Elections

Propaganda Of Future Past: How Pre-Poll Video Campaigns Of Parties Affect The 2024 Electoral Narrative

While BJP has posted a flurry of videos unequivocally directed at the opposition camp, the official Congress YouTube handle has also come up with animated videos targeting the BJP government and the prevalent issues over the last year

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An election campaign billboard on a rickshaw in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India, on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022 Photo: Getty Images
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The election seasons have always been a breeding ground for a potpourri of advertisement campaigns that employ satire by using caricature, animation, or hyperbole to take a dig at the other camps. Following the boom of new media, the contours have been redefined and, it has become a level playing field for a smorgasbord of national and regional parties, each trying to one-up the other with creative mudslinging. However, over the stretch of the last year and in the prelude to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the space shared by the ruling BJP and the opposition INDIA bloc have seen a cruder transaction taking place with a growing trend of throwing caustic shade at individuals more than the associated concepts. 

BJP, known for its solid media apparatus and a complex nexus of teams working behind the stage to inundate digital spaces, has been a force to reckon with when it comes to digital propaganda. Besides the usual currencies of promotions boosted by the image of its leaders, the party handle has posted numerous creative ads with the help of a spate of global advertisement agencies to take jibes at the opposition INDIA bloc. Talking to Outlook, Sayandeb Chowdhury, who teaches in the school of Interwoven Arts & Sciences (SIAS), Krea University believes that in principle, the idea of mocking one’s opponent using satire has no problem and that there has always been a scope for civilised satire of political opponents. India has witnessed an evolution from the wall graffiti of the 70s, a free space which was mostly utilised by the opposition to the realm of videos and digital shorts which have mudslinging at their very core.

In one of them, the INDIA bloc leaders represented by lookalikes are seen attending a roundtable meeting only to fight among themselves for the chair at the head of the table - a sharp-tongued barb at the opposition's inability to control factional infighting and promote a leading face. While it is understood that Rahul Gandhi's character acts as the central cog to all these advertisement videos, the ads feature lookalikes of all major INDIA bloc leaders.

The other ads take a dig at the rebranding of the UPA and the Mahagathbandhan while targeting unresolved lapses. One of them, titled 'Dulha Kaun Hai?' caught public attention where a bride arrives at the house of the groom (Rahul Gandhi) only to discover multiple other leaders vying to be the groom, which again, takes a slanted dig at INDIA bloc's inability to mount a leading face. A few months ago, the BJP handle also released a series of videos titled ‘Ghamandiya Files’ which had separate episodes dedicated to throw ink at leading INDIA bloc faces and a similar series dedicated to Congress and the last UPA governments titled Congress Files. Many critics pointed these out as a leading examples of BJP's strategic smear campaign, identified in line with a spate of propaganda films which were released over the last few years like the Kashmir Files, Kerala Files, UP Files et al.

While BJP has posted a flurry of videos unequivocally directed at the opposition camp, the official Congress YouTube handle has also come up with animated videos targeting the BJP government and the prevalent issues over the last year. In one, a famous scene from the blockbuster Bollywood hit Sholay where Gabbar talks to his men and admonishes them for failing to counter the duo of Jaya and Viru is depicted in a video titled Ek Gandhi Kaafi Hai, where an animated Narendra Modi mirrors Gabbar's character and addresses other leaders who fail to counter the solitary figure of Rahul Gandhi. In another animated video titled Mohabbat Ki Dukaan, Congress takes on prevalent issues attributed to the ruling party and depicts the BJP leaders led by Narendra Modi chaining elements like 'press freedom' and 'democracy' to his carriage, and other leaders fanning communal hatred, only to have Rahul Gandhi portray the antithesis as one encouraging and safeguarding democratic ideals and communal harmony. The Indian Youth Congress have also recently put out animated shorts where issues like BJP's use of electoral bonds and soaring inflation rates and prices under the watch of the Modi Government have been addressed using on-the-face depictions.

While the mudslinging has been an essential element of poll campaigns in India, the digital space has been used by the camps to maintain a consistent influx of propaganda content, a large portion of which comes with misinformation laden narratives, hagiographic presentations, and smear tactics. Recently, a video released by the ruling party showed a girl running to his parents after escaping from a war-hit Ukraine and crying out, "Modiji war rukwa di papa" (Modiji has stopped the war). The video was heavily trolled for its misleading propaganda and led to numerous memes. Rahul Gandhi took to X to share one such reaction to the video, calling out the PM as "Propaganda Ka Papa" (Father of Propaganda).

Platforms like Meta and X have been called out multiple times because of its inability to act on the spread of propaganda and misinformation. The platforms have seen parties splurge the big bucks to ensure constant flow through direct or surrogate advertisements. Many critics have pointed out at BJP's lion's share in this regard and how the party has been ahead of the curve in terms of controlling the digital wave of advertisements through official handles, surrogate, and ghost advertisers. According to a recent Meta Ad Library Report, in the month of February, the ruling party spent over Rs 5.5 crore on its official Facebook page, and around Rs 39 crore on Google ads in 2024 alone, according to the Google Ads Transparency Centre. Analysts have pointed out how BJP, has been effectively harnessing their media apparatus to visibilise its strength and presence through planned guerrilla techniques of social media inundation.

According to a 2022 Al Jazeera report, the ruling party had also been favoured by Meta in its advertisement rates. The report stated that a non-profit media organisation called The Reporter's Collective, and ad.watch, a research project studying political advertisements on social media, analysed data for numerous political advertisements placed on Facebook between February 2019 and November 2020. They found out that "Facebook’s algorithm offers cheaper advertisement deals to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over other political parties, according to an analysis of advertisement spending spread across 22 months and 10 elections. In nine of the 10 elections, including the national parliamentary elections of 2019 that BJP won, the party was charged a lower rate for advertisements than its opponents."

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Besides the two parties leading the alliances, parties like Aam Aadmi Party, Trinamool Congress, Shiv Sena and others have also upped their social media game by producing sharp satires and employing similar tactics against BJP and the prevalent issues attributed to the party. A video which caught popular attention was AAP's use of the popular Washing Powder Nirma song to take a dig at the Modi Government and leaders with corruption charges who have been accepted into the BJP fold, only to have their charges dropped. Thus, metaphorically Modi is the "detergent" who has given such leaders a political clean chit. The billboard game also remains a critical one for parties outside digital spheres. BJP recently hit back at AAP and other INDIA bloc leaders against the backdrop of CM Arvind Kejriwal's arrest, by mounting a billboard which hinted at that opposition leaders calling for the release of Kejriwal implying 'Bhrashtachari Ko Bachao' (Save the Corruption) while the Modi government has ensured (with such moves) that corruption is removed - 'Bhrashtachari Hatao'.

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However, talking about the criticism surrounding BJP's social media advertisement campaigns, Chowdhury notes, "When it comes to BJP and publicity on social media, one must consider how the BJP IT Cell has vitiated political discourse using rampant xenophobia, paranoia, and hatred. In the age of misinformation, post-truth, and false narratives, while it continues to spread globally, in India, the party's media cell has been a noted purveyor, with a decade long history of using media ecology to foment hatred. Given that history, it is difficult to isolate the party's history and these ads."

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Although the ideas behind a few (like the Dulha Ad) are extremely gendered and misogynistic, Chowdhury points out that it is a general crude mockery of INDIA’s disillusionment, lack of unity and face, which are not based on any damaging form of hatred. It's a valid commonplace pre-poll satire.

Many believe that while a major portion of population remains gullible to these ad campaigns, there is also a lot of scepticism among young social media users and people who have come of age who are being exposed to such content over a continuous stretch. “I don’t think they would take these campaigns to its face value. It is mostly a one-way traffic of coming in, gaining traction, and fading away, there is certainly a direct impact on sections who can be swayed and whose biases these campaigns tap into. There is value in pre-poll mudslinging, but in the context of recent propaganda ecology, we have seen how most of them have fared on the media front. A lot of cinema propaganda has not resonated with the audience, and I think it’s probably not untrue for these social media digital campaigns as well," says Chowdhury, when asked about the impact that such content can have on the masses leading up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

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