“I know our country is in the right hands...Under the leadership of Narendra Modi ji, every person is trying to make it stronger,” read the caption of an Instagram post by influencer Sunil Minglani, with pictures of him posing with a gleeful union minister Piyush Goyal.
The influencer, who describes himself as a “stock market psychologist” and has 1.4 million YouTube subscribers and 2,14,000 followers on Instagram, saluted Goyal for his “honesty, dedication, and clarity of thought” in the . But he was not the only one – similarly-worded posts heaping praise on the ruling dispensation popped up on Instagram late last month from around 50 social media influencers, each boasting millions of followers. This was preceded by the minister of consumer affairs’ meeting with some of the most popular Indian YouTubers on June 23 in Delhi.
The government’s purported outreach programme was communicated to the influencers through email and social media, after which they were flown into the national capital and provided with accommodation for the 4-5 hours meeting. The session, which was “interactive”, saw Goyal tell the influencers to “spread word on the good works” of the government.
Notably, these influencers have the most number of subscribers on YouTube in India. Their followers range from 0.2 million to 33.9 million on YouTube and 0.2 million to 7.1 million on Instagram – cumulatively, 284.3 million subscribers on YouTube and 49.1736 million followers on Instagram.
Goyal’s closed-door meeting made the most buzz in the media, but it only came at the heels of a visible trend of political leaders being interviewed by social media personalities. The meeting was not the BJP’s first outreach to influencers either. In the past four months, the BJP has held meet-ups with influencers in at least 18 states - from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh to Tripura. This is part of the party’s campaign to draw young voters ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, and the larger ‘Nine years of Modi’ campaign.
Meanwhile, information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur recently told the Lok Sabha that the government has chosen to work with social media influencers for content about government schemes and campaigns. He did not name the agencies but said that no money has been spent on their empanelment.
The opposition parties are also not too far behind. In Rajasthan, the Congress-led government announced last month that it would give ads to social media influencers for amounts ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 5 lakh. Meanwhile, in his four-month long Bharat Jodo Yatra, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi gave select interviews only to YouTubers, snubbing hundreds of media personnel who had requested for the same. Gandhi addressed media personnels only in the press conferences during the yatra, while he gave interviews to influencers Kamya Jani of Curly Tales, Kunal Vijayakar of Khaane Mein Kya Hai and Samdish Bhatia of Unfiltered by Samdish.
This is not just a stamp of legitimacy for the influencers – whose marketing industry’s value is predicted to hit Rs 2,200 crore in India by 2025 – but, it is also a sign of the times to come. In the backdrop of the declining press freedom and the journalists’ shrinking access to the politicians in power, the growing sway of influencers means that traditional media is slowly losing its relevance in the eyes of political parties, especially the BJP.
In the run up to elections, political parties usually hold closed-door “interactions” with journalists. But Newslaundry has learnt that this time, the instructions for the BJP leaders is to target social media influencers on the basis of their reach among the youth.
With Goyal, discussions on how influencers can amplify schemes
It is easy to tell if an influencer attended the meet with Goyal – almost all those who did, put up an Instagram post, thanking Goyal for the opportunity and writing a few lines about the meet-up. These influencers cut across the divide – from fitness gurus to motivational speakers, bhajan singers, financial advisors and even psychologists, among others.
Influencers who attended the meeting told Newslaundry that it was an “interactive session”, where “feedback” on various subjects was given to the minister. They were then told to amplify the initiatives of the government.
Various influencers at their interaction with Goyal.
“The idea of the meeting was for the government to understand the expectations of the audiences. They also told us to amplify the initiatives of the government,” said Gunjan Taneja, whose YouTube channel is subscribed by 1.46 million people. “It was a general discussion on how influencers can amplify schemes and other good that is happening in their own niches. For example, I would be the right person for health, due to my content and audiences.”
Taneja, who started her YouTube channel in 2019 to chronicle her journey from “fat to fit”, uploads videos aimed at “helping viewers with authentic knowledge on health and fitness in a fun way”.
“Collaborating with the government is very different from paid collaborations, which are private business affairs,” she said. “Here, we are talking about the betterment of society. It has nothing to do with money – if we know something, we must share the right information about it. There are so many schemes that people can’t use because they don’t know about them.”
Some of the other influencers at the meeting included Ujjwal Chaurasia, Gaurav Chaudhary (Tech Guruji), Vivek Bindra, Harsh Beniwal, Arvind Arora, Nisha Madhulika, Rachit Rojha and Sonu Sharma.
‘A stamp of legitimacy’
“We were a little surprised that the government organised something like this. We thought maybe the government would talk about their agenda, but they focused on our problems and opinions,” said Preeti of , a YouTube channel with 9.32 million subscribers. “They also took suggestions on why they were not being able to connect with people, and joked about how we have more followers than them.”
Preeti, who worked as an engineer before becoming a full-time content creator with her husband, said one of the reasons behind the rise of social media could be the falling trust in newspapers and TV channels, which are “influenced by political parties”.
, who has 6.6 million YouTube subscribers, pointed out that the meetup gave a stamp of legitimacy to the influencers’ industry. “Influencers and YouTube creators who have built a social media reputation received recognition through this meet-up. Not just the ones who are here but the industry as a whole.”
While there was “government agenda” on the table, Mandani said, “there was no political agenda or political discussion” and Goyal was “genuinely involved and taking feedback”.
A 25-year-old Keertika from Tamil Nadu, one of the few at the event from the south, said she asked Goyal a question about Akhand Bharat. But as he began answering in Hindi, she interrupted him and requested him to speak in English, as she doesn’t understand Hindi. “He gracefully obliged,” she said.
On her YouTube channel , which has 1.14 million subscribers, the influencer holds a host of videos with headlines such as “Gandhi and Nehru exposed”, “Scam behind the BBC documentary”, “7 things Modi did to decolonise India”, “How Nehru’s Foreign Policy Failed India”, and “Was Akbar really great or is it just propaganda.”
Keertika told Newslaundry that through her channel, she aims to tell the “real history of India that the education system has forgotten”. She added that at the conclusion of the meeting, as she emphasised on the media painting a false picture of Tamil Nadu, despite the state being “very nationalist” – she was lauded by Goyal with a round of applause and gratitude for saying that.
Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi – localised outreach across the country
At the state-level too, the BJP has been holding interactions with local influencers. So far, the party cadre has held meet-ups with social media influencers in Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi, Assam, Tripura, Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Kerala, Orissa, Goa, Karnataka, Chandigarh, and Chhattisgarh.
In Maharashtra, for instance, the BJP has had at least three such meet-ups in the last few months – in Mumbai, Nagpur and Akola, with deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis interacting with the influencers in these meetings.
“A message was conveyed to them to spread the word about the good work undertaken by the Modi government in the past nine years,” said Tajinder Tiwana, president of the BJP Janata Yuva Morcha in Mumbai. “We invited influencers from both sides but mostly those who came were the ones who connected with our ideology. In the age group of 18 to 25, many of them were not aware of the previous prime ministers’ terms. They know Modi and that he is doing his job, but they won't know of the corruption of the previous governments.” However, he said that the influencers brought up the issue of arrests of YouTubers under the Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA government.
Meanwhile, local influencers told Newslaundry that in the Nagpur meet-up, the influencers asked questions about local problems, such as nightlife and the drug menace. “During the meeting, Fadanavis spoke about Modi. He told us why we should vote for him and why that translates into voting for the country,” said Shashank Gattewar, a local influencer at Nagpur who has close to 45 thousand followers. “He was representing the BJP and not only the government. They should have been clearer about that at the time of inviting us.”
At one such meet-up with influencers in Delhi on June 8, foreign minister S Jaishankar elaborated on ministers learning more about the world through the replies they receive on social media. He termed these social media reactions as the “pulse of the youth”. “If you are connected with this pulse, we’ll be able to implement more progressive modern contemporary initiatives,” he said, before speaking about Modi’s achievements, which received applause from the audience. However, the questions directed towards Jaishankar during the event, probed about the FIRs lodged against YouTubers and the glorification of the assassination of Indira Gandhi in Canada, besides asking about the international media’s “interference” in India’s internal matters.
“Yes. they interfere. They raise questions. But why,” Jaishankar said. “Because we have let them do this for years. When you shut this down or when someone does commentary and you respond to it, you will see this getting reduced. The window through which people interfere is closing and this should have happened way before.”
In the run-up to the Rajasthan assembly polls, the state Congress government too has woken up to the significance of social media marketing. Besides, giving out ads to influencers and employing more than 2,000 Rajiv Gandhi Yuva Mitras or contractual volunteers to take the government schemes to the people through videos on social media, the state government is organising a month-long video contest to popularise the state’s welfare schemes – with cash prizes ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 1 lakh. .
Murky scheme of gifts, payments
In Gujarat’s Ahmedabad, over 250 bloggers met with chief minister Bhupendra Patel and state BJP chief CR Paatil at Taj Skyline Hotel in Ahmedabad on May 29. During the meeting, the state cadre put up a presentation on Modi’s achievements, spanning from the government’s domestic schemes to Modi’s “lofty” global repute – with visuals of the Papua New Guinea prime minister touching his feet to some other leader welcoming him with folded hands, and another calling him “Boss”.
The interaction had prominent local faces, including actors such as Mayur Vakani, expressing their gratitude towards the government for “recognising their voices”, and making “progress through its schemes”. At the conclusion, the influencers attending the event were given an American Tourister bag, a bluetooth speaker, a pen, and a laptop bag.
Meanwhile, influencer Ranveer Allahbadia, who has interviewed at least four BJP ministers for his YouTube channel BeerBiceps, carried a disclaimer with some of these videos: “co-presented to you by @mygovindia”. But on the question of whether it was a paid collaboration, Allahbadia Newslaundry that he was approached by a representative from MyGov, who suggested the interviews, but he did not receive any payment for it. He, however, received proceeds for the expenses on his stay, travel and logistics related to the interviews.
Vivek Bindra, one of India’s most followed YouTubers – with nearly 21 million subscribers, who also interviewed BJP ministers Nitin Gadkari and Kiren Rijiju, and party leader Manoj Tiwari over the past months, said there was “no political agenda or monetary exchange”.
These interviews were part of the channel’s ‘Bada Bharat’ series, which “featured people who have put India on the map”, Bindra’s business associate Ishaan Goel told Newslaundry. He asserted that they were not paid for any expenses related to the interviews.
“People think that there is a political agenda here, but that’s not the case. We choose people on merit. The politician has to be one with a clean image and no controversies,” said Goel, exemplifying that they interviewed Nitin Gadkari, whose work for the country “cannot be debated”. He added that similarly, they were trying for the interviews of union ministers S Jaishankar and Smriti Irani. From the opposition, he said they are keen on Congress leader Shashi Tharoor.
“There were some chief ministers who wanted to come on the show to clean their image - but we have no political agenda. We are not okay with them speaking about their manifestos and we discuss this beforehand… none of these involve monetary exchanges. Even if you start taking a rupee from someone, you are under their deck. It can be easy to get corrupted but Dr Bindra used to be a monk, and does meditations daily, he has always been very grounded,” Goel said.
Meanwhile, YouTuber Keerthika said she is also in talks with a politician for her podcast. “Collaborations are beneficial for both parties, but even more for the influencer. If it is paid, of course it should be mentioned, but if it’s just a collaboration with no money involved, what’s the need to mention?”
Influencers vs TV news
The increasing engagement between social media influencers and politicians became a hot topic in May, when Ranveer Allahbadia began interviewing the BJP ministers for his channel on YouTube – the platform which is increasingly becoming the preferred medium of news among internet users in India.
The platform topped as the most popular source of online news, with at least 93 percent of internet users turning to it for news updates, according to a recent Kantar-Google . The other popular sources of online news included social media, preferred by 88 percent of internet users; online chats popular among 82 percent; search engines drawing 61 percent users and news apps and websites pulling in 45 percent of internet users. The audio news platforms reported a footfall of 39 percent of internet users, and OTT or connected TV 21 percent.
In a battlefront with TV news, YouTube is popular among the internet users of both liberal and the right-wing sphere. Popular channels such as Ajeet Bharti and String, which have 290k and 1.38 million subscribers, respectively, pander to those on the right-side of the divide, while on the left, Akash Banerjee aka The DeshBhakt with 3.24 million subscribers and Dhruv Rathee with 11.9 million subscribers are some of the most popular Indian YouTubers.
The increasing popularity of YouTube comes at a time of depleting trust in traditional news sources. The stated that consumption of traditional news has declined in nearly all the 46 countries surveyed for the report. It further highlighted that India is a “strongly mobile-focussed market”, with more and more people accessing news on their phones, especially YouTube and WhatsApp.