Victory with click of the mouse
‘Narendra Modi to be India’s first social media prime minister’ concluded the Financial Times. The newspaper cited tweet of Narendra Modi ‘India has won! Good days are coming.’ which became the most retweeted post in Indian history – ‘more than 70,000 and counting’ – as a confirmation of victory of social media campaign over convention election campaign in India. Euphoric indeed but rather blown out of proportion though this observation was, one cannot wink at the fact that Modi campaign had used technology carefully to overcome its handicap with the mainstream media.
The constant barrage of criticism in the mainstream media of Narendra Modi under the theme that he was responsible for the 2002 Gujarat riot continued even after the convincing election victory. Much before the campaign had started the team Modi knew well enough how every issue would be distorted and dished out to the people. They needed a safeguard. Social media came handy. But to assume that it was only social media that turned the tide against Modi will be wrong. The team used conventional wisdom, mostly lacking when someone comes from a secluded elitist background like the Congress family members did.
When Modi gave any interview his team recorded the same in detail so that if the words are distorted to mean something not intended to they could help correcting the mistake, deliberate in most of the cases. During the last phase of the election campaign the national broadcaster Doordarshan interviewed Narendra Modi. The official media held on to the interview ostensibly to balance the same with an interview of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice president. Under public pressure and when questioned by the chief of the holding body of Doordarshan the Prashar Bharati when the same was telecast it had two important points missing. One was Modi’s comment on Ahmed Patel, a fellow politician from Gujarat who was the powerful political secretary of the Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Modi said he had political rivalry but personal good rapport with Ahmed Patel – an innocuous feel good statement. The other was on Priyanka Gandhi who was aggressively calling names to Modi in the family boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareily in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Here too Modi refused to make any harsh comment and condoned Priyanka’s hostility as that from a daughter and sister - another feel good statement. Since both these statements portrayed Modi as a warm human being not a monster that was the theme in the mainstream media, the national channel perhaps in its own wisdom decided to delete those. But Modi’s team uploaded the entire interview on You Tube, which received more publicity in urban and young India than the DD telecast. Another lie was nailed with the intelligent use of conventional and social media.
Modi had an advantage. He used the campaign tools quietly in the state assembly elections of Gujarat. Post election results, Vinit Goenka who was national co-convenor of BJP’s Information Technology cell shared this information. He said that contrary to popular belief the IT cell had been functioning since April 2006, and gained momentum in 2008, when it was also used in Maharashtra. In election 2014, Narendra Modi put a lot of thrust to it. In his inimitable way he said that BJP should focus on ‘nine ‘I’s -- issues, ideology, inter-personal communication, internet, intensity, introspection, industry, integration with the party and ideating.’ For the first time IT was used widely in election campaign in India. In fact since Senator Obama used the social media in his debut campaign for 2008 and took it to another level in 2012 with thrust on twitter nobody did put social media to such an intense use as Modi campaign did. BJP’s IT Cell used concepts like bloggers’ meet, video conferencing with voters across cities and interactive call centres for voter registration. They also conducted two round-table sessions before the campaign started to expose the party leadership about the kind of challenges that were faced by the industry. Social media became both a listening and a broadcasting tool.
BJP’s IT cell reached out to as many as 144 million people across India, most of them young touching virtually every internet user in the country. Success has many fathers. In Modi’s successful use of social media saw the two prominent ones Twitter and Facebook exulting. Twitter started planning to replicate parts of its India election strategy across countries that go to polls in 2014. The company was happy that it emerged as a key tool for politicians and media companies during the world’s largest democratic exercise. Facebook having more number of active users was quick to claim that 29 million people in India conducted 227 million interactions regarding the elections on Facebook. In addition, 13 million people engaged in 75 million interactions regarding Modi. Twitter claimed that it worked closely with politicians ‘including the victor Narendra Modi who used the platform for election campaigning’. There were many late entrants to twitter, a prominent one being Lalu Prasad Yadav, the Bihar politician. But his rival (who turned friend after Modi win in 2014) former Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar opted to remain a dinosaur in the IT age. He stuck to his derisive comments on Modi’s use of twitter. Another surprising absentee from the social media platforms had been Rahul Gandhi. Perhaps their reticence and conceit for average Indians led them to believe that they were like Lord Brahma of Indian politics – beyond word and thought like the creator in Hinduism.
Social media is one tool of reaching out to people. It is wider than mainstream media and effectively a check on the sponsored reports. Madhu Kishwar had used You Tube to expose the machinations of the likes of Teesta Sheetalvad.
Even the now in mortuary the Aam Aadmi Party could use social media successfully till rogues took over their cause. Modi campaign has shown how to tame biased mainstream media through technology. There is one word of caution for the social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter - the only limited limelight they may claim is over their effective platforms but nothing beyond. The credit goes only to the user of the tools.
The author is a communication consultant