India obsessed with social media role in elections

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

Indians, ever a chatty lot, are obsessed with the idea of being obsessed with social media. That is why, as the BJP’s stunning victory in the Indian general elections was declared, the news media immediately began to examine the impact of social media campaigning in the elections. Numbers aside, the victory over social media has revealed the fault lines of Indian society as it stands today.

India’s online population is small as compared to its offline population – about 213 million users to 1.2 billion people – but it is growing. Though these figures expand and contract depending on whom you ask, we do know that 33 million are on Twitter and Facebook has hit the 100 million-user mark. Given these statistics, it is indeed impressive that India’s newest Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has 4.2 million followers on Twitter already. The would-be leader of opposition, Rahul Gandhi, whose party did not win enough seats to actually assume the seat as leader of the opposition in parliament, isn’t on Twitter. However, his party has an account, with about 181,000 followers. There are other political stars on social media, including individual members of various parties, and notably, members of the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party.

However, when asked the question: “who won the social media war” – because, to be sure, there was one – the answer can only really be Narendra Modi. In fact, his own campaign machinery was so well oiled that his personal profile overshadowed his party.  “Ab ki baar, Modi Sarkar” (this time, a Modi government) was arguably the catchiest slogan on the campaign and it inspired many a joke, including a takeover of the nursery rhyme – “twinkle, twinkle, little star, ab ki baar, Modi sarkar!”  And according to reports, the BJP was mentioned on Twitter, on average, about 30,000 times a day, with the Congress trailing behind at between 15,000-20,000. Modi’s victory tweet promising a better India after election results were declared was retweeted 69,872 times.

Truthfully, there is no way that social media could have supplanted the traditional route. Modi’s tireless campaigning – 437 rallies, 5,827 public interface events across 25 states that is a distance of 300,000km – is impressive. But, equally impressive was the BJP’s entire digital campaign effort; a “social media war room” that reportedly cost Rs 35 lakh (35,000 GBP), with 30 computers and about 50 volunteers, tracking activities across India’s 92,000 villages. And accounts from insiders, young professionals, many whom took sabbaticals from their jobs to participate in this campaign, talks of a breathless environment, where Facebook was used to crowdsource ideas for speeches, and ‘Mission 272’ (in terms of how many seats they were aiming to win) became a reality. In fact, many creative contributions from BJP’s supporters – videos, jingles, songs and poems – can be found on the website.

At the same time, social media has been very revealing about the state of the Indian majority. The tonality of political discourse over the internet, which was very polarized between the Hindu rightwingers and secularists saw vicious language, trolling and hate speech dotting the landscape. However, the Hindu right, abused as communal in the time of the Congress government have emerged victorious and unapologetic about their political leanings. In public groups on Google Plus, cyber Hindus declare that a “pro Hindu lobby is not an option, but a sheer necessity.” In fact, the ‘liberal’ discourse that sweeps much of the mainstream English media was taken aback at the sweeping victory that the BJP has earned in this election. There is nervousness that the BJP, supported and guided by the RSS – Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—a right-wing, nationalist group espousing strict discipline, martial training and self sacrifice in defence of the Motherland, often derided for being extremist – will work towards a majoritarian agenda where minorities will find less space to exist. These fears are compounded by the RSS’s beliefs – formalized in annual reports – that seek to impose a strict moral code that frowns upon live-in relations, homosexuality and also keeping an eye on minority communities. The RSS has being heartened by educated Indians joining their cause via social media, thereby signaling that their views might no longer be frowned upon as extreme or communal. They do not want to apologize for representing the view of the Hindu right.

And on cue, Narendra Modi, in a rousing speech formally accepting his role as the leader of the majority party in Parliament, promised his fellow BJP MPs that by the birth anniversary of Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya in 2016, co-founder of the Bharitiya Jan Sangh that later became the BJP as known today, India shall rise to its promise of being a great nation. Tying down his campaign promises to his deep association with the RSS, the signal is clear. Indeed, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former Prime Minister, had affirmed proudly that “the Sangh is my soul”. The Hindu is back in Hindustan (another name for India).

An analysis in India Today magazine has declared the Indian cybersphere ‘saffron’ (the color associated with the Hindu right) writing, “But their agenda is a mix of post-modern and traditional. They oppose dynasty politics, particularly the Nehru-Gandhi clan and its allies such as Shiv Sena. They call minority appeasement ‘pseudo-secularism’ with such fervour that their sentiment could easily be interpreted as Hindu supremacist or anti-Muslim. They are against lower-caste reservation, particularly because it is poorly implemented. They are concerned about internal security. But above all, they are against corruption.” In deconstructing the ways of the Hindu saffron social media user, the article offers certain clues, such as the words “proud”, “patriot” and “Hindu” appearing in their bios, and often uploading images of Hindu gods as their display picture.

The people have spoken. The media is filled with analysis that people have either embraced Modi for his Hindu leanings, or ignored them in order realize the dream of “development” that is has promised to deliver. The number of Muslim MPs in parliament is down to 21 from 30 in the last session, the lowest number since India’s first elections.  The Congress and its allies, who built careers on carefully constructed platforms of secularism – in their first term, they had a Muslim President, Sikh Prime Minister and Christian leader of the party – have been set aside in favour of a openly religious and Hindu BJP. Whatever be the reasons for the vote, for the everyday people tweeting and Facebooking, it appears that being pro-Hindu is slowly being disassociated with being communal. For many, this is a relief.

It seems it might finally be hip to be Hindu.

This article was posted on May 21, 2014 at

India’s elections: Hate speech and the “greatest show on Earth”

Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi filed his nomination papers from Vadodara Lok Sabha seat amid tight security on April 6. (Photo: Nisarg Lakhmani / Demotix)

Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi filed his nomination papers from Vadodara Lok Sabha seat amid tight security on April 6. (Photo: Nisarg Lakhmani / Demotix)

Electioneering for the Indian elections of 2014 has reached a fever pitch. Never before in the history of modern India has it seemed likely that the country is ready to cut its cord with the Congress Party’s Gandhi family, and never before has its chief opposition party, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) been projected as the sole inheritance of one man – Narendra Modi.

The “greatest show on Earth” – the Indian elections – is underway.  There are 37 days of polling across 9 states, with a 814 million strong electorate, and more than 500 political parties to choose from. The hoardings all seem to scream the “development” agenda, but unfortunately in India, this conversation seems to be skating on thin ice. Cracks quickly appear, and beneath the surface, political parties seem to be indulging in the same hate speech, communal politicking and calculations that work to polarise the electorate and garner votes.

Hate speech in India is monitored by a number of laws in India. These are under the Indian Penal Code (Sections 153[A], Section 153[B], Section 295, Section 295A, Section 298, Section 505[1], Section 505 [2]), the Code of Criminal Procedure (Section 95) and Representation of the People Act (Section 123[A], Section 123[B]). The Constitution of India itself guarantees freedom of expression, but with reasonable restricts. At the same time, in response to a Public Interest Litigation by an NGO looking to curtail hate speech in India, the Court ruled that it cannot “curtail fundamental rights of people. It is a precious rights guaranteed by Constitution… We are 128 million people and there would be 128 million views.” Reflecting this thought further, a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of India, the bench declared that the “lack of prosecution for hate speeches was not because the existing laws did not possess sufficient provisions; instead, it was due to lack of enforcement.” In fact, the Supreme Court of India has directed the Law Commission to look into the matter of hate speech — often with communal undertones — made by political parties in India. The court is looking for guidelines to prevent provocative statements.

Unenviably, it is the job of India’s Election Commission to ensure that during the elections, the campaigning adheres to a strict Model Code of Conduct. Unsurprisingly, the first point in the EC’s rules (Model Code of Conduct) is: “No party or candidate shall include in any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic.” The third point states that “There shall be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes. Mosques, churches, temples or other places of worship shall not be used as forum for election propaganda.”

This election season, the EC has armed itself to take on the menace of hate speeches. It has directed all its state chief electoral officers to closely monitor campaigns on a daily basis that include video recording of all campaigns. Only with factual evidence in hand can any official file a First Information Report (FIR), and a copy of the Model Code of Conduct is given along with all written permissions to hold rallies and public meetings.

As a result, many leaders have been censured by the EC for their alleged hate speeches during the campaign. The BJP’s Amit Shah was briefly banned by the EC for his campaign speech in the riot affected state of Uttar Pradesh, that, Shah had said that the general election, especially in western UP, “is one of honour, it is an opportunity to take revenge and to teach a lesson to people who have committed injustice”. He has apologized for his comments. Azam Khan, a leader from the Samajwadi Party, was banned from public rallies by the EC after he insinuated in a campaign speech that the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan had been won by India on account of Muslim soldiers in the Army. The EC called both these speeches, “highly provocative (speeches) which have the impact of aggravating existing differences or create mutual hatred between different communities.”

Other politicians have jumped on the bandwagon as well. Most recently, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Praveen Togadia has been reported as making a speech targeting Muslims who have bought properties in Hindu neighborhoods. “If he does not relent, go with stones, tyres and tomatoes to his office. There is nothing wrong in it… I have done it in the past and Muslims have lost both property and money,” he has said. There was the case of Imran Masood of the Congress who threatened to “chop into pieces” BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi – a remark that forced Congress’s senior leader Rahul Gandhi to cancel his rally in the same area following the controversy that erupted. Then there is Modi-supporter Giriraj Singh who has said that “people opposed to Modi will be driven out of India and they should go to Pakistan.” In South India, Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) president K Chandrasekhar Rao termed both TDP and YSR Congress (YSRCP) as ‘Andhra parties’ and urged the people of Telangana to shunt them out of the region. The Election Commission has directed district officials to present the video footage of his speeches at public meetings, in order to determine punishment, if needed. Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has been served notice by the EC for calling Narendra Modi a “mass murderer”; a reference to his alleged role in the Gujarat riots of 2002.

Shekhar Gupta, editor of the national paper, the Indian Express has published a piece ominously titled “Secularism is Dead,” but instead appeals to the reader to have faith in Indian democracy far beyond what some petty communal politicians might allow. The fact that the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate is inextricability linked in public consciousness to communal riots in his home state of Gujarat has only compounded speeches over and above what people believe is the communal politics of the BJP that stands for the Hindu majority of India. In contrast, many believe that by playing to minority politics, the Congress indulges in a different kind of communal politics. And then there are countless regional parties, creating constituencies along various caste and regional fissures.

However, perhaps the last word can be given to commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta who writes of the Indian election: “But what is it about the structures of our thinking about communalism that 60 years after Independence, we seem to be revisiting the same questions over and over again? Is there some deeper phenomenon that the BJP-Congress system seems two sides of the same coin to so many, even on this issue? The point is not about the political equivalence of two political parties. People will make up their own minds. But is there something about the way we have conceptualised the problem of majority and minority, trapped in compulsory identities, that makes communalism the inevitable result?”

It is this inevitability of communal diatribe, of the lowest common denominators in politics that Indian politics need to rise above. This is being done, one comment at a time, as long as the Election Commission is watching. The bigger challenge lies beyond the results of 16 May, 2014.

This article was posted on 22 April 2014 at