The 4 Years from 2014 to 2018 have seen lot more than meets the eyes, in terms of social media ‘capabilities and handling’ of the two major parties in India i.e. The Indian National Congress and the Bhartiya Janata Party.
As always, with the rise of digital media in the form of facebook and twitter, it was the United States that quickly realized and grabbed the power of social media in influencing elections. Hence both Republicans and the Democrats racing neck to neck, formed special portfolios and departments/cells to handle and tame the genie, all too professionally. From fund raising campaigns for the candidates running for Presidentship to communicating directions enmasse to heterogeneous groups, was all that came in handy in managing election campaigns.
Since many Indians, experts in IT as they are, acted as key members in setting up and running these campaigns for the likes of Obama, thus were the first few to realize and appreciate its immense potential. Many of these Indian Americans and NRI’s owned their IT firms located in California’s fabled Silicon valley. These very Indian Americans having ties back home in India, were eager to present and pass on their new found Brahmastra to aid politicians mainly in Delhi, Mumbai and Gujarat and thus make a quick dough.
As we say that quick decision making is a virtue of a leader that sets him apart and creates history, so the one who grabbed onto the concept presented to him / her was the one to eat the fruits as a ‘First Mover’ in the arena.
So while many a minds at Delhi were unable to grasp the presentations, it was Gujarat where the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi without wasting much time, not only OK’d but began implementing the Digital Media genie, firstly to overcome the opposition withing his party over his PM candidature and then eyeing to win over entire India in the General Elections of 2014.
Thus, aided with the technology genie, from the early 2012 to the run up of 2014 was a blissful era for the Bhartiya Janata Party with barely any bumps in the smooth ride to capture the biggest democracy in the world and that too with a historic win rarely seen since independence. The narratives of Baal Narendra retrieving the ball from a pond full of crocodiles to the Gujarat model as the only model of development, were all a part of a strategy run at the behest of a sophisticated team of experts, many of whom were expats who flew in to spend time strategising the modus operandi to map onto an Indian environment, that was much different than their own in US.
The main difference in the turf in US and India was the effective reach as the rural areas and 70% of the population was still not fully connected digitally. This is where the think tanks bridged the gap. With India experiencing a massive middle class upsurge with first generation educated youths, who would not mind teaching their parents how to handle smart phones or showing a .mov clip or two with the intended message that could change perceptions, the ideal road map was set. Call centres and the so called media cells cropped up with military precision, covering the entire length and breadth of the country, top to bottom. States to districts to towns to neighborhoods upto the booth level was covered, leaving nothing to chance.
Thus slowly the narrative changed. BJP’s core, at that time the likes of LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Sushma Swaraj all were systematically bypassed. Sensing the upswing of one of their own, each one gave in meekly to the huge digital onslaught as none other than Modi was presented as the only viable option for 2014 general elections.
So while Congress was caught off-guard, a digital savvy Bhartiya Janata Party was in total control of the narrative by mid 2013. And thus the Congress got reduced to simply fighting fires (defending), lit by a highly advanced, digitally savvy, social media command and control centre of the BJP.
In all this twitter and facebook stood at the forefront supported by a plethora of digital properties and an R&D that maintained a constant supply of propaganda material to the front lines. As you know, in a typical high end football match, the key players are marked beforehand to be kept checked by players of the opposite team, so as to deny them a chance to score a goal. Similarly BJP teams from a couple of members to scores of them will keep every handle that could possibly influence others, marked and checked. The aggressiveness of such teams varied from polite nudgings to harshest of abuses and finally threats that no individual gentlemen (women) would be able to stand.
So it was a virtual ‘Free for BJP’ scenario in the digital space thereby enabling them to easily build up the ‘Pappu’ narrative without the remotest of resistance or counter perspective. With Rahul Gandhi still shying to open a verified account on twitter and no other prominent leader visible, the Congressmen were literally left to fend for themselves, individually. A few that could be seen meekly defending were youngsters, ill equipped, without statistics to support their view points or for that matter a R&D that was a far cry. Handles like @maswoodZ , @brumbyOz and a few more facing the brutal onslaught single handedly was a regular sight on the net. However Congress MP Mr Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) who happened to be one of the pioneers in social media and was a victim to the unethical digital onslaught and the infamous jibe “50 crores ki girlfriend” himself, remained a perennial source of inspiration to whatsoever remnants of Congress that remained online.
While the historic, sweeping victory that BJP registered was for all to see, but the Congress still didn’t realize what it was lacking other than the anti-incumbency factor, until an year into the BJP governance when the party finally went into brain storming and course correction.
As the importance of social media sunk in, Rahul Gandhi opened up his twitter account apparently hesitatingly initially as @OfficeOfRG seeking solace and protection from the fact that at least his direct name doesn’t get a drubbing.
Slowly the account @OfficeOfRG started growing, followed more by trolls and the so called Bhakts than by Congress’s own members. The retweets and the likes slowly moved into the 3 digit figure and then in a few months into the four digit figures of thousands. With Confidence back and twitter offering the name, the handle was changed to direct namesake @RahulGandhi and since then there has been no stopping.
By this time, the congress men had started flooding the social media domains, albeit as an unstructured and unguided lot. The crowd swelled further not just with regular Congress cadres but by individuals and organisations that found themselves aggrieved and at the receiving end to Finance Ministry’s unpopular policies like the Demonetisation and the tardy GST implementation.
Thus slowly but steadily the Congress Social media started growing and becoming noticeabe to the professionally organized and meticulously funded digital space of the BJP.
On the contrary, complacency started setting in, in the Bhartiya Janata Party’s social media conglomerate. Having the ‘First Mover’ advantage and still in control, the BJP ‘Bhakts’ could often be seen boasting of bringing the famous Amir Khan of Bollywood to his knees over the comment of his wife thinking to shift out of India due to Intolerance. More achievements and laurels for unethical conduct included forcing Snapdeal to not renew Amir Khan’s brand ambassadorship contract with it and the govt of india replacing Khan with Amitabh Bachchan in their ‘Incredible India’ tourism campaign.
Many more instances amounting to trolling, were proudly considered as BJP’s prowess at subduing any dissidence across India. This was more prominently reflected when speaking at book launch in Maharashtra, Manohar Parrikar suggested anyone who expressed less than unquestioning devotion to the country had to be “taught a lesson of his life”. A certain actor and an “online trading company” had got their comeuppance last year for violating this line, he had added referring indirectly to Amir Khan and Snapdeal.
“Even if you‘re on the right track, you‘ll get run over if you just sit there.”
This exactly happened with BJP while the Congress was busy coming to terms, identifying faults, plugging loopholes and overcoming hurdles inherent to a late start.
Moreover as arrogance swept the BJP, many wrongs, deliberate or otherwise to BJP’s credit started happening. Some being, but not restricted to:
- Many SM players who helped BJP to grab power now wanted to go for a kill and thus started enjoying funds that were now easily accessible. Many even opened up party funded companies and started offshoots in business. One such company was RedKraft (name changed) with its CEO, an erstwhile dental professional and activist, involved in activities to fabricate and publish stories favouring the ruling party, thus proving my point.
- In the wake of Facebook data-harvesting row, while CAMBRIDGE Analytica, the consultancy at the centre of the melee filed for insolvency and is closing down, many others got cautioned and stopped short of indulging in any malpractices, thereby reducing the probability of hiring big established firms for political influencing.
- With heavy weights occupying key positions, new talent literally stopped except being recruited at petty levels akin to daily wagers.
- Added to this is the unwritten policy allegedly followed by BJP w.r.t Muslims as seen while giving tickets for Parliamentary elections of MP and MLA’s. Extended to the social media talent pool, BJP thus keeps itself devoid of a big chunk of expert hands in the form of Muslim IT professionals and experts (approx 15% of the entire talent pool).
- The advent of sites like “Alt News” have been a big blow to the manufactured news industry that was being employed with ease earlier. AltNews.in is an Indian fact checking website, run by former software engineer Pratik Sinha. The website was launched on 9 February 2017 to combat the phenomenon of fake news, and since then has compiled a list of more than 40 of what are described as fake news sources, most of which, as per Alt News, support right wing views.
- Many a handles followed by PM Modi, started getting drunk on power and going berserk, threatening murders and rapes, celebrating killings like that of journalist Gauri Lankesh and thus brought bad name to the BJP and the Indian social media as a whole, across the world.
- The book “I Am A Troll – Inside the secret world of BJP’s digital army” by Journalist Swati Chaturvedi further dented the credibility of the BJP’s social media arm.
Thus despite all the gains and advantages, a quick learner started emerging as a potential foe. And this is what Congress with its mammoth size and 133 years of existence, just needed the fillip to stand up and rattle anyone. Finally this trigger came from none other than Rahul Gandhi who, having realized the mistakes, hurriedly went ahead overhauling and structuring the social media blue print. 2017 thus saw much of the action. From appointing experts like Pravin Chakravarty as the R&D head to appointing Divya Spandana as the social media face, much work was done at the centre level.
Results started flowing in as could be gauged from a simple fact that as on date many of Rahul Gandhi’s retweets and likes surpass those of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s in the first 24 hour cycle itself.
Furthermore the Gujarat Elections and subsequently the ongoing Karnataka elections were good statistical reminders to the progress of INC’s social media efforts.
If the Gujarat elections, where Congress ran BJP neck to neck, was any indication of the Congress catching up the BJP on social media, it seems to have done much better in Karnataka today as the polls go on.
Not only has Congress upped its game, it has even surpassed BJP by a couple of miles. This was evident from the mid-night presser to counter the accusations of BJP MP Prakash Javdekar after the ECI located the thousands of Fake ID’s in a house and the immediate trending of the hashtag, #BJPDramaExposed at 2 AM in the night.
According to figures from the AICC social media cell, Congress registered 87 crore “impressions” on its tweets about Karnataka elections. In contrast, the “impressions” stood at 35 crore in Gujarat. The stupendous increase reflects of the galloping strides that Congress is making once they have now known to be on the right track.
The figures quoted can at best be conservative though. The actual figures will be higher, since there is no way to measure and take into account the vast number of individuals, who aren’t members of congress but are citizens tweeting away their views supporting congress due to their own individual viewpoints.
The information technology is one such field that keeps changing every couple of months and thus none can ever claim that they have an edge over the other.
The current scenario thus makes it all the more interesting to observe the 2019 election fight of the behemoths in the digital space, with every bit of an expertise in the social media domain counting.
Major ground factors like the performance of a party during its tenure and the governance trail that it leaves coupled with hard work done by foot soldiers at the booth levels shall always however remain the major building blocks that synch with an effective media campaign. Least of all, not to sound as a SM protagonist, the fact remains that social media as a potent tool, can be used to alter and tweak the narratives to produce desired outcomes by shaping public opinions.
Safe to say that the battle has just begun and it will be worthwhile watching the warhorse BJP of the 2014 taking on the Congress mustang of the 2019