If you are a social media geek then you may believe that the country is on the brink of a revolution and Narendra Modi is India’s Barack Obama, whose divine leadership will flush corruption, unemployment, poverty and terrorism out of the country.
The Godfather image of the Gujarat chief minister, who once suggested installation of solar power plants on India-Pakistan border as protection against Pakistani insurgents, has the potential to go down in history as the chief protagonist of a classic art cinema. The reality is, however, not art cinema but a media-orchestrated circus which is initially very entertaining. But once you start the circus, the arrival of clowns follow. Expecting a political revolution on social media is like expecting sudden bursts of passion in a long marriage.
Modi is the most mentioned Indian political figure on Twitter, as per a report published by Mint and Blogworks, in July 2013. It would be naïve to believe that all the mentions were in favour of him or that these mentions suggest a high popularity quotient because the second most mentioned political figure on Twitter, according to the report, is Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. And we know that Dr. Singh is not the most beloved politician, whether online or offline. Modi, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, is among India’s famous social media celebrities with 11.5 million Facebook fans and over 3.5 million Twitter followers. Mathematically over 10 percent of India’s Facebook users are following him.
While the authenticity of the astonishing number of followers Modi has is debatable, we must not underrate the amount of effort his team has put into making him the Obama of Indian politics on social media. Modi’s social media accounts benefit not just from his followers but also from his opponents. Modi is an embodiment of the old poetic expression that enemies are often more useful than friends, at least on social media.
For every social media user, a tickling question is – who, in the world, has all the time to draft 20-pager messages or photoshopped images of important national political figures to make them look like jokers? For instance, recollect those ‘six packs Baba Ramdev holding bikini-clad Sonia Gandhi’ or ‘Narendra Modi kicking Rahul Gandhi’s back in full force’ images you have come across.
There are more ridiculous and unparliamentarily pictures that come your way on social media. These campaigns are well-thought of political propaganda on the new, mysterious media. Hundreds of BJP activists and supporters relentlessly work on such ideas. After all, sarcasm is a serious business. And the key beneficiary of such overtly humour-driven campaigns is Modi.
A recent article in India Today titled, Rise of the Cyber Hindu , asserts that an ever-growing online community of pro-Hindu, pro-BJP, pro-Narendra Modi, right-wing tweeters has taken over political discourse on the internet. Explaining the growing number of right-wing supporters, a member of BJP’s IT Cell says, “We are the, beneficiaries of fast-spreading sarcasm against the Congress on social media. They do not always come from our activists and supporters, but we like them. But we don’t encourage below-the-belt messaging.”
Modi has an interesting and efficient team that manages his social media accounts, including Rajesh Jain, an entrepreneur who is at the helm of IndiaWorld Web portal and BG Mahesh, founder of OneIndia. Mr Jain and Mr Mahesh lead a team of 100-something techies, ranging from engineers to MBAs, who have studied briefly in the first world.
They work full-time for Modi to promote him across all social media platforms and serve to keep an eye on all those who keep an evil eye on him. 100 is a huge number by Indian standards, especially considering the stage of social media management India is at. When approached, BG Mahesh refused to comment on any subject remotely connected with politics. The size and whereabouts of agencies discreetly working for Modi is still a mystery.
In December 2013, investigative website Cobrapost revealed that BJP is leading from the front in its social media campaign, if the claims of certain IT companies are to be believed. So is its Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, with scores of IT companies working overtime to boost his image and many working to add more cyber supporters for him every day. When asked how many of Modi’s followers are fake, many including Modi’s own supporters retorted, “Many.”
We must not deny him credit for how effectively he has utilised the social and digital media to endorse himself and his state despite discouraging reports of malnutrition minority rights and water scarcity in his state. Here is a look at what he has been doing on social media.
Mastering the social media numbers
Narendra Modi has significant connections with the United States of America; I mean apart from the struggle he has been through to acquire a US visa. One, Modi has closely worked with Apco, one of the largest US-based lobbying companies which has sold Modi’s positive image to the world. Two, he has a large base of followers in the US who recently enjoyed a Google Hangouts session with their beloved leader. Three, the US media had recently termed Barack Obama the ‘king of fake Twitter followers’. It would be an exaggeration to say the same for Modi, considering the disproportionate number of followers he enjoys on social media. Let’s look at the social media numbers that speak for him.
In 2013, Modi was India’s top trending leader, followed by cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. Modi joined Twitter in January 2009 (he is one of the earliest political leaders to go online) and has tweeted for over 4000 times. We must admit that it is almost impossible to ascertain the number of fake followers one has, but Vijay Mukhi, India’s most loved cyber crime expert and data scientist came the closest in analysing this. Modi has 6,77,296 followers who have never ever tweeted. This does not necessarily mean that they are fake, but these are dubious users for sure.
The Indian Express recently reported that about 62% of Modi’s Twitter followers are fake and 36 percent inactive. On an average he tweets 4 times a day. A query on www.statuspeople.com with Mr. Modi’s username suggests that only 6 percent of his followers are ‘good’ (or in other words, real and active). But he has mastered the art (and the science( of adding numbers in his favour. At several instances, within a span of days the number of his followers increased by a multiple of 10. As somebody rightly said, Indians take liberty in adding an extra zero to every figure. After all, we discovered it!
What he loves and hates
Modi loves Gujarat, India, (Gujarati) poetry, digital cameras, gizmos, expensive kurtas laced with golden embroidery, tea and yoga to name a few. He doesn’t like a few things and people. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Nitish Kumar, direct and uncomfortable questions, Islamic skull caps and mention of 2002 riots.
So how do social media accounts portray Modi?
If you know anything about the English language and Modi’s command over it then it is loud and clear that he does not tweet himself. He is a great Hindi and Gujarati orator, but poor in handling long English sentences. Modi’s command over the English language is as good as Maharashtra home minister RR Patil’s command over Hindi, who, after the 2008 Mumbai terror strike, had said, “Bade bade shahron me aisi choti baatein hoti rahti hain.’ (Such small things keep happening in big cities).
Most of Modi’s Tweets do not go beyond mentions of his rallies, festival wishes, best-of-luck messages to students, condolences and direct storybook-type attacks on his arch rivals from the Congress.
He also speaks strongly about terrorism, Naxalism and Mahatma Gandhi. Having realised that 1.8 million Muslims of India cannot be persecuted in a run to lead a complex nation, he has completely stopped using terms like Uniform Civil Code, Hindutva, Ram Temple, and a repeal of article 370 in Kashmir.
There is almost nothing startling or controversial in his tweets except for on one instance. On 26 January, criticising the prime minister’s ‘how-great-India is’ speech, he challenged Dr. Singh and called him for a national television debate which attracted flak from his own colleagues including the BJP Iron Man LK Advani. Predictably, the docile Dr. Singh did not bother to respond to Modi.
Modi’s rival and India’s finance minister P Chidambaram recently attacked him, “Modi’s understanding of economics can be written on the backside of a postal stamp.” That is true to some extent because we really do not know whether and what he thinks about India’s foreign and defence policy, macroeconomic and climate change issues, energy and resource policies.
But despite all odds against him, his efforts and strategies are way ahead of his contemporaries including Sharad Pawar, Kapil Sibal, Shashi Tharoor and of course, Rahul Gandhi. Unlike his key opponent Rahul Gandhi, at least we know something about him, thanks to his social media presence. The same is true of his Facebook messaging. But his FB posts are highly colourful, joyous and festive; sending a positive message of ‘change’.
Can social media do it for him in 2014?
In India, politicians are disastrous on social media. Their presence doesn’t tell us much about what they do, how they think and what they think about. But Modi stands aside as an exception.
In a column in Mint, senior journalist Aakar Patel, a close observer of Modi, argues how lack of formal, classroom education makes Modi’s rhetoric substandard. “Modi has never been to a college and his degree is from a correspondence course,” he writes. Among the other less educated Indian leaders are Sonia Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. But in politics perception is more important than reality itself.
What people think about you is more important that what you are. It is the perception that drives voters to vote, never a well-reasoned analysis. And this is where social media has a strong role to play. But will Modi’s social media fans stand in serpentine queues and vote for him? Do social media users attend political rallies under the hot sun? Can middle and upper middle class voters turn around the fate of India’s electoral polity?
Congress parliamentarian Sanjay Nirupam, who represents North West Mumbai, informs that the voting percentage in his plush constituency of Mumbai was merely 11% in the 2009 polls whereas the voter turnout in the slums of his constituency was a whopping 80%. “It is fair if a candidate chooses to ignore the elite and woo the slum dwellers. The young, social media geeks are not interested in elections. You tell me, how many of them really exercise their voting rights?”
BJP Maharashtra’s social media head disagrees but confirms that social media can influence less than 10% of voters in a given constituency. He informs that the state of Maharashtra has close to 2500 BJP supporters who are relentlessly promoting BJP and Modi on social media to influence the BJP opponents and fence-sitters. “Social media will definitely influence voters this year. We are looking at influencing a small, but significant number of voters through social media.”
Because mass media exerts a great deal of influence of voters’ decision, the next two months of media coverage can determine which party will be voted to power. The media cannot tell voters what to think, but it can tell them what to think about. Social media cannot turn the fate of Indian democracy around, but it can create political images and in turn influence a small but significant number of voters. The media did exactly that in the recent Delhi assembly polls.
Modi is aggressive, autocratic, hard-working and optimistic. Moreover, he knows the tricks of the political game. Modi’s critiques cannot deny anymore that ‘the Modi wave’ is now a reality which could take his opposition by storm if it works. One of his key strengths has been the effective utilisation of mass media channels and technology.
Liberalising the country’s economy while presenting the 1991 General Budget, India’s Finance Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had said, “Nobody can stop the idea whose time has come.” If Modi wins in 2014, then that is precisely what Dr. Singh will say again, probably referring to Modi and his media strategy.
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