HUM HINDUSTANI: Song as a slogan

J Sri Raman
Answering Oprah Winfrey after performing on her popular show, AR Rahman said “Jai Ho” means “May victory be yours”. Victory will not be the slum-dwellers’ — whatever the hopes raised by fairy tales and fantasies — unless and until it comes through hard-won social change

Thirty-five eventful years ago, faced with a crucial general election, the Indian National Congress went for a slogan as its chief weapon. On the eve of another important parliamentary election, India’s own grand old party has added a song to its armoury.

By all accounts, “Garibi Hatao” (remove poverty), the slogan adopted by Indira Gandhi in her struggle against inner-Congress enemies besides the opposition, was a brilliant success and galvanised the poor to back her in the battle of the ballot. Will the song “Jai Ho” from the Oscar-wining film Slumdog Millionaire prove as potent a poll propaganda tool? Will it prove so, above all, against its primary rival?

The first thing the Far Right opposition Bharatiya Janata Party did after the announcement of the poll dates (from April 16 to May 13) was to dig up a past issue of presumed importance to Dalit (Untouchable) voters who the party had never even tried to woo earlier. With a profound air of discovery, BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani talked at a public meeting about the alleged betrayal by the Congress (in an election) of late Dalit leader and founding father of India’s constitution BR Ambedkar.

The details of the debate need not detain us here and now. The question is whether and to what extent the opening move was going to help the party and its prime ministerial candidate. Most pundits are agreed on the answers: the move appeared to be only an attempt to avoid more pressing issues of the present and was hardly likely to win Dalit votes for the party of “Hindutva” and high castes.

The first thing the Congress did, in contrast, was to buy exclusive rights over the song from T-Series, the electronic music titan, for its electoral use. Will the hit song, which gave AR Rahman his red-carpet experience in Hollywood, return the party to power?

Indira’s slogan may sound today like one tailor-made for the India of the yesteryear. “Garibi Hatao” has been subjected to much ridicule down the decades as populist gibberish by revered media gurus of “economic reforms”. Inevitable, eventually, were cynical reactions to the slogan that aimed really at power rather than removal of poverty. These critics, however, would have commanded greater credibility if they did not seem to see any pro-people policy, any move towards economic democracy, as dangerously and despicably populist.

Middle-class populism — now, that’s an entirely different matter. It is not only business pages and channels that have promoted baseless ideas of an “economic boom”, which is now proving a bubble for a large number of young Indians home and abroad who had stars in their eyes not long ago. The brief period of such hopes coincided with the BJP era in India politics from 1996 to 2004, and it culminated in the coinage of the slogan that captured the spirit of India Inc., the shrine of big bucks where the party of the temple really worshipped. The slogan led the BJP to a spectacular defeat in the general election of 2004.

The question remains: is “Jai Ho”, the song of the Indian slum, of the hope of the homeless, more in tune with the time, with Manmohanomics, as “liberalisation” with a Congress label has been called?

The party’s answer, of course, is positive and two-pronged. It claims, in the first place, that its social concerns and priorities have remained the same since the days of Indira’s so-called “socialism”, all but officially debunked by her distant successors. The party’ spokespersons insist that the common thread running through the Congress policies and programmes consists in their concern for “the common man”, the “aam aadmi” with whom it makes it a point identify on every public platform these days.

Secondly, the party sees “Jai Ho” and Slumdog Millionaire as symbols of “an achieving India” that had made its advent on the world stage under conditions of the Congress-led government’s creation. That may sound like the devious “Shining India” logic, but party defenders of the song as a slogan pretend not to have noticed any similarity.

Advani, trying to appear more voter-friendly than former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is repeatedly recalling “Shining India” as a model of bad sloganeering. But he has remained silent on the song that will soon be the Congress chorus. Narendra Modi, the pride of Gujarat and the BJP and the next prime minister-in-waiting, has been chosen to meet the challenge and counter the nationally popular cassette.

Modi has gone ahead with characteristic gusto. He regaled an audience the other day with the remark that the Congress deserved an Oscar for creating slums, without which there would have been no award-winning Slumdog Millionaire. No one asked the chief minister about the slums in his state, some of which the whole nation watched in horror during the televised pogrom of 2002, just as the BJP’s unending boast about Modi’s Gujarat as a model of development seldom raises questions — about farmer suicides (489 since 2003), and about the sex ratio (878 females for 1,000 males), school dropouts (about 25 percent in rural areas) as just a few examples.

All this, however, does not make “Jai Ho” a song of hope for the “common man” or the film a guide to his future. Neither the Congress nor the BJP has shown any empathy for the citizens of the slum, where distorted development has deposited them and where existence is encroachment. Only cruel mockery can cite mega TV quiz shows, offering prize money in millions, as the answer to their problems.

Answering Oprah Winfrey after performing on her popular show, AR Rahman said “Jai Ho” means “May victory be yours”. Victory will not be the slum-dwellers’ — whatever the hopes raised by fairy tales and fantasies — unless and until it comes through hard-won social change.

The writer is a journalist based in Chennai, India. A peace activist, he is also the author of a sheaf of poems titled At Gunpoint