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India gets its first political slogan copyright case as Prashant Kishor booked for plagiarism

Shashwat Gautam, a former national coordinator in the Congress Party’s data analytics department during the Lok Sabha elections, has accused ace political strategist Prashant Kishor of stealing a campaign slogan, logo and data he had created for the Bihar assembly elections expected later this year.

Last Updated: Feb 27, 2020, 02.54 PM IST
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(Prashant Kishor)
In what could perhaps be a first in India, a political worker has dragged a rival strategist to court for allegedly stealing his campaign slogan and logo. Shashwat Gautam, a former national coordinator in the Congress Party’s data analytics department during the Lok Sabha elections, has accused ace political strategist Prashant Kishor of stealing a campaign slogan, logo and data he had created for the Bihar assembly elections expected later this year. Gautam, who values the loss at Rs 10 crore, has registered a case for copyright violation in a Patna court. He has also filed an FIR in Patna alleging theft, breach of trust and fraud.

Gautam alleges that one of his associates, Osama Khursheed, stole a laptop containing details of his campaign titled Bihar ki Baat. Within a few days of Khursheed’s disappearance, Kishor announced Baat Bihar Ki at a press conference in Patna. When ET asked for comment, Kishor, who is now back in the limelight after his client Aam Aadmi Party swept the Delhi elections, replied on a messaging app: "This is nothing but third rate mischief & poor attempt by a person to gain his two mins [minutes] of fame by making an outlandish claim. Law enforcement agencies should thoroughly and expeditiously examine the matter so that truth comes out in the public domain." Khursheed told ET over the phone that he knew Gautam but never worked on a campaign with him. He said he had no knowledge of the suit.

“We have filed a suit for damages under the civil procedure code and the intellectual property act since Mr Gautam’s IPR has been stolen,” Gautam’s lawyer Sangeet Deokuliar told ET over the phone. Deokuliar said the case was “very clear since someone’s property has been stolen and has been used by someone else, with little changes”.

Catchy slogans and slick campaigns are integral to elections. Indira Gandhi swept the 1971 elections with her famous Garibi Hatao (remove poverty) slogan, for instance. Modi successfully deployed Acche din aane wale hain (good days are coming) in 2014 while Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 'Shining India' campaign sank his re-election bid. But no one has ever registered a copyright or trademark in India. In the US, catchy slogans are sometimes copyrighted and trademarked for future use in product campaigns and endorsements. President Donald Trump had successfully filed in 2012 to trademark `Make America Great Again’.

Communications consultant and political strategist Dilip Cherian says in India political parties that he has worked with have never copyrighted any slogan or material. "Speed is what matters," says Cherian. "Once a campaign is launched and a hashtag created, if anyone copies it, it gives an opportunity to mock them."

American political campaign styles and practices are slowly catching on in India as well as they are increasingly run by consultants and marketers, often boasting a foreign university degree and corporate backgrounds, with the help of professional advertisers and data crunchers. The corporate touch and weaponization of technology and social media have also given an edginess to modern election campaigns which demand skills and techniques that have almost nothing to do with political experience or panache. Kishor pioneered the model by assisting in Narendra Modi’s spectacularly successful 2014 prime ministerial bid. He later successfully worked with several political parties and leaders, including Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and Nitish Kumar in Bihar. He also became Janata Dal (United)’s vice-president but fell out with Kumar and was expelled from the party on January 29.

Political consultancy is growing into a profitable business as parties open their coffers wide during elections. One study estimated that the BJP alone spent Rs 27,000 crore on its 2019 Lok Sabha campaign. ET has earlier quoted corporate filings that show Kishor’s company I-PAC or Indian Political Action Committee reported revenue of Rs. 63.6 crore and profit of Rs. 6.7 crore for the financial year ending March 31, 2019. Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress alone paid Rs 37.5 crore to I-PAC for its services in two tranches on March 12, 2019 and April 2, 2019, according to its filings with the Election Commission. Considering the rising stakes, a copyright case could impact current campaign practices.

Gautam, who studied data analytics at George Washington University, had earlier collaborated with Kishor in the keenly-fought 2015 Bihar campaign. He came back to his native Bihar to work for Nitish Kumar in 2017 but left to join the Congress Party’s data team when the grand alliance of Kumar’s JD(U), Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress Party broke up. In late 2019, he conceived a data-driven political campaign for the assembly elections expected in October this year and as per plan registered BiharkiBaat.in on internet domain name registrar company GoDaddy.com on January 7, papers filed in the Patna court say. He also opened a Facebook account, a YouTube channel and registered a Twitter handle over the next couple of days. Over the next few days his team, which included Khursheed, discussed and finalised a campaign logo that showed a map of the state in yellow with Bihar ki Baat emblazoned across in black letters, WhatsApp exchanges from early January on an eponymous group as the campaign appended to the court petition show.

Khursheed had contested on the JD(U) banner to the post of joint secretary in the Patna University elections in 2018 in which Kishor directed the party’s campaign, Gautam says. He alleges that Khursheed suddenly disappeared with the campaign laptop in late January and was untraceable for several days.

In early February, he returned the laptop but three weeks later, Kishor launched Baat Bihar ki campaign which, according to the complaint, is an exact copy of that conceived by Gautam.

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