By KUNAL PRADHAN
It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday. The regular crowd is shuffling into a large hall at 11, Ashoka Road, where the BJP holds its daily media briefings. There is the hustle of camera persons, the bustle of journalists greeting their beat mates, and there are tripods, headphones, and giant boom mics. From one of the TV cameras that line the back of this buzzing hall, a hot-wire snakes towards a solitary black laptop, operated by Hitendra Mehta, a 22-year-old MCA student who is a member of the BJP’s Information Technology cell. With his fingers flying on the keyboard, Mehta, who looks 18 and completely out of place in this roomful of hacks, is beaming the press conference live on the party’s Internet TV channel Yuva.
Barely 20 metres away, in an inconspicuous corner office within the BJP headquarters, the live telecast is being monitored by Mehta’s colleague Navrang S.B., 35, who is pulling out key points from spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad’s silver-tongued monologue and updating Twitter and Facebook in real time. At 3.43 p.m., Navrang tweets via @YuvaiTV: “Any ordinary BJP member can become president of the BJP: Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad, watch LIVE at http://yuva4india.tv #YuvaiTV #News #IndiaÃ¢â¬. He then retweets it, once from the official @BJP4u account and once from his personal id @Navrang, listed under the name ‘I Terrorize Congress’.
Mehta and Navrang are part of a 100-strong BJP cell that is credited with giving the party, and its ideology, the popularity it enjoys on the social network-a universe whose importance the Congress has woken up to after being burnt on a number of issues.
India’s largest, oldest, and sometimes most dogmatic political party, has now set up a 10-member Communications and Publicity Committee headed by Digvijaya Singhâcomprising Manish Tewari, Ambika Soni, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Deepender Hooda, Rajeev Shukla, Bhakta Charan Das, Anand Adkoli, Sanjay Jha and Vishwajit Singh. Their battle plan has been drawn and is now waiting for a go-ahead from the high command. “The importance of social media can no longer be over-emphasised,” Digvijaya concedes.
The main idea of the group is a nationwide mobilisation of volunteers across its major sub-groups-including the Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India-controlled by a core team of party leaders. Its unofficial mission statement suggests the need for a dramatic correction in the perception deficit that the Congress is suffering from online.
Evidence of this was seen recently in a number of incidents across the country: The Akbaruddin Owaisi arrest on January 8 after his “hate speech” went viral on YouTube; the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement that was the world’s top Twitter trend for days in 2011; and the anti-rape agitation in Delhi since December 2012 that was fuelled by posts across social media platforms. “A change has now been embraced,” says Tewari, the Union information and broadcasting minister, “we have accepted that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can be a political medium. It is in the party’s interests that we leverage this technology.” This, the Congress says, is not a tactical decision aimed at next year’s polls but a strategic move looking at 2014 and beyond.
These statements are a far cry from what the Congress’s first reaction to the social media outbreak had been: Censorship, blocking accounts and restricting websites. At a forum in New Delhi in March 2011, Communications & IT Minister Kapil Sibal had urged social media users to talk about its dangers: “Freedom of speech has some caveats. How do you ensure that sites incorporate constraints of freedom of speech?” But Tewari, who had deleted his Twitter account twice in the past because of online abuse, is now taking a slightly altered view. “The rules of engagement will eventually emerge in what is still an evolving medium,” he says, choosing to focus on the positives.
Setting the media agenda
According to the latest numbers from the Internet & Mobile Association of India, India has 137 million Internet users, 68 million Facebook accounts and 18 million Twitter IDs. While a lot of these numbers overlap in a neat Venn diagram, making them less alarming than they first appear, what is undisputed by web and political gurus is that social media activity has a direct impact on the mainstream media. The snowball effect makes it often powerful enough to act as a vehicle of social change.
The social network’s importance as a political tool hinges on two key points. First, the Indian middle class which felt incapable of affecting election results, best illustrated by banker Meera Sanyal’s loss from Mumbai South in 2009, has turned to the Internet as an alternative battleground. Facebook and Twitter are its new podiums and news TV studios its new Parliament. In a recent piece inThe New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman wrote he had encountered something on his latest trip that he’d never met before: “A whole new political communityâIndia’s ‘virtual middle class’.” Friedman observed that though still very poor, they were demanding rights normally associated with rising middle classes.
Second, by giving information through social media, a political message doesn’t have to go through an editor or television anchor, making it an unabridged communication without any editorial spin. “It’s you, dealing directly with the people. The benefits are obvious,” says Tewari.
But what has emerged as a third, equally significant, corollary is that it can be used by political parties to set the agenda for the mainstream media. On the morning of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meeting with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari in April 2012, for example, @PMOIndia posted a photo of the lunch table. The deflected media started following the story, and Government spokespersons were flooded with questions about whether or not a Kashmiri dish was being served. “The real issues went on the backburner until both heads of government were ready to make an official statement,” a UPA source says. While the @PMOIndia account’s activity is restricted to information dissemination, a long way off the varied online petitions that US President Barack Obama’s White House forum inspires, sources say the posts will take a more political turn as the election draws near.
Using social media cleverly is a philosophy that Arvind Gupta, a 42-year-old PhD from Illinois who ran an analytics firm until becoming head of the BJP’s it cell in 2010, concurs with. Of the 100 in his team, 30 work from Delhi and 70 others from sub-cells in 25 states. They run the party’s Twitter feed, Facebook page, YouTube channel, Internet TV feed, mobile app, and they blog, tweet and post in their individual capacities. They have watch-lists to monitor leaders and supporters of other parties, and they tweet and retweet each other to perform some of the coldest takedowns in the Twitter universe.
The BJP believes that the popularity it enjoys on the Internet will help multiply its urban vote bank in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the first to be held in India after the social media boom. Evidence of this, party sources say, will be seen in Delhi and Mumbai, where the Congress won all 13 seats in 2009.
Gupta denies that his unit floods the Internet with right-wing propaganda, but accepts it can be used as a tool to create a buzz around people and events. A critical part of his cell is a four-member analytics team led by techie Indushekhar that correlates poll data with social media activity. Gupta says the findings have been staggering. “Our data mining has established a direct link between what happens online and what happens in the polling booth.” One of the latest analytics captures the positive mentions new party President Rajnath Singh got between January 15 and January 30 across social media. Twitter was the most favourable with 1,845 mentions, followed by Facebook with 546, and gives him an overall sentiment score of 61 per cent. This, the BJP says, tells them his appointment was well received.
The 30 members of the BJP cell who are based in Delhi sit in what looks like any other office. There are workstations with open seating, computers, a 20 Mbps Internet connection, and pie charts pinned on soft-boards. Gupta says they’re volunteers, not employees. On being probed, he admits they are paid wages. “It’s our responsibility to make sure they can support their families.” So do they have contracts and designations? “Yes, the money is given through proper channels. But it’s a fraction of what they would get if they did a regular job.”
Negating the first-mover advantage
Over in Kolkata, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) was the first among regional parties to embrace social media. It has a dedicated team with three levels: IT professionals, volunteers who are given an honorarium for their services, and party workers. This unit, set up by Derek O’Brien and run by Trinamool Yuva leader and Mamata’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, manages the party’s website, Twitter and Facebook. Plans are afoot to launch a digital channel later this year. “We’re doing politics in a 360-degree environment. Whether it is a street-side meeting, a rally, a wall poster, or an online post, one is no longer a substitute for the other,” says O’Brien.
The Congress insists that its model will be different from the BJP’s; that its campaign will be “more positive”, and will involve “genuine volunteers”. At the committee’s meetings, sources say, they have talked about how social media needs to be a platform driven by passion. “The point is to highlight the achievements of the Government. The idea is not to target people,” says committee member Sanjay Jha.
Congress leaders also reject the argument that the BJP has a first-mover advantage. “The beauty of social media is that scalability is exponential,” says Tewari. “You don’t need to go from one to two, you can go straight to 2,000.”
Or to 1.6 million followers, as in the case of Shashi Tharoor, the social media pioneer among Indian politicians whose Twitter activity was once dismissed by his colleagues as frivolous and prone to creating controversies. That the party is finally on the same page has to be some kind of vindication for the Thiruvananthapuram MP whose reach ensures his social media role is multi-dimensional.
At 11.43 p.m. on January 29, for example, the Twitter id @KS1729, listed under the name Keerthik Sasidharan, tweeted: “@ShashiTharoor 10yr old girl in MeenakshiHospital, Madurai needs O-ve blood urgently. Plz contact Murugan @ 09994938490 if u can help.” Tharoor retweeted the message, which was in turn retweeted more than 90 times, until it reached a group of students. At 10.49 p.m. on January 30, @DrSureshKumar tweeted: “@ShashiTharoor Students from a college in Madurai responded to ur tweet requesting blood. The girl is out of danger now. Wonderful:)”
But Tharoor says social media does not have the numbers to affect an election in a country as large as India. “As an MP, I represent two million people. My Twitter following of 1.6 million is not even as big as my constituency. Perhaps 10 per cent or less of my voters are on Twitter. It’s only when the Internet is economical enough to allow people to tweet from a cell phone in the remotest parts of the country that it will make a political impact.”
He does, however, accept the importance of social media in getting first-time urban voters on board. “Even among my followers, there are a disproportionate number of young people who may not yet be of voting age. There is definitely merit in the argument that social media has a big influence on them, and will play an important role going forward.”
The tablets have been unsheathed; the smartphones unholstered. May the games begin.
Courtesy : www.indiatoday.com