A subaltern stasis was developing towards the second half of the Sixties. Then, as now, wealth was shunted up. While the government’s economic policies produced limited growth, the political structures prevented fair distribution of even that growth.

The poor were reeling under rising prices and prime minister Indira Gandhi knew it. She was also aware of the Naxalite movement spreading across the country and the Left’s ideological support. Her own situation was uncertain with the Congress splitting in 1969. She became the leader of one group.

Mass leader that she was and a mastermind at splitting the difference, she was clear that the crisis could be overcome only by uplifting the poor. That was not easy as the entrenched classes and castes at local and state levels pushed back against her. In the 1971 election, her opposition came up with the slogan “Indira Hatao,” (Remove Indira). She latched onto that.

With a simple but brilliant rearrangement, Indira Gandhi refurbished it with “Garibi Hatao” (Remove Poverty). Indeed, the complete text read, “Weh kehte hain Indira Hatao. Indiraji kehti hain Garibi Hatao.” (They say Remove Indira, Indiraji says Remove Poverty.) It left the choice to the voter.

The slogan resonated with people from all walks of life, especially the weak and poor, helped her talk around and over moribund interests, effectively bypassing them, and conveyed her simple concern for the people.

A slogan, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “a short and striking phrase used in advertising,” and “a motto associated with a political party or movement or other group.” The American Heritage Dictionary describes it as “a phrase expressing the aims or nature of an enterprise, organisation, or candidate; a motto.” The word slogan comes from Gaelic term sluaghghairmslaugh (battle)+ghairm (cry or shout)—used by Scottish or Irish clans. It was intended to shake the confidence of the opposing army by sheer lung power and to fire up their own side. It seems to have been used, in a metaphorical sense, in a political way in 1704.

Slogans are not meant to inform but to mobilise and engage the many. They are not ciphers, and reflect what a candidate or party is about. Successful ones have the alchemy of capturing the candidate, the mood of the people, and promise.

Election slogans have been with us for a long time. They are an indispensable part of political communication and art and rhetoric (and often propaganda). They convey a feeling or an idea in a simply, easily memorised way, are catchy and persuade the listener, are easy to recall and roll off the tongue, sing in the ear. They most often call for action, rally troops to vote for the politician and the minions who do their reciting. At their best, they secure tent followers, ignite some hope in some floating and neutral folk, and even build out to policy, as the Fifth Five Year Plan (1974-79) in India showcased.  Although the political tumult in later years aborted the Plan, the Congress came back to power, and launched the Sixth Five Year Plan, (1980-85) with the thrust of its slogan “Garibi Hatao”. Born of a particular context, it remains one of the most popular ones in India’s politics, despite its sketchy accomplishment as policy. At worst, slogans just fade away.

Slogans are not meant to inform but to mobilise and engage the many. They are not ciphers, and reflect what a candidate or party is about. Successful ones have the alchemy of capturing the candidate, the mood of the people, and promise.

They could even be cultish, beyond redemption, sound narcissist and megalomaniacal at the same time. To be fair, unless you’re a bit of both, you would not want to see yourself on every flex board and in every advertisement, hear your name uttered every time, going about setting things right—notionally, of course, and not actually—especially in a country as desperate as ours.

As context changes, so do slogans and persons. Before Indira Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri inspired the country with the slogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan.”  India was at war with Pakistan in 1965. People were suffering with shortages of food. In the worst of times, Shastri came up with the best of slogans in India. It won the Congress the 1967 elections, and the slogan lasts forever. The best of slogans never really go away.

Their resonance might fade for some time but it more often than not resurfaces when it finds a cultural resonance. Slogans often turn up in iterations, as in Vajpayee’s retooling Shastri’s quote into “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan” after the Pokhran nuclear test in 1998.

Slogans and persons resonate best when they encapsulate and embody a particular context. Great personalities, to paraphrase Sri Aurobindo, embody the zeitgeist—“the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time”—and endure for long.

Sports, advertising, and pop culture products and symbols use slogans to carve a niche in the mind of the customer, player and fan. The American marketing author and professor Philip Kotler defines brand positioning as “the act of designing the company’s offering and image to occupy a distinctive place in the mind of the target market”. It also shows how a particular brand is different from its competitors. To occupy a niche, brands come up with slogans that often tap into the human desire for a better life, a hope fulfilled by having the product, status gained a few notches above the presently perceived miserable perch.

As such, companies or brands may make the purpose, the expectation in explicit terms or in a subliminal way. In America, Barack Obama’s slogans in 2008 “Yes we can” and “Change we can believe in” captured the mood of the country so well that they’re inspiring even outside their political context. Coming on the back of George Bush’s administration, whose very touch lit fires everywhere around the world, Obama’s slogans offered solace and hope, explicitly stating that it was not out of reach, couched in the words “Change we can believe in.”

One of most direct expressions for action comes from Nike’s “Just do it,” one of the greatest hits in advertising history. It has, since 1988, inspired athletes and people in armchairs. It is also exhortative in that it asks us to shed inhibitions and to stop living in our own heads. Wear the shoes and run. As simple as that. As invigorating as that. As freeing as that. Just do it.

Not all slogans are direct, though. Some are even paradoxical at the outset. But they click with people. In the book, Every Bite a Delight: And Other Slogans, a collection of 5,000 memorable sayings from advertisements, public service and political campaigns, by authors Laurence Urdang and others, it is mentioned that the most revered and controversial quote in American sport—“Winning Isn’t Everything. It’s the Only Thing”—is notorious. The book says the slogan’s “assertion about the importance of winning has been touted as a basic tenet of the American sports creed” and, at the same time, singled out as encapsulating what is wrong with competitive sport, and those words, nevertheless, “grace the walls of locker rooms, ignite pre-game pep talks and echo from the rafters of banquet halls.”

It’s not that all slogans are written in stone. In India’s collective memory, Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai” remains painful. Border disputes with China eventually led to war in 1962, and the slogan, if evoked, still rankles people.

Funny, rhyming, alliterative slogans and rejoinders register with people. In the 2014 elections, BJP’s slogans “Abki Bar, Modi Sarkar” and “Congress-mukt Bharat” paved the way for the party’s victory. They also pointed to the existential drift and dread that came around the second term of Manmohan Singh. They, however, got punctured when Rahul Gandhi later retorted with “Suit-Boot Sarkar.”

Whatever we may feel about Trump’s shenanigans, his slogan “Make America great again” tapped into Americans’ perennial angst about their country being on the wrong track. (It’s another matter that they eventually elected Trump.) His similar catch phrases—“Build that wall,” “Lock her up,” “Drain the swamp,”—had terrific resonance, encapsulating the rage, blooming misanthropy, and promise of some cleansing. They carried simple, actionable verbs whereas Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger together” was so weak that it was said that Bill Clinton fumbled it in one of his speeches. In addition, Trump’s slogans are pithy, specific and can be chanted and one chant could feed off the earlier one and build on it. At the same time, Bernie Sander’s “Feel the Bern” took him a long distance during the primaries. It’s not necessary that a slogan should be built on something specific. The French who have high tolerance for abstraction (and also like their perfumes,) had “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” that rang a bell across the world.

The science of resonance is tricky. You don’t know how a slogan, reflecting some fact, bombs. Seeking re-election in 2004, on the back of a performing economy, BJP launched “India Shining” campaign. It was met with Congress-led opposition’s “Aam Aadmi Ko Kya Mila?” and BJP lost it.

Regional parties have it hard. A backward region in a state may respond to a party’s slogan in a different way than a better-off region. The slogan of a battle cry could work better for people who’re at the receiving end of injustice and excruciating inequality, while for people who are better off status quoist slogans could work better. Classes and castes and demographics respond to slogans in different ways. Diverse as India is, slogans in Hindi, may have little effect in the south. The idiom may fall flat when translated into other languages.

Region-wise, Mamata Banerjee’s catchphrase in 2011—“Ma, Maati, Manush”—unseated years of Communist rule. It’s a wonder that communists who talk the talk of the common man, rake up issues of everyday concerns regularly, who seem to be attuned to the strain of life of most Indians are practically absent in the Hindi belt, and meow their existence in other parts, even all the while discussing the constant bugbear of capitalism. Is it that they are not able to wrap their heads around a few words or in a catchphrase? Nobody knows.

In this year’s election, BJP projects Modi as the doer in its slogan “Modi hai, mumkin hai.” The Congress, with its “Ab Hoga Nyay,” seeks voters to lean towards it.

With an increasing number of digital platforms, the last half of the decade saw wide avenues for parties to engage with voters. A slogan that works well on the ground may not work well in the digital world. Parties have given the go-by to a single slogan they can ride on. Now they field multiple slogans, in new coinings and retorts. 

The slogan is not a final thing. All that a political candidate or party needs is your vote. It’s a moot question how he or she gets you there. Are there differences in brains that make you choose one over the other? Yes, say researchers from the University of South Carolina. As a part of the emerging science of political neuroscience, they studied the mirror neuron system of self-identified Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Mirror neurons  light up when we empathise.

In a May 2017 interview with Fountain Ink, Urvakhsh M. Mehta, clinician-scientist and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience, (Nimhans), Bangaluru, explained that the mirror neuron system operates everywhere, “From learning languages to empathising with others, from understanding actions to imitative play, we all, including infants, use our mirroring brain in our daily lives.”

The researchers report that “choosing a candidate may depend largely on our biological make-up.” They add that is “because the brains of self-identified Democrats and Republicans are hard-wired differently and may be naturally inclined to hold varying, if not opposing, perceptions and values.”

This study posits “a strong link with broad social connectedness with Democrats, and a strong link with tight social connectedness with Republicans.” Although the study was in an American context, it’s not clear if it provides any hints in India or anywhere else. However, it is possible to see a future where political messaging could be directly targeted at voters, basing it on their biology.

Increasingly, neuroscience is being deployed in advertising, in many other allied fields, including political campaigns. In what advertisers call “consumer neuroscience,” tools such as electroencephalogram (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and Steady State Topography (SST) to gain insights about the workings of the brain. The science of neuromarketing as to how messaging helps a brand or candidate is still sketchy. It has its own adherents and opponents, with the former confident of planting a message in your subconscious and the latter believing that the inner world of thought doesn’t yet lend itself to subtle psychological manipulation. It’s an open secret that retail store chains, investment banks, and whatsoever you engage with are collecting information on the audience and analysing it, so that they can access you at the personal level.

Profiles created from online footprints are used regularly to influence customers and their preferences. Most organisations, including political ones, have what is called predictive analytics that predict future. Data mining, modelling, and other techniques help analysts to predict the future and unknown events. In political parlance, it could mean where a sympathiser or an opponent is, on what mechanisms could be used to turn him or her around.

Memes take on a life of their own, flourish online. Stick a person with a meme, and it survives, as happened in the case Rahul Gandhi being called “Pappu.” In-jokes, in text or image, create ripples, and die a fast death or survive longer.

It is possible that slogan-building, helped by analytics, will reach people tailor-fit at their personal or group level in the coming years more and more. Neuroscience or not, one tagline captures us Indians best in our attitude: chalta hai. That’s how language works. It gets itself said. So here is the tagline for our own selves: who knows anything about anything.

A thing about democracy remains. As the journalist, satirist, essayist, and scholar, H. L. Mencken, put it, “democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance".