Sushma, Tewari, Maken cross cyber swords over Uttarakhand

The social media war between the two principal parties took on an entirely new dimension on Monday with Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari, in tandem with the Congress’s new communications chief, Ajay Maken taking on the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha — and senior BJP leader — Sushma Swaraj on Twitter. For the first time, senior Congress and BJP leaders, rather than their followers, crossed cyber swords on the government’s handling of the Uttarakhand disaster.

The cut and thrust that lasted close to eight hours signalled a first, especially for the Congress that has thus far been wary of entering social media. Asked why he had used Twitter, Mr. Tewari told The Hindu that though he was 50 kilometres from civilisation deep in his constituency, he had an Ipad, a network, and could check the morning papers and tweet. “Technology has changed communication paradigms, and for us, all forms of information dissemination — print, television, online, posters, word of mouth — are platforms to convey our message,” he stressed, pointing out that “content-agnostic platforms that are immune from editorialising and allow for direct communication are possibly the way forward.”

If Monday’s exchange of hostilities caught everyone’s attention, given the prominence of the principal jousters, on June 20, Congress supporters had set off an experimental hashtag war: #FailureModi trended at number two on Twitter for a few hours before a counter #SaluteModi hit back, pushing the first to a lower ranking. Those using #FailureModi cited a Planning Commission report that made a comparative study of the social indicators in various Indian states, and in which Gujarat ranked at 16th in health and 14th in education.

Clearly, a fortnight after Mr. Maken became head of the Congress’s communications department, the party has increased not just its presence on the social media, but demonstrated that it is willing to get its fingertips dirty.

Indeed, what makes Monday’s battle different is that while supporters of political parties have often engaged in bitter wars on Twitter, this is the first instance of a sustained debate between primary actors on the social media, signifying the latter’s arrival as a site for political contestation.

On Monday, Mr. Tewari fired the opening salvo, tweeting twice in quick succession: “LOPs have mindspace to critique govt proposal on CBI autonomy that are yet to be placed before SC but no time to visit Uttarakhand” and “Did anyone see LOPs in both houses express sympathy/visit disaster hit Uttarakhand. This from a party that criticises visit of Cong leaders.”

Ms. Swaraj responded with a volley of tweets, criticising the Uttarakhand Government, demanding its dismissal, and attacking the Central government for failing to provide “the requisite leadership”. She then went on to justify not visiting Uttarakhand as the home minister had “made a public statement that our visit will hamper the rescue effort”.

At this stage, Mr. Maken entered the fray, tweeting “Pyre of many victims of this natural calamity still warm. First BJP tried to take credit of evacuating 15,000 in a day.” This earned a riposte from Ms Swaraj: “He (presumably the home minister) went to the extent of saying nobody including himself was allowed to land anywhere.” Mr. Maken then followed it up with a plea not to use this calamity as a political opportunity. Ms. Swaraj then went on to claim that she had alerted the government about the tragedy on June 18, that the BJP merely wished to enforce “accountability”, it wasn’t playing politics, and that the rescue operations had been conducted by the armed forces and other agencies. Mr. Tewari then closed the exchange by asking Ms. Swaraj why she had taken the home minister’s advice not to visit Uttarakhand, but the Gujarat chief minister had not. Mr. Tewari also questioned the BJP’s “quixotic logic” in differentiating between the government and the armed forces, as the latter were deployed by the former.

Indeed, the 16 tweets summed up the battle that has been raging between the two parties since disaster struck Uttarakhand more than a fortnight back. And rounding off the exchange on Monday were two press conferences, one in Dehradun addressed jointly by general secretary Ambika Soni, Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh and Uttarkhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna, and another in the evening here called by Mr. Maken. If Ms. Soni took potshots at Ms. Swaraj, Mr. Maken once again focussed on the need to rise above politics and help in the rehabilitation work, and the announcement that a Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority had been set up to facilitate the work of reconstruction.

It was clearly a new Congress, which wasn’t about to pull its punches. Will this last? On Monday evening, there was already speculation in Congress circles, that this new combative style did not suit the Grand Old Party. But the speculation was odd as the changes in the communication department were made precisely to give the party an edge in the media wars.

Indeed, Mr. Maken now just doesn’t head the communications department, but the publications and publicity unit, the Vichar Vibhag that publishes the party magazine, Sandesh, as well as its research and recently constituted social media wing. In short, the changes have been made to synergise the work of all these departments. When Mr. Maken was given charge, it was made clear that the Congress needed to challenge the BJP’s skilled use of social media and research-driven press handouts.

Priya Dutt, the secretary attached to Mr. Maken, is currently travelling to the States to help revamp the party’s communication units. In Jaipur, she told journalists, “Social media has become very important and so we will try to build a strong online presence through it.” Clearly, the party has been given a mandate — even though the old guard may carp about the fireworks.