‘No vote to BJP’ campaign made a difference: Singers, artists, filmmakers came together

Bengalis across the world showing placards with the slogan; a still from the film Shatranj Ke Khiladi with the slogan in the background besides posters, music and dance were part of the campaign

‘No vote to BJP’ campaign made a difference: Singers, artists, filmmakers came together

Namrata Joshi

A civil society campaign— ‘No Vote To BJP’ —made use of films, videos, posters, placards, graffiti, street art and stencils to communicate the message across West Bengal in the run up to the election.

“The intelligentsia, public intellectuals and artistes came together like they did years ago on the Nandigram issue and Gujarat genocide. Medha Patkar also joined in,” recalls professor, film scholar and critic Rwita Dutta. As did Left liberals and leaders of the farmer’s agitation.

“On January 4 in an open convention in Kolkata we adopted this slogan of ‘No Vote To BJP’,” recalls human rights activist Sujato Bhadra. “It was in the mass public convention that the forum got conceived and it was kept open for all,” says photographer, artiste and indie filmmaker Ronny Sen, who considers the campaign his most “massy”, mainstream work ever in reaching out to the electorate.

The focus was to showcase how BJP was far more dangerous than any other political force. “We couldn’t care who the people voted for so long as they wouldn’t vote for the BJP,” says Bhadra. The idea was not to support or be an extension of the Trinamool Congress—which was riddled with anti-incumbency issues and charges of corruption and misgovernance— but to provide a counter-narrative. “We provided a new alternative to BJP’s call for ‘poriborton’,” says Bhadra. The onus was laid on the citizen voter to protect the Indian constitution and its ideals of secularism, democracy and equality, justice, liberty and fraternity.

Former CEO of Prasar Bharati Jawahar Sircar believes the campaign did help crystallise public opinion. “It reached out to the floating urban middle class that is educated and rational and not aligned to any one particular party,” he says. Dutta also agrees that the impact would have been more on the urban voters.

“The impact on rural and the uneducated poor is debatable. Identity politics and developmental issues would influence people who don’t have access to a smartphone, social media or TV,” says Dutta.

Ronny Sen, however, points out that they reached out to convince the maximum number of people. “It was not an urban campaign targeted at the privileged elite,” he demurs. “There was no point sending the word out to our little liberal bubble,” says Sen. So, they fanned out to every district and street corner and kicked off the campaign from the villages in Sunderbans to Hoogly and Howrah.

Mass movements have always piggybacked on sloganeering. No Vote To BJP, however, had freshness, novelty and savviness that was distinct. Powered by a group of young creators, there was clarity, catchiness, focus and directness in so far as the visual form and language is concerned. “We were clear that the messaging needed to be simple and that there should be no confusion about it,” says Sen.

According to him the old ways of reaching out were not working and so the importance was in coming up with a language people could identify with. One that was also cultured and dignified and could help keep the discourse civil.

One option was to make basic, raw, amateurish videos but that was nixed for going in for professionally shot and edited ones. “If we were mounting a campaign of such a scale then it couldn’t have been a half-done job. We had to put all effort into it,” says Sen.

It also covered every possible issue under the sun—from CAA-NRC to the plight of the migrant labourers, from denationalisation and privatization to systematic attacks on the minorities and the national institutions, from Gujarat 2002 to farmers’ protests, from jailing of intellectuals, activists and dissenters to RSS’s views on women.

“The idea was to look aesthetically at issues uppermost on everyone’s mind,” says award-winning editor and director Arjun Gourisaria. Specific issues thrown during the day in the thick of electioneering were turned into videos overnight. The moot point was to make people reflect on whether these [BJP-ites] were the kind of people they wanted to see ruling over Bengal. “The aim was to reduce BJP’s vote share and to that extent to keep people’s consciousness alive,” says Gourisaria.

The result is the creation of artistic material that has been memorable, went viral online and found a wide audience and reach for itself. “The volume itself is massive. We have the kind of content to launch a mini OTT platform of our own,” says Sen.

According to Gourisaria, it was all possible because a huge team of dedicated youngsters who worked round the clock for four months in the mammoth enterprise. That too pro bono.

“It was all about solidarity,” says Sen. “They would be working any time of the day or night, keeping a continuous watch [on the unfolding electoral process],” says Gourisaria. A few aberrations aside, it was decided not to credit anyone for any of the creatives. There were limitations of money and resources and those imposed by Covid but the commitment, discipline and hard work helped them sail through.

However, keeping the BJP at bay in this election is not the only end goal they have in mind. For now, the team is exhausted and taking a break but would be regrouping soon to sustain the public engagement and continue to contain the spread of fascism.

Poking at the seeming invincibility of the dictators is here to stay it seems; at least in Bengal.

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