Millennium Post

Seeking share in cyberspace

An interesting and incisive war of words awaits us as the general elections to be held in 2014 draw close, juxtaposed with the surging wave of the stupendous hard sell surrounding Gujarat chief minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s (#NaMo) popularity on social media being overtaken by the unexpected yet substantial performance of Aam Aadmi Party’s  (#AAP) Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi. This development has been observed with curiosity by the ‘common man’. Breathe! As the best is yet to come.

Undeniably there is a stark paradigm shift in the view of the voter, reflected on social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter. It started from the anointment of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi (#RG) in January last year, during the party’s Chintan Shivir held in Jaipur, a time when #RG baba started trending on Twitter. Though during this conclave a special committee on social media was constituted, it has failed to impress so far. Soon thereafter, a tornado of sorts started wiping out the trying-to-settle-in #RG phenomenon and the rise of omnipotent #NaMo force after Narendra Modi’s name was announced in June last year at the BJP’s national executive in Goa. From then on it was Modi mania trending on Twitter.

Still there were sporadic reappearances of #RG on social media but mostly tweeples chose to criticise or compare him with the rising giant #NaMo. One such occasion was in September 2013, when Gandhi gatecrashed Congress communication department chief Ajay Maken’s press conference to offer his views on the Ordinance brought by the UPA government to give relief to convicted newsmakers. Gandhi called it ‘complete nonsense’ and said that it ‘should be torn up and thrown away.’ Gandhi, for this moment, managed to grab his share of limelight on the web.

But one trend, which has managed to keep web followers hooked on to every single update by its leaders and the party, has been the successful Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s social media campaign.

Gaining ground gradually from April last year, after AAP launched itself, till the time Kejriwal defeated Sheila Dikshit on 8 December, 2013, the trend shot up and left behind #RG’s and #NaMo way behind in the race. From that moment on, it has been AAP and only AAP trending on Twitter.

Has the #NaMo mania been hijacked by #AAP and Kejriwal’s surging popularity, especially after the party’s victory in the national capital? BJP’s spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi chose to disregard  this possibility completely. ‘There is no such thing which has happened. In fact there is some sort of social media manipulation which is going on. There is a camouflaging of social media in terms of the names and issues which are seen to be trending. Popularity of a person cannot be decided based on the number of followers one has on Twitter or Facebook. Cookies can be tweaked and the number of followers can be manipulated. There is no comparison between Delhi  and Gujarat chief ministers. Kejriwal has to win a state election thrice and become the chief minister and then try and equate himself with Modi,’ says Lekhi.

AAP’s Anand Kumar, who teaches Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, debunks Lekhi’s claims saying, ‘The BJP is living in a self-created illusion which has cost them a lot. They have lost the elections in Delhi and now also stand to lose national elections as well. We are competing with none of them.’

Has NaMo fallen way behind in this race on social media, decoding the voters mindset, Shiv Visvanathan, anthropologist and senior fellow at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) explains, ‘I do not think the Modi magic has fizzled out on social media. Narendra Modi is lying low as social media currently is celebrating AAP. The BJP is an expert on social media they are now watching how the situation pans out. So let’s not get excited and say they have been wiped out.’

Does the ground reality in terms of popularity of a leader reflect or differ from their popularity quotient on the social media? Sociologist Dipankar Gupta explains, ‘We should pay attention to these trends on multimedia as it reflects the mood of the people. In fact, multimedia should be seen as a way of gauging the way and not making the way for particular trend or mood. People often get confused on this aspect. Multimedia is reflective of the popular mood and it does not shape the mood of the people or more specifically the voter. For example, if Kejriwal has done very well then the mood of the voter is reflected on the multimedia and if he doesn’t fare well then it will be instantly visible on these websites and would thus stop trending. We must understand that social media measures, gauges and reflects the mood of the people and the ground reality.’

AAP detractors from the BJP insist that the Kejriwal phenomenon on social media is a hoax as when one person ends up following AAP or any of their leaders simultaneously instant followers are formed. For example, on Facebook if you like X (read as Modi) politician then the ones from Y (read as AAP) party are instantly liked as well. Seemingly dubious and difficult to believe, but that’s the conspiracy theory they are offering.

Countering the claims, Anand Kumar said, ‘The trend to understand political mindset of the voter on social media has become more relevant as it engages the voter actively. Also I do not think that reflection of the voters’ views on social media is not too far away from ground reality. Both underline the views of voters. After AAP’s victory in Delhi, two things have become obvious. Firstly, there is a good, viable, secular and democratic option in the form of Arvind Kejriwal available to people instead of choices such as Modi or a Rahul Gandhi. Secondly, the issue of basic sustenance such as water and power are relevant across cities in India.’

The possibility of the abuse of social media is undeniable. Does one needs to separate the ground reality with the thought processes reflected by the voter on social media? Shakeel Ahmed, Congress general secretary who is also active on Twitter (unlike some his colleagues) goes on to say, ‘I don’t think the number of Twitter followers you have reflects the ground reality of popularity of a leader. Also, I don’t think it is the voters’ sentiment but the voters interest that is reflected on social media via the hashtags for example which are trending.’

Ahmed elucidates, ‘AAP is a recent event that happened. That is why it is popular on social media. But things will settle down for them very soon as well. After which the relevant political personality will emerge. There are people on social media who follow and appreciate the Congress as well as criticise and oppose us as well. Likewise, there are several Modi followers as well as haters on Twitter.’

Let us draw an analogy between the Indian political terrain and William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Let the intelligent and smart princess Portia be the public in India and the suitors who come to woo her be – Prince of Morocco (Narendra Modi), Prince of Aragon (Rahul Gandhi) and Bassanio (Arvind Kejriwal). These suitors choose gold, silver and lead caskets which respectively decide their future with Portia. If Delhi were to speak for India, Arvind Kejriwal, like Bassanio, has selected the lead casket leading him directly to the heart of the public.
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