Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore)
In the run up to the 2004 Lok Sabha election, then BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan showed around a TV reporter around the ‘war room’ at 12, Safdarjung Road, New Delhi, his official residence, where scores of young people were glued to computer screens, analysing data of every constituency. At 99, South Avenue, in another part of the national capital, Congress’ Salman Khurshid and Jairam Ramesh ran what passed for a ‘war room’ with a handful of people to look at data. The BJP lost that election, and an honest party president at the time, M Venkaiah Naidu, confessed that he did not know how they lost because that was not what he saw. The Congress leaders were pleasantly shocked that they breasted the tape as it were.
Now fast forward to the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Congress hired a lot many professionals, including young journalists, to man the ‘computer war room’. It was not open to the cameras either of the TV or of the print but it was apparent that the party was gearing up to use well the information technology (IT) to fight its battle.
On the BJP front, the party under prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi outsourced the ‘war room’ because he fought as Modi the gladiator and not as the right-wing Hindutva party. It still remains a fuzzy secret about the IT setup of Modi, and buzz has been that he had outsourced it to a private American consultancy, comprising many non-resident Indians (NRIs). No one knows for sure because neither Modi nor the BJP have been open about it. Modi’s invisible IT soldiers were supposed to bombard the electorate with pro-Modi messages, and many party insiders at that time would talk on condition of anonymity as to how Modi was exhorting them to take to the social media – Twitter and Facebook – to get in touch with the voters.
There was also the other side to the Modi tactic where he would warn party folk that the masses in India are not on the social media and the only way is to go out the old fashioned way and knock at their doors physically and personally. We do not know the contribution of the IT wing of Modi to his impressive victory – he managed to get a simple majority for the party, which was a first for any party in 30 years. The BJP won 283 seats, 10 more than that required for a simple majority in a house of 545. What was visible was Modi’s energetic campaign where he addresses a record number of rallies across the country.
The overwhelming victory in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in the country which has the largest number of seats in the Lok Sabha – 80 – the BJP had won 73. The man who steered the party to a massive victory in the party was Amit Shah, who was then made the BJP’s in-charge in UP. Shah was not IT savvy. At least he did not flaunt that he was one. He seemed to have worked in the old fashioned way, in close collaboration with both workers on the ground, strategising and plotting for every constituency, stitching up alliances with smaller parties like Apna Dal.
In UP, it was not IT that ensured BJP’s victory, and Shah and Modi and then party president Rajnath Singh went about it as if they were still in the pre-IT stage because UP was not Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai. IT was a useless weapon in the state.
But once in office, Modi leveraged his social media footprint. His army of IT soldiers are located somewhere at the Prime Minister’s residence at 7, Lok Kalyan Marg, formerly the Race Course Road, and they have been tweeting messages 24x7 for Prime Minister Modi. Prime Minister seemed to have become ubiquitous. At Narendra Modi (@narendramodi), the Twitter account which shows January 2009 as the time he joined, shows that he tweeted 19,000 times, that he is following 1,943 persons, and he has 43.2 million followers. @PMOIndia, the official Twitter handle of Prime Minister’s Office, there are 18,800 tweets, he is shown to be following 56 persons, and he had 86,900 followers. The personal account reveals a personal touch, as in this tweet of Shilpi Agarwal saying “Only one thing Modiji you should smile more often!!(emoji) Baaki sab mast hai (emoji)”. To which the prime minister responded “Point taken.:)”
The Congress for its part stepped into social media battle scene rather late in the day. The Congress social media cell was set up under former Member of Parliament and Kannada actress Divya Spandana and the foot-soldiers on the other side tried to launch counter-attacks, responding to tweets from the prime minister and other BJP leaders. But the Congress cyber-forces are not as strong or as large as on the BJP side. This can be gauged from the fact that Rahul Gandhi has only 7.26 million followers, and he has only 3,822 tweets to his credit as on the afternoon of
But we know the prime minister knows that he is not spreading his message only through social media. That is why he takes pains to travel across the country, addresses election rallies extensively. Modi’s ‘Mann Ki Baat’, the monthly radio chat, which has been broadcast across all the stations of All India Radio pan-nation and even by commercial television news channels, is another propaganda mode, though the prime minister and his followers will disagree that it is propaganda.
There is however an intense cyber-war underway most of the time between the followers of different parties and different leaders and it might give the impression that the real battlefront is indeed the IT-enabled social media trenches, with followers of one leader acting like trolls or enemy combatants against another leader.
The trolls appear to be the real menace, mowing down opponents ruthlessly. But this is a grand illusion. The trolls in their thousands, and quite a large number of them could be fakes as well, appear to be crowding out the real people. But a moment’s thought would show that this is a shadow war, more akin to the much-talked about psychological warfare – psy-war of modern strategists.
Many would argue that it is not necessary to have the real millions on their side, and that fake millions on the cyber-front are enough to browbeat the opponent. The real test of the political battle comes at election time, where people choose or reject a politician. It is possible for a leader to have a great army on the social media but the people who actually vote for him may not be as many.
It seemed that Prime Minister Modi had skirted the traditional media of print, radio and television, and he connected with the public through social media. This is so much brouhaha and nothing else. The fact that the prime minister turned to the radio, one of the older platforms, through monthly broadcast, Mann Ki Baat, shows that he has wisely not put all his eggs in one basket, and he has not given up other platforms. For a man who does not like to interact with media for fear of facing uncomfortable questions from impudent journalists, he has found a safe channel on the radio, where he has his say and there is no cross-questioning.
The fact that political parties and political leaders are returning to older media through press conferences
shows that they are all aware that
they do not reach everyone, especially those they mean to reach. When the BJP-led NDA government of Prime Minister Modi marked the end of its fourth year in office in the last week of May, BJP president Amit Shah addressed a press conference, listing
the achievements of the government. And he addressed another press conference the next day to explain the situation in Karnataka post-Assembly election. And he said he hoped the information would be disseminated by the media so that it reaches the people. He said he wanted to reach people through the media.
That was a rare moment of acquiescence to the traditional media and their important role. Gone is the moment of triumph that the politician has managed to skirt the hurdle of traditional media and connect with people directly through social media platforms. Prime Minister Modi is still wary of facing the media, but he chose to speak to right-wing magazine Swarajya about four years in office of his government. Social media is proving to be inadequate and there is a return to the traditional media.
The virtual war on the social media will continue despite the realisation that its impact is limited. But there is the hope that it will have a diffused spread, and as more and more people come on the cyber-platforms through their mobile phones.
The big weapon that has reared its head on the propaganda battlefield is WhatsApp, where half-truths, rumours and falsehoods can be spread, and which has acquired the name of ‘Fake News’. Politicians would be tempted to use ‘Fake News’ through WhatsApp against their opponents and it may cause initial harm. And ‘Fake News’ is more rumour than propaganda, and politicians thrive on propaganda to win their battles in a democracy.
It has always been the case in modern times, especially in the 20th century, that totalitarian states had always tried to control the means of public communication. So, there were state-owned newspapers, news agencies and television states. Democracies have taken pride in free media where different points of view clashed, and facts were scrutinised and questioned. Governments in a democracy cannot have a free run with what they say and what they want to say, but they have to accept counter-questioning and refutations from the opposite side. In spite of that, propaganda in a democratic society takes insidious forms and there is an attempt to present half-truth as truths.
Each party and each leader is fiercely keen to spread his own message as well as a powerful and effective refutation of the other. We have seen in the no-confidence moved against the Modi government in the Lok Sabha on July 20 that everyone who spoke was indulging in propaganda war of sorts. This is the classic, democratic way of doing things, confronting each other with their respective viewpoints, and the people will have to decide whose version is truer and genuine. But politicians and political parties are not content with open democratic duels. They are looking for ways to reinforce their messages, and they have found a new means in the social media, apart from the traditional media.
Media in general lends itself to propaganda because it is not able to put forth all the facts, but only a selection of them, the strategy adopted by the politicians as well. The only touchstone for testing propaganda and to check out its truth quantity is to compare it with reality of people’s lives. But it does not happen in that kind of a straightforward fashion. Some people are taken in by one set of facts, and others by another set. The age-old propaganda battles continue and new forms like social media give the false impression that it is something new. But it is like the proverbial old wine in new bottles – propaganda is now flowing through social media.
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