If you’ve seen the speeches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the run up to the elections this year, you’d have noticed a big white lotus almost poking at his face in photos and videos.
Why does a man renowned for being camera hungry, share his limelight with a black and white paper flower? And why has it grown bigger over the years. E.g. if you look at Modi’s election speeches from 2014, you’ll see a smaller white lotus pined on his chest.
It might seem innocuous but I believe this tiny black and white lotus played a good role in 2014 in making Modi the first prime minister with an absolute majority government in 30 years. I also believe that if he has to come close to power once again, the bigger lotus will play a big part.
To understand the mystery of this white lotus, let’s first get the obvious explanation out of the way, which is that the lotus is the BJP’s party symbol. True. But the party symbol is a saffron lotus. And for a party that proudly wants to saffronise India, you’d think the PM would wear an orange lotus rather than a white, secular looking one.
The true answer to this question lies in a field of science called semiotics - the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation - and its sister semantics. Let’s understand the sociological-semiotics of the PM’s white lotus.
Having voted a couple of times, I have found the whole exercise unsettling. You have little time before the EVM machine to cast your vote and the choices before you are in multiples. It takes some time just to read the name of all the candidates standing in fray and match them with their party name.
To make this process easier, and also help illiterate people vote correctly, we have the party symbols on the EVM’s next to the name of the candidates. Lotus for a BJP candidate, hand for congress, sun rising from the clouds for DMK, cycle for SP, Elephant for BSP, a vroom for AAP etc.
Voting seems simple, right? Not really if you consider that there are almost 2300 registered parties in India and even if 20 of them make it into your EVM, it makes your job of finding the person you want to vote, tough. Mistakes are bound to happen. And in this grey zone, comes the BJP’s White Lotus.
But first, let’s look at one of the key tricks of marketing and advertising: repetition. You can not only live without a Coke or a Pepsi, but studies suggest you’d be much healthier if you don’t drink them. Yet billions of rupees are spent worldwide by people buying them? Why? The answer again lies in semiotics.
What do you think of when I say: ‘yeh dil mange more’ or ‘thanda matlab?’ or ‘taste the thunder’. You instantly recall the cola brands. Not just that, on a hot summer day when you’re thirsty, what do you do? Go for a ‘thanda’ and ‘thanda matlab…’ yes, you grab a Coca Cola. This is semiotics and semantics at work. These cola companies repeat it so much, that it becomes fixed in your mind and your responses become automatic.
What Narendra Modi has done, is bring this idea of ‘repetition’ into the political sphere. When you barely have a minute inside the polling booth and you – like a majority of Indians – are undecided about who to vote, but you have to press a button, what symbol would you press in a hurry? Chances are, you’ll press the party symbol you remember the most.
Narendra Modi makes sure you do not forget the white lotus. It is placed so high up during his speeches, that no election photos or videos of the PM can ever come without it. He thus subconsciously primes you for the white lotus by repetition. Why a white lotus? Because EVM’s display the party logo in black and white, not colour.
If this seems like an exaggeration, consider this news that made headlines worldwide last week. A man literally chopped off his finger because he voted for the wrong party. Guess which ‘wrong party’ he voted for instead of the one he wanted to? He voted for BJP.
Now consider that many of the seats were won by BJP or its allies in 2014 on thin margins, at times as low as a few hundred votes, and you realise how important this simple semiotic trick used by Modi was crucial in his majority. Why else do you think BJP got 282 seats i.e. more than 50% with just 31 percent votes and Congress despite 20% votes, got only 44 seats.
You’d wonder, if BJP has figured out the secret to winning at least a few extra seats this way, what about the other parties? Sadly, none have reached the level of rigorous planning and meticulous attention to detail that Narendra Modi has inculcated in the BJP. Most continue fighting 21st century elections with 20th century tricks.
Thus you might criticize Narendra Modi for things like unemployment being at a 45 year high, or rising hatred in the nation, rising social and economic inequality, demonetization, worsening global relations etc. what you cannot fault him for, is his desire for victory and that he will leave no stone unturned to win be it by hook, crook or the semiotic cookbook.
(Satyen K. Bordoloi is a screenwriter, researcher, journalist based in Mumbai. He writes mostly on cinema and politics. He is currently writing a spec script on R&AWs 1971 exploits.)Read more by Satyen K Bordoloi: