In the last week of May 2019, after India had re-elected the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government for a second term, social media platforms were abuzz with messages of either support or disappointment from the general public. As #ModiSwearingIn and #ModiSarkar2 were trending on Twitter India, an innocuous-sounding meme hashtag #PrayForNaesamani quickly took over as the top trend in the country. The meme was created when a Facebook group called Civil Engineering Learners posted a picture of a hammer along with the question, “What is the name of this tool in your country?” One respondent replied with a scene from a Tamil feature film Friends where a character called Naesamani is hit on the head with a hammer. Another Facebook user who understood the reference jokingly responded with, “Is he OK?”, and a meme was born. Over time, it interacted with other pop culture references, and soon, #PrayForNaesamani was being tweeted and retweeted by celebrities, brands, corporations, and even the Tamil Nadu police. These diverse players used the trend for a wide variety of reasons, from expressing solidarity and spreading awareness about certain issues to using it for advertisement, thus both politicizing and corporatizing the meme.  Many speculated that people in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu drove the meme’s popularity to divert attention from the trending hashtags around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony.

#PrayForNaesamani is an interesting example of how memes are increasingly created and used as a political statement and a mode of political participation. But before exploring the political meme and how it is used as a campaign tool, we must understand what memes are, and how and why they have become such a popular part of online conversations.

What Are Memes?