Decoding political symbolism in video campaigns of India’s political parties

Prabhjot Singh Gambhir and Hamsini Shivakumar of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, examine BJP and Congress campaigns to get a deeper insight into the complex interplay of symbols, narratives, and strategies aimed at capturing the hearts and minds of the electorate

Hamsini Shivakumar
New Update

Delhi: In the lively world of Indian politics, how parties communicate matters a lot. They use more than just words - things like symbols, pictures, and hidden meanings - to win over voters. 

Let's take a closer look at the recent campaigns of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC).  Examining these will give us a deeper insight into the complex interplay of symbols, narratives, and strategies aimed at capturing the hearts and minds of the electorate.

Both parties are working hard to get their messages across, using lots of symbols and stories to try and get people on their side. For the BJP, it's all about attacking the opposition by exposing their flaws and vulnerabilities, while for the Congress it is about highlighting contemporary issues such as unemployment and inflation. 

The recent campaign videos released by the BJP include a lot of political symbolism and messaging finesse. At its forefront is the protagonist, whose haircut and beard resemble that of the unofficial leader of the Indian National Congress - Rahul Gandhi. This deliberate choice serves a dual purpose: subtly critiquing the opposition leader while reinforcing the BJP's own image of strength and leadership. Through this visual cue, the BJP seeks to establish a narrative of superiority over its adversaries. Let’s look at the content shared by India’s two foremost major political parties:


This video titled, ‘Khaandani looteron ka sach’ (The truth about generational thieves) depicts many leaders from opposition parties. Central to this campaign is the pervasive use of symbolism related to all the leaders from the I.N.D.I.A. bloc

The video is full of visual references to opposition politicians.  It depicts a character donning the look of Arvind Kejriwal wearing a muffler, standing next to Rahul Gandhi who sports a salt and pepper beard look, Akhilesh Yadav is portrayed by his penchant for the red cap, Mamta Banerjee is depicted by her white Saree and round glasses, Lalu Prasad Yadav is depicted by his famous haircut with white hair, Sonia Gandhi is depicted by a European looking woman wearing glasses.

The video starts with all the leaders welcoming a couple that represents the Indian masses into their building. A door opens in the background, and a bottle of liquor rolls out on the floor. This is an allusion to the alleged liquor scam that the BJP says Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has been involved in. 

A lot of symbolism has been incorporated into the video. A notable highlight of the BJP's campaign video is the inclusion of a statement by Lalu Prasad Yadav, who remarks, “Humara power chala jaata hai na beech beech mein.” (We lose our power in the middle) alluding to Rashtriya Janta Dal’s loss of political power in Bihar from time to time. Furthermore, the reference to a "tower" alludes to the infamous 2G spectrum scam during the UPA-II government, subtly reinforcing the narrative of corruption within the Congress-led coalition.

The video strategically taps into nationalist sentiments by attacking the opposition parties and portraying them as incompetent and corrupt. These assertions not only underscore the BJP's perception of its own strength but also serve as a critique of the perceived vulnerabilities of its opponents. 


In stark contrast, the campaign released by the Indian National Congress (INC) adopts a more understated approach. The video revolves around the premise that stress causes hair fall, implicitly suggesting that the stress of the past decade has contributed to the country's woes. The campaign titled, ‘Baaki sab theek NAHI hai’ (Everything else is NOT alright) which, is a veiled criticism of Modi’s famous ‘meme-d’ quip ‘Sab changa si’ (everything is good). By refraining from making direct references to the BJP, the INC endeavours to critique the ruling party while maintaining a semblance of subtlety.

In yet another video, Congress comments on the government's incompetencies by taking the metaphor of a sedan car. We see a look-alike of Modi trying to sell a used car to a couple. This caricature of Modi is signified by the man donning his signature white hair and beard, spectacles and, ironically a saffron Nehru jacket. The salesman tries to sell the car (which is a metaphor for India) to the couple even though the car is useless - it does not have an engine, cannot drive as it has been on a halt for the last 10 years, yet looks shiny from the outside. The couple comments that it is an Atmanirbhar car, an allusion to Modi’s campaign, Atmanirbhar Bharat, to make India self-reliant. Self-reliance in the context of this video has meant that the people will not be provided with a thing, they have to essentially look out for themselves, which is an attack on the government’s campaign. The couple then asks, “Yeh car hai ya sarkaar hai” (Is this a car or the government), which is a word-play and again an attack on the government which, according to the Congress’s assertion, has not moved India ahead from the last ten years.

This strategy of veiled and subtle attacks reflects Congress's general positioning of showcasing sensitivity to the common man's concerns. However, as elections come closer, we see that Congress is also trying to adopt a more direct approach to attacking the government. Perhaps they have recognised that a softer tone risks being perceived as ambiguous in an era dominated by direct political messaging. 

In an age where attention spans are limited, and clarity is paramount, the Congress’s strategy varies from that of the BJP. It has focussed on creating short-form content of about 20-40 seconds that has been shared on X (formerly Twitter) while BJP has taken the route of putting out long-form content on Youtube by creating full-fledged humorous narratives akin to comedy sketches.  


Despite their differing approaches, both the BJP and the Congress address common tropes such as inflation (mehengai), unemployment and corruption. While BJP's aggression can be interpreted as confidence, projecting it as the protector of the masses while harping on Narendra Modi’s strong man image, Congress's softer tone aligns with its welfarist stance and sensitivity towards the ordinary citizen. However, the BJP's focus on attacking the opposition for its past mistakes rather than highlighting the contemporary achievements of the government may also shape perceptions of its campaign as it can come across as diverting the attention of the voters from relevant issues.

All political parties are now aware of the power of social media in swaying public opinion and election results, as has been documented in Netflix’s original documentary The Great Hack (2019). In the Indian context, the campaigns of both these parties offer fascinating insights into the intricacies of Indian politics - elections are about attacks on the opposition rather than directly addressing contemporary issues and past achievements of the parties. As the countdown to the election cycle begins, it remains to be seen how these strategies will evolve and be adapted by other political parties as well to the ever-changing dynamics of Indian politics.

As the country grapples with myriad challenges ranging from economic uncertainty to increasing communal tensions, the stakes have never been higher for political parties vying for power and influence.