With just about a year to go for the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have gone into campaign mode. Unlike previous years, the war is not only on conventional platforms, but also on the social media. Here, more than a fight between parties on their ideologies, it is a war of words between unofficial representatives of two individuals - Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.
Here is a lowdown on the showdown between the two on social networking sites Facebook and Twitter. That Rahul has been at the receiving end of social media enthusiasts is no new revelation. The crown prince has been the subject of several jokes and jibes with several Twitter handles created only to mock his supposed lack of intellect and poor understanding of issues. It needed no rocket science to figure out that a vast majority of BJP supporters had taken to the web in a very organised manner to subvert any possibility for Rahul to improve upon his social media image and it was working. There was a lot of hype around Rahul Gandhi’s CII speech which was widely panned online. Infamously nick named Pappu, his speech came under a lot of flak and it was then that the Congress realised that something had to be done to control the damage.
Then came Congress’ masterstroke. Just a few days before the Gujarat CM was to address FICCI, the party’s social media foot soldiers devised a plan that saw Congress registering its first-ever Twitter victory. It was the Feku tag for Modi. Both the BJP and Modi were caught off guard and as the mainstreammedia lapped it up, Congress made merry. There are various such comparisons that have been doing the rounds. Taking a dig at Rahul Gandhi during his address at FICCI, Modi said,”In Gujarat there is Jasuben’s Pizza. And if there is Pizza Hut next to it, you will not see the youth go for Pizza Hut but for Jasuben. And by the way Jasuben is not Kalavati.” Soon after Modi’s jibe on Kalavati, social media went abuzz with Kalavati versus Jasuben.
While the war on social media gets uglier by the day, one wonders how crucial a role will social media and such mud-slinging contests play in impacting the election results. A look at some numbers first. The mobile revolution in the past few years has brought internet not just to households but right into the consumers’ pockets. Studies have estimated that by June 2013, the number of Indians using social media will be 66 million and the number will rise considerably as elections approach. The Indian electorate has also never been younger. Between 2004 and 2009, the voting population went up from 670 million to 720 million. The number is expected to increase to 800 million by the time the country goes to the polls, a greater number of voters than ever before will be 25 years or younger. According to a study conducted by the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and supported by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), social media usage is also spreading in areas other than the top eight Indian metros with one third of the social media users residents of smaller towns with population of under five lakh.
But are the political parties betting too much on social media? Arvind Gupta, who heads the BJP’s IT cell says it is not a question of betting on the social media. “You bet when there are options. Social media is an addition. When you have two media which are equally important, why not use both of them?” he asks. During the 2009 elections, Internet and the social media did not have a significant role to play. “There were hardly 2 crore Internet users. This number has gone up to 15 crores today and by the time elections come, it will be 18-20 crore. . Last time, the difference between the BJP and Congress was of 1.75 crore votes,” adds Gupta. For the BJP, the social media campaign is simple - to communicate very effectively and get direct feedback, he tells Media Watch. “The message is of good governance and development,” Gupta further adds. When asked to comment upon the Feku vs Pappu incident, Gupta said these were only noise-spreading activities. “It is a one time noise that they created on the Feku thing and left the field. The media picked up this one time noise and everybody is talking about it even after two weeks. This one time activity is outsourced work. For us it is a continuous process- hearing good things and writing good things. That is actual engagement. However, if someone says something wrong and derogatory, we refute it,” says Gupta.
Political observers however advise caution against too much of dependence upon social media campaigns. This hype and the tug-of-war in the media, especially in the social media, in relation to Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi is unjustified, says political observer Suvrokamal Dutta. “Comparison, if at all it has to be done, should be on the battleground at the grassroots level,” he says. “Even the protests we saw on social media on crime against women did get reactions and a lot of support. But it has not proven to be a long-drawn process. Moreover, the political thinking of the country is still very traditional and is more inclined towards conventional tools such as yatras, dharnas and rallies,” adds Dutta. Political parties, he says, are getting too carried away because of the mainstream media and are betting too much on the socialmedia for results. “This could prove disastrous. Instead of capitalising on the shortcomings of the UPA government, BJP is relying heavily on social mediatools. This over-dependence on social media is making the BJP assume that they have already won the battle, which could prove suicidal,” he observes.
Tehseen Poonawalla, Pune based businessman is a vocal supporter of the Congress party and also a key member of the party’s social media brigade. Poonawalla is also considered a close aide of Rahul. In conversation withMedia Watch, he says “ a lot of experts are discussing how important social media campaigns are going to be for the 2014 results. This, they base on 7 crore Facebook users and 3 crore Twitter users. These numbers are highly inflated,”. When asked why the Congress then chose to enter the Feku versus Pappu contest and even claimed credit for it, he said: “When you see a man who is lying blatantly in public, he needs to be countered. And that is what we, the people who believe in the ideology of the Congress party, did. However, none of us got abusive or got down to the derogatory.”
Sanjay Jha, another vocal supporter of the Congress, however, finds the socialmedia a vibrant platform for communicating and reaching out to the audiences, particularly urban. “It will be a critical asset in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections,” he says, adding that India is seeing a huge addition of people who will be voting for the first time, which makes social mediacampaigns so crucial. However, the social media is believed to be in a very nascent stage in India, which is why personalities attract more attention. “Individuals are more active (on social media) and this will increase as elections approach. Modi and BJP bashing will continue from my end. With greater passion and commitment, I am going to continue what I am doing,” Jha tells Media Watch.
While only the results will determine the actual impact of this slug fest, it will be interesting to see which foot soldiers gain the most in the process. Till then sit back and enjoy the ride. It is all for the sake of entertainment.