#SurfExcel trended at dizzying heights on Twitter. It remained there for so long I thought it would get a vertigo. I watched the allegedly controversial TV commercial out of sheer curiosity. It had skyrocketed into social media’s outer space courtesy the collective muscle power of the paid trolls of the Information Technology cell of the cash-rich right-wing political party of India, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
It appeared weird that in an environment of escalating political slugfest it was the ‘Dho Da La’ washing powder brand Surf that was the numero uno topic of Twitter tantrums. The BJP trolls, I prefer to call them #ModiToadies (popularised by the much harangued heretic , author Salman Rushdie) appeared furious. I soon figured out why.
The #SurfExcel ad actually celebrates the several hues of India, its multicultural diversity and religious plurality reflected in the colours of Holi (the festival will be celebrated this year on 21st March 2019 right in the middle of the election campaign).
My senior colleague Dr Shashi Tharoor puts it eloquently when he says that India is like that famous thaali, a delightful assortment of vegetables, chutneys, appetizers, breads and desserts that makes for a delectable gastronomic experience. Or that in India there are 200 different ways of making potatoes, unlike the boring predictability of the American French fries.
Most consumer brands, particularly gigantic transnational ones like Hindustan Unilever with a global footprint, play the marketing strategy of “Think global, act local.” Glocal is the blend that defines it for them. Thus, soft drink leviathans like Coca-Cola and Pepsi are at their aggressive best during the famous Indian summer populated with marriage ceremonies and long school and college breaks, and during Diwali, the time of family bonding, new clothes, excessive calories and long holidays.
For Surf, Holi is a natural sales catchment period; clothes get discoloured, there are irremovable stains and thus the power-packed new cleaning formula is projected as the perfect antidote. But the #ModiToadies did not like the script that was deployed to convey the marketing message.
The story board captured a young school going girl who voluntarily gets drenched in colored water till the supply of the colorful water and paint are exhausted. She thus makes sure that her young Muslim friend can go to the mosque for the namaaz in his pristine white and spotless white kurta pyjama.
The advertisement is innocuous and saccharine ; it conveys the tender affections of unpolluted minds, away from the madness of incendiary gaslighting practiced by prime-time TV channels.
These children understand the colour red as a refulgent color that brightens up their canvas. The hate-fueled chauvinistic adults probably see that as blood. To them, the advertisement that quintessentially incorporated the need for religious harmony in our lives was nothing short of blasphemous. A sacrilege. So, they churlishly called for a boycott of the Surf Excel detergent.
It was preposterous, and downright insane. But behind that twisted inference of a cute ad lay a deeper ideological animus towards minorities, a manifestation of the rising intolerance of the bigoted. It portends the dangerous turbulence ahead led by a hysterical mob of religious fundamentalists.
Thus, for BJP their political strategy is decentralised social anarchy, interspersed across India, in intermittent intervals. It is called low-intensity communal temperature which is conveniently modulated to adapt to electoral schedules
The fact that an advertisement that calls for brotherhood and oneness is deemed offensive and has resulted in an organised social media protest is a disturbing reality.
The Hindutva Project of the BJP needs to be challenged. It needs to be counter-attacked. It is antithetical to India’s Constitution, it strikes at the very foundations of our secular society and syncretic culture. This is the moment the collective conscience of India needs to find resonance and rise, towering above the cacophony of hate.
The Hindutva Project of the RSS and BJP is always engineered insidiously, imperceptibly. Love Jihad, Ghar Wapsi, Anti-Romeo squads, beef bans, lynching deaths are all part of the communal algorithm.
They are carefully programmed to keep the pot boiling, to keep everyone guessing. The “othering” of the Muslim minorities is helped by door-to-door campaign literature spread by the RSS foot soldiers. Don’t forget that the RSS has infiltrated impressionable minds already through the distorted misrepresentation of Indian history; school textbooks have been ‘corrected’ so badly that the Mughal period has been reduced to a transient phenomenon.
In the age of mainstream media, smartphone-based citizen journalism and a proliferating social media, the BJP understands that large-scale communal riots can seriously boomerang on them (albeit Muzaffarnagar riots helped them in a humongous way in Uttar Pradesh in 2014).
Thus, for BJP their political strategy is decentralised social anarchy, interspersed across India, in intermittent intervals. It is called low-intensity communal temperature which is conveniently modulated to adapt to electoral schedules.
In the Uttar Pradesh elections in 2017, India’s Prime Minister himself methodically played the sectarian card; Kabristan and Shamshan, and Ramzan and Holi were elaborately compared. Modi effectively provided umbrage to those who were mercilessly brutalising Muslims using his dog-whistle speech.
The fringe is emboldened and has been noiselessly mainstreamed. The message came from the top. India has paid the price. Ask the family of Mohammad Akhlaq and Pehlu Khan if you do not believe me. Now the violence against Muslims and Dalits is quotidian, the new normal as it were. This Holi we need to stand up for the children who feature in the Hindustan Unilever advertisement and those they represent, millions of unsuspecting innocent souls.
They need our reassuring protection that their performance encapsulated the Idea of India. That Rang Laaye Sang will please Mahatma Gandhi in heaven. That those who indulged in those mindless hate campaigns are batshit crazy. That the miasma of fear will indeed end. That love is the only way.