Lord Ram, Congress-bashing, Kanhaiya Lal: Inside Rajasthan BJP’s election war on WhatsApp

It claims to run 38,000 groups in the state, and work on it began five years ago.

WrittenBy:Shivnarayan Rajpurohit
Date:
Hands holding phones with the lotus symbol, with images of Modi and Gehlot in the background.
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Kuldeep Gurjar, 17, refers to himself as an “army lover” and a “Modi lover”. He scoffed when asked what he thinks about the current Congress government in Rajasthan.

“First, you tell me why the Congress deployed 25 lawyers to stop the Ram Temple construction in Ayodhya,” he said.

When asked for a source, he scrolled to a WhatsApp video on his phone. “See this.” 

Kuldeep, a resident of Chhayan village in the tribal district of Pratapgarh, is among the ever-growing battalion of voters fed on digital content charged with communal hatred and Islamophobia. He’s one of the consumers of thousands of posts, reels, videos and stickers that populate WhatsApp groups and social media.

He deeply regrets that he doesn’t qualify for voting age, since he’s just two months shy of 18.

“If I was 18, I would have voted for BJP,” he said. He dismissed Rahul Gandhi as a “Muslim”, whereas Narendra Modi works for “rashtriyahit”, national interest. 

In Rajasthan, the state BJP runs 38,000 WhatsApp groups, according to the party’s IT cell coordinator Vikas Kumar Sharma. Bikaner alone has 3,924 such groups. The project allegedly began five years ago, just after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and is now running full steam ahead, churning out posts and sleek videos to promote the party’s “Hindu-ness” and the Congress’s purported incompetencies. 

Newslaundry unpacked this sprawling enterprise, and also spoke to voters to see if it’s working.

A project five years in the making 

First, the data. 

The Rajasthan BJP has administratively divided 33 districts – recently increased to 53 – into 44 “organisational districts”. At the state BJP headquarters in Jaipur, IT cell head Vikas Kumar Sharma said they have 43 smartphones at headquarters for each “organisational district”. Messages to these groups are mostly sent from headquarters. For example, Sharma said the smartphone for Churu can send posts to all groups of the district “within an hour”. 

“These groups are at the district, assembly constituency, mandal, shakti kendra and booth levels,” Sharma explained. “Once they are formed, we become one of the group administrators and feed content. That way, control is centralised.” 

Bikaner alone has 3,942 WhatsApp groups. The BJP also communicates within itself through 1,192 groups comprising only party officebearers, Sharma said. 

BJP officebearers said the state unit began forming these groups in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections

Sharma calculated that around 2,000-2,500 volunteers are part of the BJP’s IT team, which monitors WhatsApp. Creative teams at the national and state level churn out content from Delhi and Jaipur. Each district also has a creative team that chips in with local content. 

At the state BJP headquarters in Jaipur, their “WhatsApp chamber” has employed around 10 people. Sharma is in charge of it.

“Our IT cell workers in other districts are providing their services without any charge,” he said.

In terms of followers, the BJP steals a march over the Congress. The Rajasthan BJP has 27 lakh followers on Facebook, nine lakh on X, and 1.71 lakh on Instagram. The state Congress has 10 lakh followers on Facebook, 3.67 lakh on X, and 1.02 lakh on Instagram.

But then again, the state BJP has spent more money on ads on Instagram and Facebook. In the last 30 days ending November 21, it spent Rs 45 lakh on 806 paid promotions on both platforms, according to data accessed by Newslaundry.            

Meanwhile, the Congress spent Rs 11.67 lakh on ads for its Facebook page “Rajasthan Mein Congress Phir Se” during the same period.

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A sample of posts 

On November 14, Newslaundry joined over 10 WhatsApp groups run by the BJP in Bikaner, Udaipur, Banswara and Pratapgarh and monitored content on the groups since then. 

The number of members ranged from 55 in ‘Bhajpa Karyakarta’, a group in Udaipur, to 468 in ‘Bhajpa Mandal Pugal’  in Bikaner. But Sharma of the BJP IT cell claimed that each of the 38,000 groups has around 1,000 members – which doesn’t seem to be the case.

Most posts and photos were of BJP and RSS bigwigs meeting voters and attending rallies. There were posts on campaign schedules and appeals to attend rallies – participants complied by posting selfies of themselves at said events. After November 15, posts regularly promoted the BJP’s poll promises in the state.

Each of the 10 groups saw 50-100 posts a day. Any member could post, though the admins of the groups were from the BJP. The frequency of posts increased as voting day drew closer.

There was a wide range of religious, nationalistic and Islamophobic content.

 “Vote in such a way that you can make eye contact with Lord Ram when you visit Ayodhya,” said a post that was sent across the groups. Others urged people to vote in the “name of religion”, “national interest”, and “Lord Ram”.

A video on one group claimed to show a green flag at a Congress rally. “See, people are carrying a Pakistan flag,” the man shooting the video was heard saying. “Shame on Hindus who are part of this.”

A sample of the posts on the WhatsApp groups that Newslaundry joined.

Assam CM Himanta Sarma’s comments on “tightening the screws on Babar and Aurangzeb” during a Rajasthan rally was also popular fodder on WhatsApp. 

Another post showed a selfie of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra with Rijil Makkutty, a Youth Congress leader who had been suspended in 2017 for butchering an ox in public. The text accompanying the post said, “That time the Congress pretended to throw him out of the party. Now she is taking a selfie with the devil. Make this viral so Hindus in the five states know about it.” Makkutty is now vice-president of the Youth Congress in Kerala.

On the state government banning places of worship in police stations in 2021, a video featured two youths saying the party would “remove pujasthal [places of worship] from your streets and even from your house” if it returned to power. 

Another told recipients that “every vote will directly go to Modiji”, perhaps because the BJP has not projected a CM face in the state yet. In some groups, Modi was described as “dev purush”, literally a god.

A 30-second video said that under Gehlot, “social and religious rallies were banned, cow trafficking increased, and Muslims openly threatened to slit throats for Rs 10 lakh. In Udaipur, Kanhaiya Lal’s throat was slit.” The family of Kanhaiya Lal, who had been murdered in 2022, had told Newslaundry his name must not be dragged into politics.

Then there were posts rebuking the electorate for being influenced by “freebies”, given that Gehlot’s poll plank is welfarism. “Votes swing with just one liquor pouch, two kg of ration, and Rs 500-1,000 in cash,” said one post. “...If intelligent people and nationalists remain aloof, the fate of the nation will be decided by drunkards.”

There was some excitement in ‘Bhajpa Sangathan Vidha Sabha Bagidora’, a WhatsApp group, when BJP workers suggested that Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath come to Bagidora for a rally. “Only star campaigners can blunt the Congress wave,” one person replied. “Yogiji’s rally is mandatory,” said another. A third said, “Yogiji’s roadshow will be highly beneficial.

WhatsApp groups also played teacher to confused voters. One message read: “If you don’t know who to vote for: ask the mother of Abhinandan; ask Kashmiri Hindus; ask Ayodhya saints; ask the sister of Kothari brothers; ask Indian students in Ukraine; asks farmers availing kisan nidhi scheme; ask Isro scientists; ask soldiers on the border.” Abhinandan being Abhinandan Varthaman, a fighter pilot who was held captive by Pakistan in 2019.

Wisecracks were aplenty. After India lost the Cricket World Cup to Australia, Rahul Gandhi had called Modi “panauti”, or bad luck. Two days later, a digital poster with Modi’s image popped up on a WhatsApp group. 

It said:“Yes, I am a panauti. So far, the Congress could not form the government in Gujarat. When I reached UP in 2017, the Congress got just seven seats. I campaigned in Amethi and Rahul lost it. I came to the centre and the Congress was out of power in 2014. In 2019, Congress was reduced to 52 seats. I am a panauti for the Congress.”

Votes built through WhatsApp

During Newslaundry’s 2,000-km travel across Rajasthan, we spoke to BJP officebearers and youths in Jaipur, Udaipur, Pratapgarh and Tonk to find out what impact these posts have. Many people said they’d received WhatsApp forwards glorifying the BJP’s message – and they were buying it. Most were either part of the BJP’s booth or mandal level WhatsApp groups or others formed by local leaders.

In Chayyan village, 23 km from Pratapgarh, Krishna Gurjar, a student of Class 12 and a first-time voter, said he wrote an essay for a school contest last month on where he sees Rajasthan in 2030.

“I wrote that I wanted India to become a Hindu rashtra by then,” he beamed, adding that he primarily relied on what was fed to his smartphone by WhatsApp groups and social media posts from Hindu nationalists. 

Two km away is Suhagpura, a Congress stronghold, where a group of young men lamented that “Sanatanis” were a minority here. 

“But we are growing in number,” said one, showing this reporter communal messages and reels on their phones.

Bhanwar Lohar, who runs a mobile shop in Suhagpura, also told Newslaundry he was fond of the saffron party.

“PM Narendra Modi repealed Article 370. He is building the Ram Temple in Ayodhya and providing good army equipment. Under him, the nation is safe and stronger,” he said. Another local, Rohit Lohar, a college student, said he thinks the Congress gives “more priority to Muslims”.

Jogendra Kumar Jain, who runs a liquor store in Suhagpura, called the Congress an “entertainment party”.

“Modiji practises what he preaches. The Congress is the entertainment party. They make gold from potatoes [aaloo se sona nikalte hain]. They want to farm on the moon. Now Pappu [referring to Rahul Gandhi] asks ‘who is Bharat Mata’? Who would let such a person run the country?” asked Jain.

As a source, he showed this reporter a video of Gandhi purportedly asking that question. It had been posted on social media by the BJP’s main handles and its allied accounts. The truth is that the video has been clipped, so that isn’t actually what Gandhi said.

Other young men offered up their phones with videos and posts on Hindutva talking points and anti-Muslim theories. One post, for example, contained two pictures of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The first showed her wearing a Hindu rudraksh, the second showed her wearing a Christian cross. The post was captioned “a rudraksh in Kashi and a cross in Kerala”.

Another showed Newslaundry a video of someone saying “if Hindus were united, we would have built a Ram Temple in Pakistan”. The recipient was on board with the message. Another local showed Newslaundry a post on what the Congress purportedly hid from its manifesto – that it would not stop “terrorism, secessionism, missionaries, religious conversion, urban naxals, and Naxalism”.

imageby :
A sample of the posts on the WhatsApp groups that Newslaundry joined.

Pratapgarh is a tribal district that’s home to two assembly seats reserved for the community. BJP officebearers conceded to Newslaundry that “religion matters less here during polls” than other parts of the state. 

Yet, “such posts and messages get the maximum reactions”, according to Nishil Choriya, the BJP’s social media convener in Pratapgarh. He said the district BJP has over 500 WhatsApp groups with 200-300 members each.

“We have a team of 50 people in the IT cell. They create content based on local issues while the state and country-level content comes from Jaipur or Delhi,” he said.

According to the NDTV-CSDS pre-poll survey, 48 percent of the tribal community favour the BJP against 36 percent for the Congress. Until a few years ago, the Congress considered the tribal community its vote bank.

About 180 km from Pratapgarh is Suraj Pole, dominated by the SC community, in Udaipur district. Here, Rajan Chouhan, 24, works in a shop selling used tyres. He told Newslandry he’s part of WhatsApp groups formed by BJP workers. 

“The BJP has done a lot for the family of Kanhaiya Lal. I will vote on Hindutva. Yogi and Modi can protect our religion,” he said.

A disc jockey who plays songs at social and religious gatherings said he chooses Hindutva too. “In religious gatherings, Shri Ram, Janaki baithe hain mere seene main [Lord Ram and Janaki are in my heart] is one of the most popular songs,” he said.

Baby steps at the Congress

In contrast, the Rajasthan Congress has only taken baby steps.

Sumit Bagasara, chairman of the Rajasthan Congress’s social media and digital platforms, told Newslaundry his party has set up WhatsApp groups in “80 percent” of the 50,000 booths, more than that of the BJP. 

But two officebearers in the Congress war room in Jaipur contested this claim.

“The exercise began just two months ago,” one of them pointed out. “The BJP started working on this five years ago.”

Bagasara also said the Congress has 1,780 WhatsApp groups at the mandal level. Rajasthan has over 2,000 mandals. On November 15, Bagasara had promised to add this correspondent to the party’s WhatsApp groups but did not do so. Newslaundry’s subsequent calls and texts about it were unanswered.

But beyond WhatsApp, Bagasara had said the Congress’s impressions on social media are better than the BJP’s.

“If you see Twitter or other social media platforms, digital impressions for our posts are more. The BJP may have more retweets and likes as they can be bought,” he said.

Newslaundry checked. By 5 pm on November 23, the final day of campaigning in the state, the Rajasthan Congress posted 42 tweets with an average of 12,658 impressions on X. The Rajasthan BJP posted 85 tweets that day, clocking an average of 4,754 impressions – three times less than the Congress.

Deepak Raigar, a Congress booth president from the nearby Nathdwara assembly constituency in Rajsamand, told Newslaundry he’s an atheist; he has a tattoo on his arm that says “Nastik”, or atheist, as proof. He said he was part of five Congress WhatsApp groups and most messages were on poll rallies, speeches and outreach campaigns. 

And not everyone is enamoured of Hindutva content.

Rahul Kumar Raigar, who runs a tyre shop, said the government should be voted on its success and failure. “The Gehlot government should be repeated for its welfare schemes,” he said.

Congress workers in Udaipur and Jaipur area said the BJP was turning to issues like Ram Temple, religion and Kanhaiya Lal because it lacked “real” issues. 

“The Hindu-Muslim divide won’t help us run the house,” said Rakesh Raigar, a Congress worker. “Only the rich favour the BJP while the poor know what it takes to earn a livelihood.”

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