On the fifth day of the communal violence in Delhi, with at least 34 dead and over 200 injured, the Twitter handle of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Karnataka chapter decided this was a good time to blame all India’s woes on the Congress.
Trolling is par for the course when it comes to Hindu nationalist Twitter handles, but the Karnataka BJP often takes it to another level.
When Rahul Gandhi referenced the late Judge BH Loya in the context of Justice S Muralidhar’s transfer from the Delhi High Court soon after he pulled up the central government and the Delhi police for their inaction over the Delhi violence, the Karnataka BJP responded by bringing up Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia, who died in a plane crash in 2001.
Most other BJP handles seem downright tepid when compared to the BJP. Sample this tweet, which mocked Muslim women waiting to cast their votes in Delhi during the Assembly election.
Journalist and author Rana Ayyub asking if further proof was needed of Modi’s “agenda to replace Muslims as second class citizens”.
The BJP handle was quick to retaliate, bringing up Ayyub’s “jihadi world”.
The tweet was later deleted and Twitter the Karnataka BJP handle for 24 hours. The Karnataka BJP was more determined than ever when its account was restored, to “not step back in our efforts to bring out the truth in the public domain”.
So, who’s behind this relentless vitriol? Newslaundry went hunting and found Vinod Krishnamurthy.
‘We show facts’
Krishnamurthy is the head of the Karnataka BJP’s IT cell. He has a team that posts all the tweets on behalf of the party — but not without his approval. Krishnamurthy told Newslaundry he is responsible for all the tweets posted by the handle.
“The left-liberals, as well as the Congress, are plotting against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens, and so on,” Krishnamurthy said. “They are trying to give a false narrative, and we are breaking it down with facts.”
Krishnamurthy is also the state vice president of the BJP Yuva Morcha. He refused to divulge details on the size of his team or the location of his office, merely emphasising that all tweets go through him. However, Newslaundry discovered the team members are primarily volunteers doing unpaid work.
Asked about the handle’s now-deleted tweet to Rana Ayyub, Krishnamurthy said “left-liberals” had created a “false narrative” of “kagaz nahi dikhaenge” during the Delhi election.
He said the word “jihadi” was specifically used for Ayyub. “I am not using that word for protesters,” he said. “Why should she create an anti-national narrative?”
Krishnamurthy emphasised that he’s against “sexual threats” and “threats to life” to those who criticise the BJP. “We are not involved in any such thing and we are not even aware that these things happen. But doing it’s wrong,” he said. “We never take a stance that way. If any individual is doing it, we don’t know who.”
They obey orders
The BJP IT cell is “organised and systematic”, but its volunteers don’t apply their minds. They just do as they are told.
This is the view of Kamran Shahid, a social media handler for the Aam Aadmi Party in Bengaluru. He claimed to have worked closely with volunteers of the Karnataka BJP’s IT cell in the past.
“I know some BJP IT cell volunteers whose main job is just to circulate posts and not write them,” Shahid said. “The heads of the IT cell write these points.”
He said this “narrative” comes from the top. “They posted on the Karnataka BJP Twitter handle only because they can’t post these things on the BJP’s national or Delhi handles, since the Election Commission is strict during elections,” he added.
A volunteer with the BJP Yuva Morcha told Newslaundry he decided against studying further after graduating from school in order to work with the Karnataka BJP IT cell. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said journalists “show their biases when they talk about the rights of Muslims and not Hindus, and that too in a country where Hindus are in the majority”.
“We will do what we do to save our religion and remove the hypocrisy and biases of journalists. The ‘jihad’ word was used there because she is a jihadi,” he said, referring to Rana Ayyub. “What is wrong with that? Truth is truth and no one can deny that. Secularism is the biggest threat to our nation.”
Politics of polarisation
This mode of attack works for the BJP. A 2019 study by the German Institute of Global and Area Studies found that “ideological/religious polarisation and opposition suppression” are major tactics employed by the BJP’s IT cells. The party’s offensive against journalists, academics, and critics of the larger Sangh Parivar systematically scaled up since 2014.
A by Yale University in 2016 said the BJP saw a 0.8 percentage point increase in its vote share “following a riot in the year prior to an election”. In short, polarisation of the electorate is a manoeuvre that works in its favour.
In January, a Reddit user claimed to have analysed lakhs of unverified Twitter accounts using an algorithm to “identify trends in online misinformation”. Of the nearly four lakh accounts analysed, the Print , 2.7 lakh were pro-BJP. The study stated that 17,779 pro-BJP accounts “served as sources of misinformation and propaganda”, while the number of pro-Congress accounts stood at 147.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an author and journalist, said the BJP uses social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp to spread hatred, falsehoods, half-truths, and untruths to polarise the country along religious lines. He pointed out that a lot of the accounts that spread hatred on Twitter are followed by the handles of the prime minister and several MPs.
“The so-called WhatsApp army of the right-wing ruling regime has been weaponised to influence the outcomes of voting,” Thakurta said. “They want to influence the minds of young people and all kinds of people, to promote what they call their Hindutva agenda. They want a Hindu Rashtra and that is their aim. They also spread hate against Muslims to balance the main purpose.”
He added: “Also, they want to whitewash the image of the BJP and criticise its political opponents.”
Political psychologist Pavan Choudary said this has dangerous consequences.
“Hate speech or tweets will say such and such people are bad. For example, the word ‘vermin’ was used again and again for Jews till people started believing that is true,” Choudary told Newslaundry. “When you think some community is just like vermin, or insects, then you are not hesitant to stomp on them. This kind of stereotyping is done through hate speech or tweets that target your unjustified anger, or excessive anger towards a community.”
Ahead of the recent Delhi election, the Karnataka BJP Twitter handle was carrying out its campaign on the other side of the country, and there was little the Election Commission could do about it.
As SY Quraishi, former election commissioner, notes in Swati Chaturvedi’s book I Am A Troll, with electoral campaigns being run on social media, the Election Commission can’t monitor hate content or incitement. Anonymity provided by social media gives a fillip to such incendiary content, giving political parties the shield of deniability.
As a solution, Quraishi argues that the funding limits for candidates and political parties should hold true for social media as well. He believes even the content used by political parties in advertisements should be cleared by the Election Commission to ensure that no sections of the Indian Penal code are violated.
Kapil Kajal is a staff correspondent with , a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.