Tech-savvy Mr. Modi has over two million followers on Twitter, surpassing Congress Minister Shashi Tharoor earlier this year to become the most-followed Indian politician on the microblogging site. Mr. Modi’s supporters say this is a barometer of the Gujarat Chief Minister’s popularity among urbanites… The ruling-Congress Party, whose traditional supporters are rural Indians, was late to the social media party. Its Vice President Rahul Gandhi has so far refused to join the Twitterati because, his party members say, he doesn’t have the time to tweet himself and doesn’t want to outsource the task… This marks a shift in the political contest in India where campaigns have traditionally been built around the 70 per cent of voters who live in rural areas without access to the Internet and little idea about Twitter…
In the race to win over online citizens in India, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and its campaign chief Narendra Modi are miles ahead. Tech-savvy Mr. Modi has over two million followers on Twitter, surpassing Congress Minister Shashi Tharoor earlier this year to become the most-followed Indian politician on the microblogging site. Mr. Modi’s supporters say this is a barometer of the Gujarat Chief Minister’s popularity among urbanites.
The ruling-Congress Party, whose traditional supporters are rural Indians, was late to the social media party. Its Vice President Rahul Gandhi has so far refused to join the Twitterati because, his party members say, he doesn’t have the time to tweet himself and doesn’t want to outsource the task. But now Congress is attempting to up its game on the Internet and recently held a social media strategy meeting. Mr. Gandhi was expected to address delegates at the meeting on using social media to their advantage in the upcoming elections. Congress says it wants to stem “extreme right-wing propaganda” on Twitter.
“We noticed that this kind of frequently provocative talk was aimed at influencing the younger, more susceptible population,” said Sanjay Jha, a Congress spokesperson. “An anti-establishment sentiment was being created.” This marks a shift in the political contest in India where campaigns have traditionally been built around the 70 per cent of voters who live in rural areas without access to the Internet and little idea about Twitter. Catchy campaign slogans and promises of freebies were the way to voters hearts. But electoral gambits are now being made on social media in recognition of a burgeoning middle class and a younger demographic with access to smartphones and who communicate on Facebook. Over 50 per cent of Indians are aged below 25.
A recent report by Mumbai-based research group the Iris Knowledge Foundation and Mumbai-based non-profit, Internet and Mobile Association of India, said the country’s 78 million Facebook users will “wield a tremendous influence” over 160 of India’s 543 directly-elected Parliamentary seats. Some analysts argue however that social media’s political impact is exaggerated, as Facebook users form less than 7 per cent of India’s population, and Twitter users a little under 2 per cent. To emphasise the point, in a piece for The Wall Street Journal , Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Barack Obama has nearly 1.5 times as many followers (about 33 million) as the entire Indian Twitterverse.
Still, though small in proportion, these online savvy voters are good at mobilising – many were involved in recent movements against corruption and for women’s safety – and they have a loud voice both online and on the streets, analysts say. The increased presence of Congress in the social media sphere has triggered a new turf war for Twitter followers, with both Congress and the BJP claiming their ideology has the greatest number of followers. In a show of their new-found Internet know-how, Congress supporters recently launched a website www.fekuexpress.com, which features Mr. Modi’s cartoon and invites users to “predict which of his earlier lies he will repeat,” offering the winner two free tickets for the Bollywood movie “Chennai Express.” After the site went live recently, the hashtag #FekuExpress was trending on Twitter at the same time as Mr. Modi was addressing a large rally in Hyderabad, in the south of India.
‘Feku’ in Hindi refers to someone who makes tall claims, or fibs. The name was conceived by Congress supporters during a speech given by Mr. Modi to Indian corporates in April. Congress supporters use the name when referring to Mr. Modi in order to expose what they say are his exaggerated and misleading claims about development and policy
advancements in Gujarat. The BJP stand by Mr. Modi’s claims about
development. The online name
calling goes both ways, BJP supporters often refer to Mr. Gandhi as ‘pappu’ on Twitter, using Hindi slang for naive.
The BJP accuses the Congress of “faking” support for its own campaign. Nirmala Sitharaman, BJP spokeswoman, said Congress has spent thousands of rupees “buying Twitter handles” and “planting support” to appear more popular. “They realised they couldn’t find any real support on Twitter for even one or two of their issues,” said Ms. Sitharaman. “So they’re trying to capture the space through this negative, paid-for campaign.” Ms. Sitharaman said Twitter in India has become a platform for those frustrated with the Government’s arrogance and with the pro-Congress media. Their views naturally align with the BJP and are beginning to be picked up in the mainstream press, frightening the Congress, she said. Congress has dismissed allegations about paid-for Twitter handles and planting support, adding that Twitter always had a large number of liberal, progressive users who remained silent because they were inundated with an “aggressive right-wing” message. Now that the Congress party is becoming more active on social media, those people who stayed quiet before have become more vocal, Mr. Jha said.
In July, Mr. Modi appointed a new online campaign team headed by India’s Internet gurus Rajesh Jain and BG Mahesh. And last week, the BJP launched a digital campaign to prepare a dossier on the failures of the Congress-led Government, asking online users to send their grouses through tweets, audio clips, power point presentations and text messages. The Indian Government in turn recently announced plans to launch its own social media wing, and Congress says it may hire a firm to handle its online campaign. As elections approach, this virtual war is likely to grow more heated. What is more uncertain is whether Mr. Gandhi will decide to join the tweet debate and if he does, whether he’ll manage to catch up with and outdo Mr. Modi in his number of followers.
– WSJ: Congress Prepares for Social Media Blitz