics and geography.

The semiotic war that the BJP fought was conducted at four levels. First were the present Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani's rath-yatras (the age of 'Toyota chariots') that were generalised events. They galvanised the party more than the people. It used modern mediums to capture old symbolic domains. The second battle was conducted by appropriating Congress Party symbolism.  If the Congress gobbled up nationalism, what would be left for the BJP? What it generated therefore were acts of mimicry where Vajpayee was projected as a Nehruvian avatar and Advani as his Patel clone.  The shades were subtly different. The BJP was the party of patriots, from Subash Bose to Tilak, and from Lajpat Rai to Patel, and Jawaharlal was only a variant on the theme. It was brilliantly done. Congress president Sonia Gandhi was caught up with the 'foreign origin' issue while the BJP was stealing her domestic symbolic ware.

The third move was more sinister and fought out in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots. One had to create symbolic legitimation for the riots and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi managed that through a set of symbolic binaries – secular versus religious, inside versus outside, Delhi versus Gujarat, English language versus regional papers, the Westernised elite versus Gujarati people. The secular press, including NDTV, played into the internalisation of these appositions and created a constituency for Modi. The ordinary Gujarati felt he had been misunderstood by Delhi. As Modi put it in "their" collective voice, "What does Delhi think, that 50 lakh Gujarati's are murderers and rapists?"  Semiotically he was home with his cosy communalism hiding its genocidal Janus face.  He thanked the English language press especially NDTV for letting him romp home during the elections. But Advani, along with Arun Jaitley (Union Minister for Law, Justice & Company Affairs) and Pramod Mahajan (the BJP General Secretary) realised that these old controversies and symbols alone would not do. The BJP had to look more global, more youthful, more achievement-oriented. BJP politics had to promise consumption accessible to more.  It had to be user friendly — not the party which kept mobilising the past, but the party which was an invitation to the future. Talking about Bharat was a loser's strategy. It struck a whining note of those left behind or left out. Also Jai Shree Ram was hardly a visiting card to be handed out to the new generation. One had to fuse time and space, and especially generations, in a new way. It was the Congress that was to have the handicap of history. The campaign could not be conducted negatively — it was not enough to show that the Congress combination of socialist realism and dynastic rule led to a stifling of both history and the future. It was not enough to hint that Omar Abdullah (son of National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah), Sachin Pilot (son of late Congress leader Rajesh Pilot) and Jyotiraditya Scindia (son of late Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia), the polished new Turks of the Congress were also dynasts still suffering Oedipally from Congress rule.

The BJP needed a new myth, a picture of India as a new set of coalitions in virtual reality. It could not be a summons to religion, caste, tradition or language. One needed a language which was open-ended but not secular; that was hospitable, but offering a notion of values and productivity; that smelt not of envy but of success; that was an invitation but worked like a summons; that represented a fraternity and not a club where everyone wanted membership. A notion of India that made one feel good, which smacked not of corruption, disasters and nepotism but of untrammelled success — not local success but global success. Only four things talked this language – cricket, Bollywood, the Diaspora and the IT / IIT industry.  Each was unapologetically Indian but globally resonant. A notion of unity that was not civilisational but material, a combined supermarket of dreams and values. Something that Doordarshan could screen and MTV would not be embarrassed about. Semiotic wars are not easy, and the BJP had got it right again.  It was called shining India. It was a new friendly hypothesis on India. It had the makings of a surrogate myth.

Doomsday brigade

There are two things we must try to understand.  Firstly, the psychology of the myth and the psychological tactics of those opposed to the myth. Subsequently, we can explore the language, symbolism and impact of the myth. The myth as technique was an attempt to create a 'feel good' feeling.  It had shades of Norman Vincent Peale:

"Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture… Do not build up obstacles in your imagination".

The power of positive thinking goes a long way for a nation. Indian social science, with the exception of MN Srinivas, has been a doomsday brigade.  But here was an India seeking to escape the captivity of its old self. This was a generation that was tired of Malthusian predictions and Marxist analysis. It was also tired of the burden of colonialism having to carry its inferiority around like a sack. The myths of inferiority and inefficiency are the brown man's burden.  Here was a generation that felt different, felt optimistic, felt mobile, felt that advertisements expressed real aspirations and that management books provided the true techniques to achieve dreams pragmatically.  This was a generation that felt no burdens of nationalism unless it was the furious amiability of the cricket match or the ascetic repressiveness of socialism. 'Feel good' was slang for desire, for the contentment that went with desire fulfilled. This was a generation that like Martin Luther King said 'I had a dream' and then unapologetically showed that the attic of the dream was the contents of a supermarket. Shining India was the Indian middle class' Valentine's Day card to itself. If you cannot love your neighbour (Pakistan) you can at least love yourself. A whole nation wrote out a character certificate for itself.  Suddenly whether it was hockey or History, Indians wanted to see themselves winning.  Being mobile, middle class and a superpower was a delightful way of feeling good. It was sentimental a bit like a Rasna (the synthetic soft-drink) advertisement saying 'I love you India'.

Unfortunately few analysed the ingredients of the psychology of the advertisement blitz.  They did not see in it the makings of a media myth.  They did not realise that you cannot fight myth with fact. Positivism is of little use in the world of advertising.

Consider two brilliant efforts by two outstanding individuals. One was a piece by economist Jean Dreze (Professor at the Centre for Development Economics, Delhi School of Economics); the other, an equally eloquent one, by political researcher P Sainath in Frontline. When you are talking poverty or hunger, you cannot find a better debating duo. Dreze begins by invoking Darrell Huffs classic How to Lie with Statistics, and shows that when it comes to manipulating statistics the BJP has out-huffed itself.  Dreze takes each little statistical morsel and shows it to be untrue. Whether it is the birth rate, or the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) production, Internet statistics, or even tiger conservation statistics — the BJP has it wrong.  What then? You do not confront a Valentine's Day card with a Human Development Report. Dreze's brilliant essay appears misplaced, like a guy at the wrong party. When he says India's rank in the international scale of human development indices fell last year from 124 to 127 one nods respectfully and waits to read Stardust or Sports Star.  When the nation behaves like a page three column, the last thing you would like is a newspaper editorial. Dreze is losing a semiotic war. There might be lies, lies and statistics in a Drezean world but it takes more that to beat a Goebellian advertisement campaign.

Enter Sainath. He whips it up faster. Sheer genius at the secular upper-cut in a piece called 'The feel good factory'. Sainath knows the poor and poverty and he hits out brilliantly, covering drought, farmer suicides, per capita food availability. But an accountant's ledger or an economists' eye do not refute shining India. Does shining India cease to exist because it shines a bit less in some eyes? To counter shining India with Dreze and Sainath is like summoning Amartya Sen to defeat Norman Vincent Peale.  Both may write about well-being but come the crunch, give me positive thinking over welfare economics. The answer to a myth is not facts alone. It is another myth with a more overpowering poetics.

Something similar happened earlier during the Green Revolution debates when hundreds of economists sought to prove their mettle by laying out statistics on how more people went below the poverty line during the period. The Economic and Political Weekly is the graveyard of these articles and yet the Green Revolution stands sublime. If you are a cynic you can say the poverty market is competing with the feel good market. We are fighting a different battle where Sen and Dreze are irrelevant. It is a propaganda war about a millennial dream. Millennialism always creates a vision of well-being and a torrent of prospective consumer goods. Facts cannot defeat millennialism. Also, for every Dreze there is an equally professional economist like Surjit Bhalla. You cannot do it a la Marx.  He countered Philosophy of poverty with the poverty of philosophy. Any ad-executive can do better copy.

One must try and get to the bottom of the grammar of the advertisement copy. These are not great advertisements to be retailed in anthologies of advertising but they are effective because they tap deep into a middle class primordial dream of a good report card and a grand celebration.  It is like all of India getting a first division. The world is applauding them. The text is simple:  "Our foreign exchange reserves have raced past the USD 100 billion mark. It is a moment that makes every Indian stand proud and tall. It is a figure that inspires the world to applaud our resolve. From a timid economy and a weak rupee, we now have the fourth largest Forex reserves". Breathe it in, breath out. Now, does it not feel better than sare jahan se accha? Who needs Iqbal when Moody's Index sounds so much better?

Look at the pictures. They remind you of calendars and calendar art, or those pictures children do for homework charts with photographs of leaders, vegetables, fruits that are sold on streets. It is like a civics class project. There are little cut-out pictures of Vajpayee or Advani, even Murli Manohar Joshi, and strewn around are cut-outs of planes, helicopters, DNA helices, globes, skyscrapers and radio astronomy laboratories in the background. It is kitsch and that is the reigning art of our times. If you cannot experience the authentic, then celebrate the souvenirs. Yet it is not just the BJP. It is also the message of Abdul Kalam.  It has the same combination of bad poetry and the myth of development.  Just read these three Haikus of development invented in advertising time:

"Roads are lengthening
Distances are shortening
Bazaars are buzzing"

Or

"Schools are bustling
Children are sparkling
Future is inspiring".

Or
The school citizen's song

"By choosing to study further
I widen my knowledge
By taking a loan for my education
I share the burden with my parents"

Read it aloud.  Bad poetry always feels better read aloud.

This beats socialist realism or what Mayakovsky wrote in his lesser moments.  Can you feel Elliot or FR Leavis squirming?  But look again. It is a social science as development poetics. Instead of the book of Mao or Gaddafi, we have the advertisement. These are liberal, not megalomaniacal stuff that Stalin or Kim il Sung produced. This is social science sentimentality, a 'family of man' scrap book. Farmers smiling, children laughing, a healthy child, a girl riding a bicycle – UNICEF stuff. It is a magic of juxtapositions.  Vajpayee next to all the children.  Even statistics is a kind of Kitsch. What do you make of this?

"Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) with 128 US patents creates
an Indian record"

"India overtaking China as a global leader in mint oil production"

Potent stuff.  The World Social Forum should have done a mirror inversion of it.  But it was not playful enough.  An advertisement world, where instead of the United Colours of Benetton we have the uniting symbols of India. Too bad if BJP's shining India and Sahara Parivar get the same ideas. It seems to work. That is all a myth needs to do.  Shining India.  It does not even need Brasso (metal polish) at least till the next elections.

Selling the brand

The official version is that the campaign called "India Shining" began seven months ago. But it clearly picked up after January, continuing even after the Lok Sabha was dissolved and poll dates announced. The campaign was finally called off following a ban by the vigilant Election Commission.

Two public interest litigations are pending before the Delhi High Court, charging that the campaign by the ruling party was using public money to project its image ahead of the elections. The government counsel contended that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was within its rights to inform people about its achievements.

The Bharatiya Janata Party spin master Pramod Mahajan claimed that the campaign has cost only INR 65 crore, while people in the advertising world think it would have been at least double that.

This has become one of the largest ad campaigns ever in Indian media history. The media monitoring agency Tam reported that the India Shining ad was the second most-frequently telecast 'brand' on television in December- January, with commercials being aired on Doordarshan and private channels 9472 times. State-owned Doordarshan got the lion's share of India Shining commercials, 75 percent in terms of airtime, while 29 private channels shared the rest.

In the print media, the more popular newspapers were targeted with full and half-page colour advertisments on most days in January-February. Placed by various government ministries, the tag line in all of the ad copy read: "Achievements of the NDA government". Claiming everything from increased girl child enrollment in schools to more telephone connections, mobile phones and software exports, these advertisments as a rule featured Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee along with the man from the concerned ministry.

For the first 15 days of January, the India shining campaign ranked fourth among the top brands in terms of insertions in newspapers. There were as many as 392 India Shining insertions in over 450 newspapers, including vernacular papers and regional editions of national papers.

– Suhasini Siddharth, New Delhi

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