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Sing a song of comeuppance

AM Jigeesh | Updated on March 25, 2021

Marching forth: The LDF’s official campaign song equates Left rule with welfare   -  THULASI KAKKAT / THE HINDU

This election season political parties are sparring on social media with songs, slogans, symbolism and drama

* Songs, poems and slogans have always played a role in Indian polls, often described as a loud and colourful marquee event

* The songs of 2021 are different: Many have a simple and colloquial lingo

* Across Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam and Kerala, songs are being sung to woo the voter

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Singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer said it well. Over half a century ago, he wrote a song called The Folk Song Army. It poked gentle fun at liberals, especially those who sought to take the world on, armed with a quiver of protest songs.

Remember the war against Franco? (He sang)

That’s the kind where each of us belongs.

Though he may have won all the battles,

We had all the good songs!

A similar war — but, in this case, song versus song — is playing out in the states where Assembly elections are being held. As political parties fight it out on the field, caustic lyrics and slogans are battling it out on social media.

People will vote the way they will, but just who has the best songs? The jury is still out on that, but the pitch is getting louder as the states in election mode get more and more drawn into poll fervour. Across Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam and Kerala, songs are being sung to woo the voter — and, in the process, to take potshots against political rivals.

Tamil Nadu has always embraced elections with music, but Kerala is witnessing a clash of slogans for the elections, too. Backroom players are devising musical and catchy strategies for political parties, making the most of the high penetration of internet and mass media in the state.

The issues are largely local: The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) wants to underline the way it has been battling Covid-19 and floods. It recently released its official campaign song, voiced by the award winning playback singer, Sithara Krishnakumar.

It goes:

Nammale nayichavar jayikkanam,

thudarchayode naadu veendum ujjwalikkanam

Idathu paksha bharanam iniyum ethanam

Janathinaayi kshemakaalam iniyum ethanam

(Those who led us should win

And the state should shine brighter in this continuity

The Left rule should go on

Welfare should reach the people again.)

According to Prem Kumar, a branding consultant based in the state, the two fronts — one led by the Congress, and the other by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — have been using professional tools in their campaigning since the 2011 Assembly elections.

“But it was in 2016 that fronts used slogans to catch voters’ attention. The LDF’s slogan — LDF varum, ellaam shariyaakkum (LDF will come, will set everything right) — is still in people’s mind. It’s also being used to troll the LDF when there’s a political murder or a corruption case,” Kumar says.

Rich history

Songs, poems and slogans have always played a role in Indian polls, often described as a loud and colourful marquee event. Verses are mostly laced with satire and humour. Old-timers, for instance, recall the poet Nagarjun’s lines which were often recited in post-Emergency elections.

Induji, Induji,

kya hua aap ko,

Satta key lalach mein

Bhul gain baap ko?

Induji, it said, addressing Indira Gandhi, what happened to you? The thirst for power, made you forget your father?

Another, though somewhat cryptic, ditty was heard across the Hindi belt when the Jan Sangh — the parent party of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — emerged as an electoral contender seven decades ago.

Jan Sangh ko vote do/

Bidi pina chhor do/

Bidi mein tambaku hai/

Congress wallah daku hai

(Vote for the Jan Sangh/

Stop smoking bidis/

Bidis have tobacco/

And the Congresswallahs are dacoits.)

The Congress, in turn, sang a paean to Indira and the party symbol — the palm of a hand:

Jaat par naa paat par,

Indira ji ki baat par

Mohar lagey gi haath par

(Not on caste or community

The vote will be at the behest of Indira ji

And the stamp will be on the hand.)

The songs and slogans then were mostly played from loudspeakers at rallies and meetings. Now, thanks largely to YouTube and other social media platforms, they rule the digital world, crossing state borders with ease.

Bengali lingo

Take Bengal, where the party players are battling one another with an array of political songs. The Left parties are ahead in the game, for they have an armoury of such weapons — songs composed by the Indian People’s Theatre Association, a once powerful and popular Left cultural movement, on issues such as colonialism and feudalism.

But the songs of 2021 are different: Many have a simple and colloquial lingo that seeks to grab the young voter. One such song is Tumpa, tokey niye Brigade jabo (Tumpa, will take you to the Brigade grounds). It is a spoof of Tumpa Shona — a mega hit about a jilted groom finding solace in a woman called Tumpa. The poll song, with catchy words and a lively animation, is played in videos against the red hammer-and-sickle flags of the Left parties.

The Left has another popular song with a clip that shows the lotus of the BJP and the three-leaf symbol of the Trinamool in close embrace. Called Uri uri baba, it refers to the two rival parties as one — the BJPMool. “Idhar ka maal udhar hoga (transfer goods from here to there),” the song goes, referring to defections.

The BJP, however, is not far behind either in its campaign which attacks Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for favouring her nephew, who is emerging as a leader in her party. The BJP has turned the 19th century Italian protest song Bella Ciao into an anti-Trinamool song called Pishi Jao (Go away, Aunt). The slogan in its songs and campaigns is Phutbe ebar poddo phul, Bangla chharo Trinamool (this time the lotus will bloom, leave Bengal, Trinamool).

Awash as the campaigns are with music in West Bengal, it is a young singer-composer’s ode to the election that is breaking the Internet. Called Khela Hobe (the game is on), Debangshu Bhattacharya’s rap song is played at rallies across the state and has been viewed by several lakh viewers.

“The song resonates not only in Bengal but has found admirers throughout India,” says Bhattacharya, a Trinamool Congress youth leader.

Catchwords for the polls

Assam, where the Centre’s Citizenship Amendment Act is a burning issue, has its electoral songs, too, though singer Zubin Garg’s Politics na koribo bondhu (don’t do politics, my friend) is by far the most popular composition.

Jatir Matir Gaan Gun Gunao

(Sing songs of our tradition and culture

But don’t do politics, my dear friend.)

The one song that can be found at every gathering, irrespective of party lines, is Bhupen Hazarika’s Biswa Bijoyee Naujowan (the youth will win the world) and Aah Aah Olai Aah.

Meanwhile, in Kerala, rallies are being held across the state by the two fronts — the LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). The two fronts have released their catchwords for this election, too.

For the LDF, it’s Urappaanu LDF (LDF for sure), while the UDF goes with the slogan Naadu Nannaakaan UDF (UDF for a better state). The BJP, which has about 15 per cent of the vote share in Kerala, hopes to make a dent in this election, slogan or no slogan.

“A slogan needs multiple positive meanings. LDF’s slogan provides that. UDF’s slogan is being interpreted as there is something bad with Kerala and it is a negative tone. It’s structurally weak,” Kumar says.

Meanwhile, in Bengal, another song is gaining ground. Called Chetanar gaan — the song of awareness — it is a message of hope that seeks to go beyond electoral politics.

Let’s speak in songs,

We dream of a new dawn.

Clearly, defeat or victory, some will always be on song.

(With inputs from Bishakha De Sarkar and Partha Pratim Sharma)

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Published on March 25, 2021
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