The hollowness of the chowkidar movement

It’s once again the season for catchy slogans and smart spins, and the BJP, the master storyteller of our times, has seemingly taken a clear lead in this election campaign – at least in coining out-of-the-box slogans.

There is an unmissable comedown in the amount of positivity reflected in their slogans though: from 2014’s “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” to “Achhe din aane waale hain!” it has now come down to “Main Bhi Chowkidar”. Clearly, the ruling party now has humbler expectations about itself, and even of the country.

For the BJP, governance is about successful marketing. Indeed, even the life of the nation is about marketing and public relations, for the Indian right-wing. Success or failure of something is defined on the basis of how it is perceived by others, its symbolic value, not associated with its innate utility. Reduction of violence from the Kashmir valley, an innate value of a successful Kashmir policy, is not what defines as success for the BJP, but the majority perception in India of being a strong-willed government in Kashmir is what is important to them. Peace and normalcy are desirable but in a world of high-pitched hyper-nationalist rhetoric and dizzying claims about power and glory, peace has little utility – the utility of military exploits of political problems trumps them.

Consider the right-wing spokespersons agonising over the criticism of the ‘career-critics’ in India painting the country in bad light. I often get earnest entreaties from my ‘well-meaning’ right-wing acquaintances to stop maligning the country: “I do understand that we are not perfect but if you criticise about the country in public what will others think of us? We must put up a good image of the country”, they argue. The argument comes directly from the right-wing’s world of made-up realities and perception battles. That “I critique to make things better” is not an argument they find acceptable.

Let’s revert to the great Chowkidar movement in the country. Needless to say that this is the day-light appropriation of someone’s pain for the ruling party’s electoral gain. From Chaiwala to Pakora wala to now Chowkidar, the appropriation is near complete.

The attempt, on the one hand, is to divert attention from the major failures of the government, and to deny the opposition any political tools to reach out the masses, on the other. Corruption-free India,  development, clean India, the valour of the Indian armed forces, chaiwalas, pakora walas and now Chowkidars – they all belong to the BJP. What’s left for the opposition, I wonder.

Of course, I would personally say that I am not a Chowkidar. I might as well have a house in the colony and get a better job. But then that’s not the point, right?

More so, there is no taking away from the fact that the sharp difference between the cosy, privileged world of twitter chowkidars (a fast growing tribe now) and the merciless world of real chowkidars is also reflective of the mismatch between BJP’s rhetorical claims and the realities of the real world. The former live in a make-belief world living off the latter, and the latter live in the real world with even their job title taken away in the election season. Would the twitter chowkidars drop their new job title post-elections?!

Should we even agonise over the hollowness and gimmickry of the ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’ campaign? What about the ones who got away while the Chowkidar was asleep? What about the manner in which the country’s institutions that should do the real Chowkidari were compromised – The Supreme Court (according to the SC judges themselves), CBI etc. etc.? so are we now going to privilege individuals over institutions?

But who cares for institutions in our country (well not just in our country, it’s now a global phenomenon), it’s the carefully constructed narratives and PR campaigns that win elections for you, not the genuine issues reflecting the realities of the ground.

What makes it worse is that in the face of such a blitzkrieg of carefully choreographed and calibrated PR campaigns, the opposition seems to be lagging behind. Not only that they are unable to keep pace with the scope of the campaign, but even more importantly, they don’t even seem to have a sound counter-narrative.

There are indeed bits and pieces of that but not a coherent and forceful counter-narrative. The election may or may not throw BJP back at us, but as of now the BJP is willing the war of perceptions.

Let me end with one final thought about the chowkidar movement. What explains the change in the BJP’s slogan from Achhe din to chowkidar? Considering that Achhe din symbolised hope and optimism, and chowkidar signifies the opposite of that (fear of someone, lack of hope, the need to use strong arm tactics etc.), is there a larger message in this change of slogans? Put differently, does the shift from “Achhe din aane waale hain!” in 2014, to “Main Bhi Chowkidar” in 2019 also indicate an understated shift from “hope” to “hopelessness” and to “fear”?!

(Happymon Jacob teaches at JNU and is the author of “Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India–Pakistan Escalation Dynamics”, Oxford University Press, 2019).