The state office of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Delhi is nothing like its national headquarters. The multistoried national office embodies the swagger of 303 Lok Sabha seats — a grim scarlet exterior with green windows, guarded by police officers who examine passersby from head to toe. But the BJP’s office in Delhi, where it holds a paltry three Assembly seats, is based out of an aging Lutyens bungalow whose lawns are covered with makeshift tents, left to the mercy of yawning, potbellied policemen.
In a corner of this office, Punit Agarwal takes charge. He has headed the Delhi BJP’s IT cell since 2017. Wearing a dark blue Calvin Klein zip-up jacket and a conspicuous golden ring, he sports a ready smile that anticipates his calculated answers. A wallpaper with alternating rectangles of “BJP” and its lotus symbol covers every inch of the office walls. It is mildly disorienting. A banner with pictures of Amit Shah and Narendra Modi hangs above Agarwal’s head. Laptops and their wires occupy most of his desk.
Punit Agarwal, head of the Delhi BJP’s IT cell.
“Since the day I started understanding politics, I’ve been a hardcore BJP supporter. That’s 20 years of my life,” Agarwal says, leaning back in his chair. “When Vajpayee became the prime minister in 1999, I was very young. But my interest in politics kindled soon after that.”
For the last three weeks, Agarwal, who’s in his 30s, has been embroiled in a meme war with the Aam Aadmi Party, the BJP’s chief rival in the capital. Using templates and Bollywood references, the back and forth has invited guffaws on social media.
“Our idea was to ensure that our content reaches our audience in a way that they like it,” he explains. “The game is changing, the rules are changing. Everyone has a smartphone in their hands and they are using social media more than ever. People do not appreciate boring text content. So you need to present your content so that people enjoy it and the message also reaches them.”
As the person overseeing the Delhi BJP's social media presence, Agarwal gives the final sign-off on every piece of content. The Delhi BJP has more than half a million followers on Twitter, almost three million on Facebook, and around 2,80,000 on Instagram.
Yet, Agarwal doesn't take credit for everything. “It's a shared effort. I would definitely give credit to the rest of the team. They are the ones who manage things at the backend,” he says.
Punit Agarwal’s office at the BJP’s state office in Delhi.
Agarwal, who is from Jaipur, worked with several multinational corporations in the IT sector before being roped into the saffron party. “My first stint with the BJP involved working unofficially for them during the Delhi municipal election,” he says. “After its success, adhyakshaji asked me to come on board officially.”
The 2017 municipal election in Delhi saw the first clash between the IT cells of AAP and BJP, where the BJP actively led hashtag campaigns against Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, garnished with bits of misinformation. The adhyakshaji, or president, is Manoj Tiwari, Delhi BJP's chief. “He has given us the liberty to run day-to-day social media operations on our own,” Agarwal says. “Whenever we need guidance, we reach out to him.”
In 2017, during the municipal polls, the BJP aspired to have representatives at each of the 13,000 or so polling booths in the capital. Agarwal claims this ambition has been fulfilled: the BJP now has more than one office-bearer at every booth. This leaves the saffron party with a pool of 20,000-30,000 “mostly young” BJP volunteers. Agarwal adds that his social media team includes members drawn from this pool. The core team that reports to him consists of seven convenors from every parliamentary constituency of Delhi.
The BJP volunteers usually tick three boxes – they have ideological affiliation to the Sangh Parivar, they associate themselves with the BJP, they are willing to regularly expend a limited amount of time for the party. Agarwal’s team does a background check of every volunteer, but he concedes that this is not very extensive.
He breaks it down: “There are seven parliamentary constituencies in Delhi. Our party organises Delhi into 14 segments. The constituencies and segments have their convenors and co-convenors. There are 280 mandals in the Union Territory and volunteer meetings are conducted regularly. We are often introduced to people who become volunteers in local events or meetings. Or they follow us and share our content on social media and the relationship is built from there."
Delhi BJP president Manoj Tiwari.
The volunteering stints are unpaid, Agarwal says, and no volunteer has ever come up to him asking for something in return. “That’s the beauty of this party,” he smiles.
The IT cell has two ways to play the social media game. The first simply involves pushing material that concerns the BJP’s ideological and political interests. If Modi, Shah or Tiwari make a speech or address a gathering, you’ll find long Twitter threads on what they said. There are also videos, and posters in and around Delhi detailing campaign promises and the BJP’s track record.
The second is to target other political parties and respond to their online content. Agarwal says the Delhi BJP has a separate team that monitors content put out by AAP and the Congress.
This is where the meme wars between AAP and the BJP come in. The two parties have been using memes nonstop to dress each other down. The most imaginative of these has been an old Ambuja cement advertisement featuring Boman Irani. Watch it for yourself.
The BJP’s comeback — posted from spokesperson Tajinder Bagga’s Twitter account — had AAP conspiring with the “tukde tukde gang” to bring down the wall of “nationalism”.
“They’re trying to teach us nationalism, that’s bullshit,” Agarwal exclaims, his face lined with contempt. “That is the BJP’s base. Someone whose MLA takes a mic and gives communal speeches is talking about nationalism” — referring to AAP leader Amanatullah Khan — “their deputy CM tweets a fake video of Delhi police burning a bus and never apologised for it. Shoaib Iqbal has just joined their party. This man said ‘Modi ke sar ke tukde kardenge’ from the Jama Masjid!”
Sisodia did falsely accuse the Delhi police of burning a bus during the Jamia crackdown on December 15. Amanutullah Khan has also been under the scanner for hate speech — although no substantial evidence against him has emerged yet. Shoaib Iqbal, however, did not make any such statement. It was his son, Mohammad Iqbal, who had reportedly shouted the following at an anti-CAA protest at Delhi’s Jama Masjid: “Listen, Narendra Modi, we are ready to lay down our heads but we will not allow any encroachment on the Sharia law.”
The Delhi BJP’s social media handles are not paragons of integrity, especially if one takes note of their communal dog whistling. On January 20, they tweeted the “art and artist” meme with a picture of the burning bus from December 15 as “art”. The “artist” was Arvind Kejriwal sporting a skullcap.
Even worse was a cartoon that the Delhi BJP uploaded a day after the Jamia crackdown.
Newslaundry asked Agarwal about the misinformation that the BJP IT cell is very often accused of. Amit Malviya, the national head of the BJP IT cell, with whom Agarwal is regularly in touch, is the beast of online misinformation and fake news (see here, here, here, here and here). But Agarwal doesn’t bring up Malviya. “Even when we do our volunteers’ meet, or when we meet our people inside or outside the office, we’re very clear about one thing: that we’ll not spread fake news,” Agarwal claims. “We can’t control it if someone does that in their personal capacity. But if I do it in my official capacity, I can be held responsible for it. But we can’t do anything about volunteers doing this on their personal handles.”
Has Tiwari complimented Agarwal’s team for the parodies and the meme? He said he will take the ultimate compliment “when the party wins the election”. He added. “This is something we’ve been appointed to do, it’s our job to ensure that we win.”
AAP IT cell
Meanwhile, the AAP is using “blast from the past”, triggering nostalgia and pop culture.
Digging up old hits and lacing them with sharp humour, the party’s social media campaign has kept the virtual world buzzing in the election season.
Jasmine Shah, a key member of AAP’s campaign team for the Delhi election, says the idea was to reach out to the maximum number of voters with a positive message. They have been active on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, and TikTok, among others.
“We are just trying to tell people what all we have done in the last five years and what we will do in the next five. And to make our message go viral, we have resorted to pop culture in a creative way,” Shah says.
But creativity has surfaced with its own share of quips at other contenders. Manoj Tiwari, president of BJP’s Delhi state unit, has been nudged from time to time.
In a video released on January 11, Tiwari was shown dancing to AAP’s election anthem in one of his own modified videos. Things heated up quickly and a defamation suit seeking Rs 500 crore was filed by the Delhi BJP the next day.
The banter continued. A still from the Shahrukh Khan-starrer Baazigar was pulled out to send a sarcastic “All the best” message to Tiwari.
Shah says AAP isn’t trying to indulge in “any form of negativity” while campaigning.
“But in a democracy, a leader who sets the tone is as important as the party and the issues,” he says. “So, without inventing stuff, I think some amount of playful digs at the leaders is fine.”
While Manoj Tiwari and the BJP have drawn constant salvos, the Congress has failed to draw much attention from AAP. Has it been dismissed by the party as a contender for the upcoming election? “I think it’s not us but the people of Delhi who have discounted the Congress from the state’s political picture,” Shah says.
Shivangi Adatia, a student voter from Okhla, says: “AAP has been able to tap into the psyche of today’s youth, which basically rests itself on quick consumption of news. And what could be better than the use of memes for that?”
Adatia thinks memes are actually a great genre of political art because they refer to the current affairs with the right amount of humour. “They also make the viewers curious to follow up on the reference if they don’t get it,” she says.
The strategy has successfully drawn otherwise not-so-interested young men and women into discussions on elections. Take, for example, Anoushka Jain, a young history graduate who conducts heritage walks in different parts of Delhi.
Jain says the biggest issue faced by young people in connecting to political parties is their “pedantic and preachy” nature. “I think the youth is anyway tired of the beaten down promises in floral languages by the grand old parties,” she says.
Jain thinks AAP “finally knows what successful political campaigning was all about”. She says, “Through the social media content so far, the party message and policy instantly hit you without having to go through a tiresome manifesto.”
Shah agrees. “That’s exactly what we are trying to achieve this time around…Social media is like oxygen for us. We don’t have massive resources like the other parties to reach a large number of voters through other means.”
But resources do play a role in social media wars too. The BJP, the party’s key opponent in the upcoming election, has an army of followers across platforms. That, coupled with the growing menace of fake news, makes the ground uneven by all standards. Is the AAP battle ready then?
"Of course, we have a much smaller team on social media because we don’t pay anyone unlike some other IT cells do.Yet, with our focus on work and quality contents, we will trump our opponents on social media as well,” said a confident Shah.