Meet the man behind Narendra Modi's first Indian election slogan — the one that was borrowed by Trump

A driver pastes a poster of BJP leader Narendra Modi to a rickshaw during the launch of an advertising campaign on April 3, 2014 in New Delhi, India
Sonu Mehta | Hindustan Times | Getty Images

President Donald Trump used three slogans in his 2016 election campaign, two of which will be very familiar: "America First" and "Make America Great Again."

The third was in Hindi: "Ab ki baar Trump sarkar," which means: "This time, Trump government." The then presidential candidate used it in a TV commercial to address Indian Americans less than two weeks before the election.

But the line didn't come from one of Trump's political advisors, it was borrowed from India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who used "Ab ki baar Modi sarkar," or "This time, Modi government," to help his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win a huge victory in 2014.

Piyush Pandey is the Indian advertising executive behind the BJP campaign created by ad agency Soho Square, part of Ogilvy. Pandey, Ogilvy's executive chair south Asia and global chief creative officer, first met Modi when he was chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, to work on a tourism campaign.

Piyush Pandey, the global chief creative officer at ad agency Ogilvy, at his home in Mumbai, India, on November 19, 2015. Pandey is also executive chair of Ogilvy South Asia.
Aniruddha Chowdhury | Mint | Getty Images

"I got to know the man a lot before he became the prime minister and (he is) a very knowledgeable man, never used a piece of paper," Pandey said, speaking to CNBC at the Cannes Lions advertising conference in France last week. Pandey was given 20 minutes with Modi to discuss seven destinations within Gujarat, India's westernmost state.

"After 45, 50 minutes, he was (still) describing destination number one to me," Pandey said.

"He knew the place backwards." Five or six hours later, their meeting was done. "At times, Modi said: 'You're right. I talk too much, but you have to do your stuff in (a) 60 second (ad).' I said: 'Keep talking, you pay me for picking up the nuggets (of information)'," Pandey said.

In 2014, when Modi approached Pandey to work on his prime ministerial campaign, he was unsure. "We'd never worked for a political party and openly stated that we don't. And then we did." The change of heart came because of their previous relationship. "I met the man, I said (this is) a person who knows what he wants. And a person who is willing to listen … I had no way of saying no."

Pandey's brief was to create a campaign that focused on Modi himself rather than the BJP, and one that was easily understandable. "They knew the market, we knew the language … The success of the campaign … was because of people speak. There was not one word which was party speak, it was common words that a common man uses on the street." This is also the case with Modi's "Modi hai to mumkin hai," or "Modi makes it possible," the slogan used ahead of his re-election in May, Pandey said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing an election rally at Gandhi Maidan on December 6, 2014 in Hazaribagh, India.
Rajesh Sinha | Hindustan Times | Getty Images

"There is a bit of a rhyme there. 'Ab ki baar' means 'this time' and 'Modi sakhar' means 'Modi's government.' The brief said, we're not going to lead with the party, we're going to lead with the leader. So, it had to be 'Modi sakhar.' It couldn't be anything else, it was not rocket science."

What made the campaign popular was a focus on issues such as corruption and inflation, with ads stating: "Enough of corruption, this is the time for a Modi government," for example.

But although the Modi catchphrase was popular, Pandey is realistic that it's the work of party members that will affect voters. "No election, no advertising campaign can win you an election, it is those people who work day in day out on the ground to keep contact with the likes of you and me."

"It would be fooling yourself to say that you made the difference. You did your job well, somebody did fantastic bowling and you held the catch nicely," he added.

Asked how he felt when he saw that Trump had borrowed the slogan, Pandey is circumspect. "You feel good that it travels," he told CNBC. As for "America First," Pandey concedes it was "clever," but problematic. "All his deeds matched up to that and to date, (that's been) a bit of a problem in this global world, but he's sticking to that," he said.