The query roiling the minds of the Indian voters, and the multiple registered political parties in the current election fray is “‘Ab ki baar, kaun sarkar’ (whose government will it be this time)”?

Political soothsayers go by the impressive title of ‘psephologists’, which is derived from the Greek word ‘psephos’ meaning pebble that was used then for counting votes in Athens, the birthplace of democracy. Despite the data crunching and Chanakya -like analytical acumen of modern political pundits, they do not always come up trumps. The voter knows best, or we hope!

The election toolkit for political parties in their quest for the pot of gold, (mangalsutra included!), whether “‘char sau paar’ (cross 400)”, or first past the post as in the Westminster model , is quite complex. It includes the report card of the work done by the candidate, rightly so, catchy slogans that resonate with the masses, appropriate symbols for a visual connection with the political parties in a land of literacy deficit, and a bottomless stash of funds to run the campaign with overt or covert inducements.

And, if you bond with the people in more ways than one, then you certainly have an advantage!

With social media as a pervasive presence, a troll army with a grab bag of memes, deep fakes and artificial intelligence (AI) assisted voice cloning of famous celebs to promote your party are tools used all over the globe. We are witness to a political campaign descending into a narrative meant not to ignite minds but ignite hatred.

Fact checkers beware, because you might find yourself in the doghouse for exposing the lies! Mohammed Zubair of Alt News had to be rescued by the Supreme Court after three weeks in prison.

Keeping in mind the long arduous path to freedom, the voter has to cast his/her vote in an unbiased manner to make it count. As the well- known American anthropologist, Margaret Mead said: “ Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed. It’s the only thing that ever has”.

‘Jumlabaazi’ in itself is a neutral act of using rhyme, rhetoric, alliteration, punning and humour to make a sentence stick to memory. These are the same tricks of the trade that the advertising gurus use all the time. See the runaway success of Amul as a brand.

It is when the ‘jumla’ (Urdu for sentence) turns out to be a hollow promise or a hate bomb that ‘jumlabaazi’ gathers some opprobrium around it. The “Ache Din” slogan of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 turned sour with the sudden announcement of demonetisation in 2016. It only caused disruption and did nothing to unearth black money.

Indira Gandhi rode to power ‘like a Durga’ in 1971 with her resounding slogan “Garibi Hatao, Desh Bachao”. But after her autocratic governance led to the Emergency, the Janata party turned this slogan on its head by saying “Indira Hatao, Desh Bachao”.

The humble Lal Bahadur Shastri showed his connection with the farmers and the soldiers in the popular slogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisaan” in 1965, to which Vajpayee added “ Jai Vigyan” after the Pokhran nuclear weapons test in 1998.

Humour has always been a winning strategy to garner votes. This slogan for Lalu Yadav has great recall value : “jab tak rahega samose mein alu, tab tak rahega Bihar mein Lalu”! Lalu may have fallen from grace in the fodder scam but he still retains a certain earthy mojo.

An earlier avatar of BJP, the Jan Sangh, had this funny coinage in 1967: “‘Jan Sangh ko vote do, beedi peena chhod do, beedi mein tambaku hai, Congress wala daku hai (vote for Jan Sangh, quit smoking beedis, beedi has tobacco, congress people are dacoits)”’ apparently the tobacco lobby was not so powerful then. This finds a match in the Congress slogan: “Gali gali mein shor hai , chowkidar chor hai”.

After Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, the slogan: “‘Indira teri yeh kurbani, yaad karega Hindustani’ (Indira, Indians will remember your sacrifice)” got Congress a landslide sympathy vote. In 1989, V. P. Singh, with a royal background, had a slogan coined to connect with the common man: “‘Raja nahin faquir hai, desh ki taqdeer hai (am not a king, am a poor man, am the nation’s fate)”.

In 2004, despite help from an advertising agency, BJP’s “India Shining” campaign fell flat on its face whereas “‘Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath’ (Congress’ hand is with the common man)” got them back in power .

In 2019 BJP propelled Modi as their rock star campaigner with slogans that could upstage Shahrukh Khan: “‘Modi hai to mumkin hai’ (it is possible with Modi)”. Modi has met his match in Mamta Banerjee of Trinamul Congress fame in sloganeering. She succeeded with a challenging slogan hurled at the adversary, “‘Khela hobe’ (the game is on)” and continues to be defiant. The 3M’s “Ma, Mati, Manush” have a fourth M in ‘Maach’,added after Modi’s fish eating jibe in the ongoing campaigning.

“‘Roti kapada aur makan’ (food, clothes shelter)” is one slogan that both Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto used, a rare instance of unintended collaboration, to play into the popular socialist sentiment. But the slogan that has really gone international is Modi’s: “‘Ab ki baar Modi sarkar (this time a Modi government)”.

In 2019 at a Houston ‘Howdy Modi’ rally diaspora- organised, Modi gave his tacit support to Donald Trump. In 2020 at the ‘Namaste Trump’ event at Motera stadium Ahmedabad, renamed Modi stadium now, Modi gave his open support to candidate Trump by tweaking the slogan to, “‘Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar’ (this time a Trump government)”. It didn’t help though.

Modi can’t nudge Trump to root for him, because he himself is in a pickle over a stormy affair with Stormy Daniel, facing possible incarceration. So we are back to the puzzling query, ‘Ab ki baar, kaun sarkar’?