BJP and the Art of Branding

The term Brand derives from the Old Norse word brandr or “to burn,” and refers to the practice of branding livestock, which dates back more than 4,000 years to the Indus Valley. So, in brief, it started in Indus (or Hindu) and was used to claim ownership to cows. It seems the idea of branding has taken a full circle with the rise of BJP.

Of course, branding has evolved over the centuries-from farmers claiming their property, to artisans claiming credit for their work, to factories claiming their products, to companies claiming their products were better than others. What we brand, how we brand it, and why we brand it has continually changed. About 500 years back, the world saw the first use of branding of humans with beginning of slave trade where slaves were branded (similar to cattle) by the slave owners to establish ‘ownership’. Post industrial revolution, with the rise of consumerism and mass production, branding was used as a means of differentiation — my product is better than yours. Branding in the twenty-first century is still about taking ownership and about differentiating…not just products and services…but more recently of countries and its voting citizens.

When we think about the rise of BJP, a few brands immediately come to mind. Gaddar (traitor, equivalent to kafir), Anti-national (anti-BJP or anti-policy protestors), Tukde Tukde gang (people with left affiliations, JNU students), Pakistani (Indian Muslims), Pappu (Rahul Gandhi) etc. These labels assigned to specific people or groups of people have helped weaponize branding. It has helped create identity divisiveness — me against you mentality — and allowed BJP to identify and hone its core voter base. By calling all people who are against BJP, ‘anti-nationals’, they have given the entitled sense of ownership of ‘nationalism’ to their supporters. “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maro salon ko” (shoot the traitors) has become the standard replacement to old slogans such as vande matram (Mother, I bow to thee). Cow has become a symbol of Hindutva nationalism, gau rakshaks are true nationalists, while educated, liberals are by default part of tukde-tukde gang.

It is not hard for any of us to identify ourselves in the new branded paradigm of BJP’s India. We all have a label and we are all branded. You can run but you cannot hide. If you protest you will be branded as a traitor and your names will be put up on the walls (as was recently done in UP). Each day the mark of that brand becomes stronger through war cries in elections and trolls on twitter.

But BJP is not just good at branding citizens. It is equally good at branding their own leaders. Modi is the new Messiah, our saviour from all our enemies — be it muslims, Pakistan, corruption, beef eaters, leftists, congress or the gaddars — you name it. The Modi brand is one of the most powerful brands ever created in India, built through a systematic understanding of human behavioural drivers — hate, fear and hope. While brands such as Swatch Bharat, Beti bachao — Beti Padhao, Made in India etc. are aimed at creating hope for a great Indian nation; branding of non-BJP supporters as gaddar and anti-national panders to fear and hate. The Modi brand is reinforced through mass media and brand ambassadors such as Arnab Goswami and through sophisticated use of social media through an IT cell that has thousands of troll soldiers.

The strategies used by BJP are often confused as propaganda. But they are far more sophisticated than that. They are rooted in fundamental human insights about drivers of attitudes and norms. As a branding expert, I am in awe of the brand strategists that BJP employs. Over time these strategies have achieved what all brands strive to achieve — created a key differentiator (nationalists vs anti-nationals), elevated the brand value of Modi (the saviour) and critically, created cult brand following across demographics (the bhakts).

As a young boy growing up in an educated, liberal family, I used to believe in an idea of India (and Hinduism) which was accommodating, flexible and liberal. An India where secularism was not a dirty word. Where expressing your opinion or disagreeing with the government did not make you an anti-national. Where we were not branded and differentiated (in fact the word achhut or untouchable, had been discarded primarily because it was a label designed to discriminate). We were on a path to internationalism, rising beyond petty local differences.

But we now live in the new India where we walk with visible or invisible stamps on our forehead — announcing which side of the fence we are on. As you were reading this article you would have already slotted me in one of the brands created by BJP. And that is the testament to the efficacy of their strategy. A badge has been assigned to us — to all of us. We can wear our badges with pride or live in fear. Either ways, we are a brand.

Ps: The author is a liberal Indian, an inter-nationalist and politically unaffiliated. 3 brands that seem to have lost their market value.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in this article are personal opinions of the author and not influenced by any political or non-political organization.

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A communication specialist, an entrepreneur, writer and a serial innovator. An MBA by education, he has worked across 17 countries in 5 continents.

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Siddhartha Swarup

A communication specialist, an entrepreneur, writer and a serial innovator. An MBA by education, he has worked across 17 countries in 5 continents.