On the morning of March 14, the communications team at the Prime Minister’s Office got a call from the boss. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had an idea. He wanted to turn the ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ pitch of the Congress on its head. Modi the challenger had given himself the tag in a campaign humblebrag in 2014, promising voters he would neither take bribes nor allow others to do so. ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ was a direct attack on that promise by Congress president Rahul Gandhi as he alleged crony capitalism and corruption in the Rafale jet deal. Now, with elections just weeks away, a nationwide ‘Main bhi chowkidar’ campaign was going to be the PM’s retort. Moments after the PM added ‘Chowkidar’ before his name, his cabinet colleagues Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Nirmala Sitharaman, Rajnath Singh and dozens of other ministers adopted the prefix. In the first fortnight, an estimated two million Indians followed suit. Then there were the songs and ads. The ‘Main bhi chowkidar’ campaign had taken a life of its own.
The comeback was vintage Narendra Modi, a master communicator who knows how to turn adversity into opportunity, from the 2007 ‘Maut ka saudagar’ remark by Sonia Gandhi, which many say cost Congress the state election, to Modi’s 2014 embrace of Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ‘chaiwala’ jibe, which Modi turned into a participative ‘Chai pe charcha’ campaign where he proudly held out his everyman credentials.
After becoming the prime minister, Modi started the father-daughter selfie campaign in 2015 as part of the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign. It was a huge social media success. The current chowkidar campaign is of a piece with the PM’s espousal of transformation and transparency, and of his being a man of the masses.
The response, say PMO officials, has been overwhelming. Photographs and messages for the campaign are pouring in from across the world. Supporters have sent in their own pictures, of graffiti on cars as support for the campaign. Nearly 400,000 people have registered for a March 31 event where the prime minister is expected to address chowkidars across the country and his campaign team expects the number to surge to a million by the date. Those who have registered have been sent the location and matrix barcodes. The PM has dominated the narrative for a week, helped by a 100 million video views for the released songs and a campaign that trended globally for two days.
There is, however, a major difference between 2014 and now. Five years ago, it was Modi the challenger leading the opposition against the alleged misrule of UPA-II. This time round, he is squarely answerable for a whole host of issues, ranging from unemployment to rural distress, which the opposition, including the Congress, has used to target him. “NaMo was a promise,” explains brand consultant Harish Bijoor. “And that promise could be redeemed by the people. Five years have passed and the PM and his cabinet have done a number of things. There are two impressions-one, that he has worked and, second, that he hasn’t.”
The BJP’s chowkidar campaign seeks to deflect attention from problems and towards one of Brand Modi’s defining features-the impression of strength. The sense that he is someone without peer and, most importantly, impervious to whatever is thrown at him. “From 56 inches to the Balakot air strikes to even something like demonetisation…that somebody had the courage to take a step like that. Everything feeds into the image of a fearless, peerless leader,” says brand consultant Santosh Desai. What also helps Modi, say brand strategists, is his fiercely loyal base that allows him to turn weakness into a strength. “Main bhi is the most important part of the slogan. It’s not a top down slogan. It’s an oath and there is power to an oath. People are taking a personal vow,” says Desai.
Brand consultant Harish Bijoor breaks down the many layers to the campaign. Now that the entire cabinet is full of chowkidars, and the BJP’s entire support base too, can every chowkidar be called a chor? The other layer is “that chowkidari is bhaagidari (partnership). He or she could be apolitical, economic, religious. Even a chowkidar against terrorism. The twist could be phenomenal”. This is what the BJP campaign strategists have done in their series of seven short films on social media. Each film, between one and three minutes long, draws attention to positive attributes and subtly reinforces the theme. The first four set the tone, calculated to arouse pride in the common man for Modi, neutralise Rahul’s ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ campaign, and focus on the PM’s attempts to clean up the system through campaigns such as Swachh Bharat Mission and the drive against black money. Modi hopes it will do for him in 2019 what the ‘chaiwala’ remark did in 2014.
The three-minute main film begins with stock footage of Modi’s ‘Main desh ka chowkidar hoon’ remark and culminates in a song with the punchline, ‘Main bhi chowkidar hoon’. The other films promote virtues like honesty and hard work as well as Swachh Bharat (see box The Sentinels are Here).
Asked about the ‘ideator’ behind the campaign, a Team Modi member named the prime minister. “The films are entirely a creation of his own mind and the PMO,” he gushes. Brand strategists say Modi’s ability to have a different strategy for every digital platform makes him perhaps the only global leader with such an informed brand diversification strategy. “He is on LinkedIn, which is such an intelligent brand move. It says just like millions of Indians who stand for their credentials, so do I. Modi is making the case that he and the people who follow him are the establishment, unlike (American president Donald) Trump, where the image is that he and his followers are anti-establishment,” observes Pal.
Modi’s managers think the chowkidar campaign has the potential to turn the pro-Modi undercurrent into a wave. The common man can relate to his chowkidar image, given how the PM has introduced direct benefit transfer into bank accounts in some 500 schemes (compared to a few dozen in 2014), liberating them from the tyranny of the middleman.
They point to a spike in the confidence levels of party workers and claim that the huge success of the films on social media has lured even the fence-sitters towards the campaign and its conversation cards on Twitter. Indeed, anybody who tweeted with the hashtag #maibhichowkidar got a personalised, bot-generated message from the PM. Up next is campaign merchandise-chowkidar caps and T-shirts. The chowkidar campaign, Modi’s managers believe, has been effective in countering the Congress’s ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ campaign.
However, Joyojeet Pal, associate professor at University of Michigan’s School of Information, is not so sure. Pal has been tracking Modi’s digital profile since 2014. His team has analysed data from 340,000 tweets from 2,095 Congress and 2,836 BJP politicians since March 13, to show that both parties roughly equally use the term ‘chowkidar’. The same day that the BJP peaked its use of #Chowkidar and #MainBhiChowkidar, March 17, was also the day the Congress peaked its mention of #Chowkidar and #ChowkidarHiChorHai.
“I am confident it is as much a galvanising issue for the Congress as it is for the BJP,” he says. Pal says the campaign has not been as effective as the ‘selfie with daughter campaign’. “People haven’t en masse moved their names to chowkidar.” The films, however, are an ad executive’s delight. “I feel the films have been very effective as a campaign. Everybody agrees on that,” says renowned ad filmmaker Piyush Pandey.
The Congress has responded by upping its own campaign against Modi. But the PM has plans to counter this too: a film comparing the frugal lives of his relatives versus the opulent lifestyles of opposition leaders and their families. The battle is far from over.