On January 16, the official INC Facebook page posted a video meme that uses footage from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It’s the iconic scene with Danny Torrance cycling down the empty corridors of the Overlook Hotel. He turns a corner and finds PM Modi giving his demonetisation announcement speech from November 8, 2016. It terrifies the little boy. Weird flex, but OK.
The INC is not one to shy away from using memes, while the BJP is still stuck with basic WhatsApp-ready image post propaganda. However, what separates BJP’s online strategy is the wide reach of the BJP IT cell and its affiliates, which include American-alt-right-inspired meme pages like Squint Neon.
But what does it mean when the INC—India’s oldest political party with more years in power than not—publishes an original video meme targeting the current Prime Minister on its official Facebook page?
Mudslinging is not new or rare in Indian politics. One of BJP’s precursors Jan Sangh’s earliest slogans was ‘Beedi peena chhod do, Jan Sangh ko vote do; Beedi mein tambaku hai, Congress- wale daku hain’ (‘Stop smoking beedis and vote for Jan Sangh; Beedis are full of tobacco and Congress is full of bandits.’ It reads better in Hindi, we promise). Congress used the even more juvenile but effective, 'Ek sherni, sau langur, Chikmagalur bhai Chikmagalur’ (‘One tigress amongst a hundred monkeys, Chikmagalur brother Chikmagalur'. It doesn’t read any better in Hindi) when Indira Gandhi was contesting from Chikmagalur district in Karnataka in 1978.
So, propaganda isn’t new nor dead. Instead, it’s alive and out in theatres now. What’s changed is the medium, and degree to which political parties reach out to the public. If people online are communicating in meme-fied shorthand, they can and need to be influenced in that same medium. ‘UP mein dum hai’ (‘There is something about UP’) might work on the radio (until it doesn’t), but to reach out to people online (an estimated 258 million active social media users), political parties need to speak their language.
Leaked BJP IT cell documents showed us how the BJP had many things about social media figured out—how to manufacture trends, timed releases with activated bots and influencers, and tight copy that has more impact than raw stats. The unofficial social media strategy of the Hindu right plays out through affiliated meme pages and publications, most of which work to create or represent a general trend of anti-left-liberal thought. They relate patriotism with Hindu nationalism, discredit anti-BJP or anti-Hindutva speakers, create and share fake news to amplify this feeling of dread and insecurity—all of which the official accounts of the BJP can then exploit by positioning themselves as the solutions to these problems. A bit like how the upper classes would hunt in the good ol’ days—their people would drum the quarry out into the open where they are vulnerable enough to be easily picked off.
It looks like the INC is catching up in their own way (naively, by trying to make content that goes legitimately viral). On Twitter and Facebook, every few days will have a timely hijacking on a hashtag or a little joke mocking PM Modi’s policies or election campaign promises that have fallen short.
A few memes, no matter how viral, won’t break the upcoming elections for the Congress or the BJP, farmer loan waivers will. But every bit adds to the general sentiment sweeping towards, or against, each party. Facebook has about 229 million Indians, many of them from the urban middle classes that won’t decide their vote based on subsidies and better irrigation. They can be distracted. While the BJP’s initial campaign to highlight the problems of the country and link them with Congress’ governance, the exact same thing has been flipped to show how the BJP has not done as good a job of running the country as they once promised.
While these perhaps won’t convince anyone to switch sides, it fulfils the purpose of a meme—show affiliation. A political party doing so just cements memes as a credible means of communication. Urban Dictionary defines memes as “the cure of depression”. It’s not true, but at least it tells us how Urban Dictionary works.
Memes are everywhere and have forever changed the way we communicate. What used to be amazing is now amaze. What used to be parlour games are now trending hashtags. What used to be a discussion at the water cooler (so say the legends of old) is now a GIF-laden thread half an hour after the whole season drops all at once. It’s evidence of a shared experience that brings us closer to strangers who have felt the same way, because they have seen the same things we have.
What’s more tricky is that the very act of sharing a meme becomes, in itself, an act aimed at fulfilling your need to belong. Now that we’ve figured out that social media is performative, we know that we share what we share because of a need to recognise our affiliation or gain adoration—both social needs. So, people upvoting ‘cure for depression’ as the definition of memes on Urban Dictionary, is them fulfilling that need. Edgy teens sharing dank memes becomes their way to gain social currency with their peers, and your parents sharing ‘witty’ political slogans on their uncle-aunty WhatsApp groups are them doing the same.
By its very nature, a meme goes straight to the point. What needed context and emotional buildup to explain and hit home in an old-school ‘teary-mother-unemployed-youth’ style propaganda, now only needs the right format. Our minds fill in the emotional blanks and gets the job done, but faster.
Shared experiences are the reason humankind has made it so far without (successfully) massacring each other, and memes are the proof of this shared experience. We don’t have to rely on the shared experience of our families and immediate neighbours, where the experiences are forced onto us by circumstance. Now, a Marie Kondo meme connects me to people who feel the exact same way, but have no other similarities or context. It brings me closer to other humans, despite what my grandmother says. And the last I communicated with her was when she sent me a BJP meme on WhatsApp.
Follow Adhiraj Singh on Twitter.