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Updated: June 10, 2014 10:53 IST

Racing to battle with cyber warriors

Prashant Jha
Comment (8)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
Illustration: Deepak Harichandan
The Hindu Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

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.

In this 21st century no body can ignore the power of cyber world and
social media.It is the most significant and fastest medium to reach to
the people and connect 24*7. But in Indian context its too early to
depict the importance and impact of cyber gateway in the electoral
process because of few reasons:
1. India still doesn't have the significant number of internet
users.
2. Those who are online are not the real voters and if you will
survey i must be sure that half of them have never used their voting
rights.
3. The presence of Politicians on cyber is very minimal.

from:  Abhi
Posted on: Oct 14, 2013 at 00:39 IST

Role of social media can not be under-estimated as can be learnt from
the experiences of middle east countries. Though in India it's impact is
still limited particularly in elections as the people who votes in large
numbers are really not that much bothered about the social media.Perhaps
populist measures like food security bill matters more to them that's
why we see such populist measures before every elections.

from:  j darshil
Posted on: Oct 13, 2013 at 23:01 IST

Its a good sign that the country's leading political parties have
taken the battle for votes into the social media. The old age notion
that social media & internet users do not vote when it comes to
elections might not hold good any longer. "Its the early bird that
catches the worm" & with voter I cards being made online, probably
both the parties believe if they start early then they can have an
influence on the netizens.
Only time will tell what impact the political parties have made on the
social media users but for now at least the war of words is not going
to subside.

from:  rashmi
Posted on: Oct 13, 2013 at 15:10 IST

Thank you Prakash for giving a simple, yet informative article on the new trend of cyber war. As pointed out in the article, the possible impact is still doubtful, as the young generation who raises their voice through online media rarely reproduces the same in real life. How many of them finally casts their votes is to be seen.

from:  sabarish
Posted on: Oct 13, 2013 at 11:59 IST

it has, indeed, become a powerful tool for the citizen empowerment. BJP has a clear edge in the social media foray. Congress should realise the importance of social media soon for it's own benefit.

from:  Gaurav Purohit
Posted on: Oct 13, 2013 at 09:11 IST

political messages and comments in social media for and against bjp and
congress are not going to affect public opinion because propaganda by
parties goes on even otherwise. political reporting in indian media is
going to be affected greatly by social media. media should not mistake
about the phenomenon.

from:  r. pandya
Posted on: Oct 13, 2013 at 08:09 IST

Internet connectivity in India is a low 11.4 per cent only. In June 2012
there were 137,000,000 internet users and in Dec 2012 there were
62,713,680 Facebook users, according to the World Internet Statistics.
This speaks for itself. Parties can claim this or that but, I suspect,
the role of getting votes from internet and social media campaigns will
be limited. Though if in future internet connectivity goes up
drastically then some changes in voting behavior are possible.

from:  Neeraj Nanda
Posted on: Oct 13, 2013 at 05:53 IST

according to election commission of India,near about 6 crore new voters included in the electoral roll and most of them are using twitter and facebook and other social media platform,that is why all political parties are exploiting the potential of social media in their campaign.

but somehow UPA fails to understand the utility and importance of social media and here NDA takes the lead.

from:  vineet katiyar
Posted on: Oct 13, 2013 at 03:21 IST
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