The Sunday Story Fierce political contests are being fought online by the BJP, an early mover, and the Congress, a recent convert. Will it produce votes?
For the first time, the digital space will be a key site shaping India’s electoral contest. Its impact may be debated, the battle of Twitter hash-tags may be dismissed as frivolous, but there is little doubt that India’s top two parties are taking the new media seriously.
Even rivals admit that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was a pioneer. Besides the official presence, BJP’s online campaign is supported – directly and indirectly – by websites, twitter accounts and Facebook pages of sympathisers. Arvind Gupta, BJP’s IT Cell head, says that the party has narrowed down on 160 constituencies, where it calculates the social media will play an influential role.
Narendra Modi acknowledges the power of such mediums in his rallies. And his team uses it to convey messages, absorb relevant information, and connect with supporters through symbolic measures. But it has its risks.
At a recent Delhi rally, Mr Modi made controversial remarks on Nawaz Sharif’s alleged off-the-record comments about PM Manmohan Singh. This appeared to have been inspired by some twitter-users actively raising the issue that very morning. It showed his team’s ability to incorporate information gleaned from new media. But it revealed the absence of rigorous fact-checking, for the comments were denied by all concerned.
There are two key criticisms of the BJP’s approach. Congress alleges that the party has spent huge financial resources in pushing its message online. Mr Gupta rejects the charge. “It is the other way round. We have grown consistently and organically. It is the Congress which doesn’t have a strategy. It is our passion versus their paisa.”
Large sections of BJP’s supporters are also perceived to be abusive, and intolerant. Mr Gupta says, “The media tends to glorify abusive users, who may claim to be BJP supporters, even if they have few followers. We have issued strict guidelines against such conduct.”
The 'Feku' comeback
Earlier this year, Congress realised it was losing out by allowing BJP to monopolise the social media space entirely. From dismissing the likes of Shashi Tharoor, who had taken to the medium early, the party now decided to embrace the technology.
A social media cell under Deepender Singh Hooda displayed new energy. A turning point – both for its aggressive intent and impact – was the Congress use of the hashtag, Feku, to describe Mr Modi. A national workshop was held to brief state units on digital strategies. 20 workshops have been held at the state-level. Information and Broadcasting Minister, Manish Tewari and Congress chief spokesperson, Ajay Maken, often take to Twitter to counter rivals. As Mr Tewari told The Hindu in an earlier interview, this was both technically convenient and removed editorial intermediaries.
A Congress strategist said their aim is to respond to allegation with facts; ensure that those people with a ‘left-of-the-centre’ orientation on such platforms remained with the party; and the neutral voices do not get swayed by ‘right-wing propaganda’. “It is easy to be negative, to make jokes. The momentum doesn’t shift in a day, but we are effectively responding now.”
The key criticism against the Congress is the reluctance of its leader to engage on such outlets. Campaign insiders admit it is ‘every Congressman’s dream’ to see Rahul Gandhi join such networks, and ‘share a slice of his life’. But they argue that the Congress vice-president does not want the campaign to be about personalities, and believes the ‘organisation and issues’ are more important.
But what is perhaps most symbolic of Congress’ halting, difficult engagement with digital media is its efforts to come up with a new website. Party managers emphasise how it would be ‘state-of-the-art’. But it has still not seen the light of the day. When senior leaders have to give feedback on the website-in-progress, instead of checking it on the computer or a tablet, they ask for a print-out of the dummy site. India’s grand old party, it seems, still has some way to go before it fully adapts to new battle-sites.