The project of liberal democracy finds an unlikely candidate in independent India. The adoption of democracy in a post-colonial and economically backward state has baffled scholars for decades. There has been considerable debate over how such a form of government came about in a country that was still healing from the bruises of its colonial past. A key feature of this democratic setup was free and fair elections. Independent India held its first general elections in 1951. Over the next few decades, the nation was witness to various social movements, secessionist attempts by different states, attacks from enemies within and external to its territorial boundary. The only constant fixture was elections.
Much of what forms a part of the run-up to the great Indian election is roadshows, speeches among large crowds, and rallies. Be it Indira Gandhi’s famous Garibi Hatao campaigns, Rajiv Gandhi’s fatal meeting with the public in Chennai, or Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s memorable speeches, interactions with the public have been at the core of campaigning in India. However, with the arrival of the Bharatiya Janata Party as the contender for the general elections in 2014, social media became the buzzword. The horrors of UPA 2 had turned the public opinion against them. In a term marred by scams, corruption, and the horrific handling of the Nirbhaya case, it was evident that the Congress government had been brought down to its knees. The BJP capitalized on this anti-government sentiment and launched widespread multimedia and social media campaigns. These advertisements used references from popular movies and television shows to grab the attention of younger voters. The BJP eventually went on to win the election and was elected for the second time in 2019.
Post-2019 their social media presence increased exponentially. The infamous IT cell of the BJP was involved in numerous online campaigns against dissenters. The BJP has arguably benefited from the social media boom in India. Prime Minister Modi himself garnered around 46.6 million followers on Twitter. The party has created many pages about their candidates and campaigns across multiple social media platforms, designed to target individuals between the ages of 18-30.
The manner in which social media has helped political parties in micro-targeting voters is particularly interesting. After the pandemic hit India, rallies, and roadshows had to be significantly restricted. As a result, parties turned to various forms of media for the dissemination of information. During my work with the Trivedi Center for Political Data, I worked on a project that dealt with social media usage by political parties. It focussed on annotations of political ads from the Facebook ad library. My work involved meticulously combing through around 2500 advertisements by various political parties and categorizing them according to their content, target audience, tone, and authenticity of these advertisements. I was tasked with looking into the West Bengal Assembly elections of 2021. The main parties were the BJP, the TMC, the CP(I)M, and the INC. While every election campaign is different depending upon the context and the state that is going to the polls, some trends are broadly similar in most states.
The BJP continues to rely on Narendra Modi as their “X” factor. Their state campaigns rarely mention the candidate who is actually contesting. The narrative is focused on the Modi factor. Slogans like “aapka har vote directly Modi ko jayega” have helped popularize this rhetoric, creating the illusion that irrespective of who is contesting, the people should show their approval for Prime Minister Modi by voting for the BJP. Campaigns of regional parties like the TMC are centered around the cult of the chief minister. This has led to the creation of apps like “Didir Doot” which was launched by the TMC to help CM Mamata Bannerjee connect with the public. Along with these technological changes, parties have increasingly used pop culture references to appeal to the youth. The BJP recently launched an ad campaign against Mamata Bannerjee called “Pishi Jaao” which sounds eerily similar to the popular song Bella Ciao of Netflix’s Money Heist (2017) fame. The catchy tune is chosen to connect and target the youth as the electorate. Be it the AAP or the Shiv Sena, all parties are committed to increasing their social media presence through tweets by ministers or creating memes. A good example is the #DidYouKnow campaign by the Shiv Sena to raise awareness before the 2017 municipal elections. Social media has also been vital in propagating the party’s ideas beyond their immediate electoral goals. It has become an easy device to discredit their opponents since it allows them methods of representation beyond just speeches. A useful manifestation of this is the misogynistic tone that characterized the BJP’s campaign in West Bengal in 2021. The fact that the opponent in question was a woman, prompted the party to attack her character and make derogatory remarks about her personal life. Male candidates are more often than not accused of corruption and inefficiency whereas women are character assassinated. This isn’t state-specific either. UP’s former Chief Minister Mayawati has also been at the receiving end of such disrespect.
However, this is not the only way in which parties use social media. A recent investigation by The Wire revealed that the BJP was reportedly using an app called TekFog to infiltrate various social media platforms to plant stories about themselves and spread misinformation about the opposition parties. The application was used to target opposing voices. The aforementioned IT Cell has used this application to spread hateful comments about women who have spoken out against the party. By saving private citizens’ information, it was instrumental in making hashtags that target members of marginalized communities. The Big Brother-like phenomenon should come as warning bells for a country that has already been considered as the latest case of democratic backsliding. While we mourn the gradual erosion of democracy in India, it is important to remember what George Orwell wrote in 1984, “they could spy upon you night and day, but if you kept your head, you could still outwit them. With all their cleverness, they had never mastered the secret of finding out what another human being was thinking.”
Ranjini Ghosh is an undergraduate student majoring in Political Science at Ashoka University. She is currently working with the Trivedi Center for Political Data. Her work involves categorizing and analyzing candidate data for the upcoming Goa and Manipur Assembly elections.
Picture Credits: BGSU News
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