Round One To Narendra Modi
Any doubts about who the political badshah of social media is were dispelled Friday night with the blockbuster success of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s Google+ HangOut, co-starring Ajay Devgn. The chat began late due to a technical glitch, but from then on it was smooth sailing. A total of 18 questions (out of a total of 20,000 received) were chosen to be asked and answered. The hashtag #ModiHangout trended for two days straight on Twitter. And even though the number of viewers was fuzzy the morning after with Modi’s website (www.narendramodi.in) claiming “millions” and the YouTube video (www.youtube.com/user/narendramodi/featured) reporting 15.23 lakh views, suffice it to say, as a TV channel reported, the site crashed due to heavy traffic.
On the day that former BJP minister, Maya Kodnani and others were being handed out life imprisonment sentences by a special court, Modi pointedly ignored Naroda Patiya and other inconvenient truths. Instead, the questions chosen ranged from the super-soft (the famous Modi half-sleeved kurtas) to the super-predictable (development in Gujarat). Biased? One-sided? Hell, yes. This was Modi’s game, and these were his rules.
The point of Modi’s hangout was not to answer awkward questions. This was not an interview. This was not a confessional. This was a virtual Town Hall gathering. This was image-building targeted at a youth demographic. This was reaching out to committed voters not only for the December 2012 assembly elections but for 2014 as well. This was about building bridges with the undecided. This was about projecting a modern, tech-friendly, accessible leader who “hangs out” with the guys.
The comparison and contrast, is inevitable. If 2014 is going to be a face-off between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, then Modi already has first-mover advantage on social media at least. Love Modi, hate Modi, it doesn’t matter. You cannot ignore him. Rahul, on the other hand, is loath to speak to media, mainstream or otherwise. While other Congress leaders like Digvijaya Singh are active on Twitter, Rahul is conspicuously absent on social media. His interactions are few and far between (Bhatta Parsaul, for instance). And even his hard-pressed loyalists are stumped when you ask: where does this putative prime minister stand on crucial issues such as foreign policy, development and national security?
The contrast between the BJP and the Congress on social media becomes even more glaring when you consider that the government has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. A move to block sites inimical to national security in the backdrop of the Assam violence led to the arbitrary blocking of individual journalists like Kanchan Gupta and Shiv Aroor for their apparent proximity to the BJP and its ideology.
Our Constitution places restrictions on freedom of speech in the interests of public order. Our penal code prohibits hate speeches. But when the government fails to provide an explanation on the blocking of individual sites of journalists opposed to it, then the obvious conclusion is censorship. The blocking of these sites was so bizarre, so unfounded and so blatantly opaque that for days the hashtag #GOIBlocks trended and of course the social media-savvy Modi was quick to change his display picture to a symbolic black box and tweet: “As a common man, I join the protest against crackdown on freedom of speech!”
It’s not just Narendra Modi, but the BJP that has understood the power and impact of social media. The BJP is the first political party to have a website and now, Narendra Modi is the first politician to hangout on Google+. In Tehelka, Kunal Majumdar reports on the BJP-Congress “online duel” (http://www.tehelka.com/story_main53.asp?filename=Ne080912Political.asp), but it’s an unequal battle in which the Congress is often outflanked and out-manoeuvred.
The BJP’s own leaders have a sizeable presence and following on sites like Twitter. They are bolstered by individual supporters who question the government on issues such as the Prime Minister’s silence on key subjects to Coalgate. And then there’s the ragtag army of “Internet Hindus” tweeting their particularly vicious brand of hatred. The BJP has never officially ratified this army, but equally, has never distanced itself from it.
Some like analyst B Raman are convinced that the Right has an organised presence on social media. Certainly, each time I have posted a tweet with the word NaMo in it, I can be sure that I will get a barrage of abuse – even if the tweet is innocuous. An article I wrote for The Hindustan Times on Twitter’s trolls mentioned not just right-wing trolls but also those who were abusive to the right-wing (http://www.hindustantimes.com/technology/SocialMedia-Updates/Running-away-from-the-trolls/SP-Article1-868619.aspx). Didn’t matter. The article earned me a ton of abuse, much of it personal, all of it from just one direction: Internet Hindus.
If Modi’s political opponents are worried about his hangout impact, they might want to take heart from one fact. Elections, particularly in a country like India, are not about to be decided by social media. But if the battle for minds in the virtual world has begun, let it be said, Round One to Modi and the BJP.