If it is election season, can political drama be far off? On Sunday morning, top Bharatiya Janata Party leaders prefixed the word “chowkidar” to their names on Twitter. The word in Hindi means watchman or guard. The prime minister’s personal handle is now “Chowkidar Narendra Modi” and the party president is “Chowkidar Amit Shah”.

The renaming comes a day after the BJP ran a “Main Bhi Chowkidar” campaign on Twitter, asking people to declare themselves guards for the nation battling “corruption, dirt, social evils”. A promotional video released by the BJP has lyrics which talk of “a torrent of truth crashing down on the head of lies” and “rooting out corruption from the roots”.

Slogans and counter slogans

The slogan is a take-off from Rahul Gandhi’s taunt: “Chowkidar Chor Hai”, the guard is the thief, used by the Congress to accuse the BJP of corruption, ranging from irregularities in a deal for Rafale fighter aircraft to allowing corporate loan defaulters to flee the country.

The BJP has responded to the slogan in two ways. On Rafale, the party has been aggressive, with the prime minister even going on a counter-offensive against the Congress. On March 3, Narendra Modi blamed the Congress for delays in procuring Rafale aircraft which, he argued, led to a less than ideal response when Pakistani fighter aircraft bombed India on February 27. An Indian fighter plane was shot down and a pilot captured.

“The country’s watchman [a reference to Modi] is not alone. I stand beside him too,” says a character in this video as he rejects a bribe

The impact of the Congress’ Rafale allegations has been mixed, with surveys showing that the tack has not found enough takers on the ground, with voters are more concerned about bread and butter issues like jobs and rural distress.

Fat cat defence

The BJP’s “Main Bhi Chowkidar” counter-offensive, however, shows that the other accusation levelled by the Congress, of Modi helping big businessesmen, has had an impact, with the saffron party feeling a need to respond.

Unlike Rafale, Modi has never directly responded to these allegations, letting his ministers and the media explain his government’s efforts in trying to bring loan defaulters to book.

The Congress is also reworking its messaging, focussing more on allegations of cronyism. Its response to the “Main Bhi Chowkidar campaign” on Saturday was to resurrect its “Suit-boot ki Sarkar” slogan. Coined in 2015 by Rahul Gandhi, the slogan is a populist attack on Modi for being elitist and working for fat cats rather than for the common man.

Unlike the Rafale allegations, the BJP did not try and take on the “Suit-boot ki sarkar” slogan. Instead, the Modi government significantly changed its policies in response. While he had campaigned on a liberal, limited government platform in 2014, after Gandhi’s attacks, the Modi administration turned to welfare populism, launching a number of big-budget redistributive schemes.

Chaiwallah reprised

The chowkidar counter-offensive has a history. In 2014, the Modi campaign had done something similar with the “chaiwallah” or tea seller jibe from senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, turning the insult on its head to highlight the prime minister’s background as someone born in a poor family.

The “Main Bhi Chowkidar” campaign, however, has already had two unintended consequences on social media. An automated tweet from Modi’s account responded to a parody account of the fugitive diamond merchant Nirav Modi, generating much laughter.

Joining the chorus of BJP leaders declaring themselves “chowkidars” was former minister, MJ Akbar, who had resigned in 2018 after 16 women had accused him of sexual harassment. This invited sharp comment on Twitter.

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