With the general election scheduled to begin in less than a month, it is difficult not to be exasperated and amused at the vitriol masquerading as debate on social networking sites. The average Indian social media user, it seems, is opinionated, political and determined to be heard. But it is not certain whether politicians will be able to translate this energy into votes.

Though political parties are exploiting the potential to interact with young voters, they still have a lot to learn, says journalist Shaili Chopra in a new book, The Big Connect.

“Politicians in India are one of the biggest reasons social media is so popular today,” Chopra said in a conversation with Scroll.in. “Politicians today have led far more people to come online and share their opinions.”

This, she said, is a consequence of India's peculiar love for masala and scandal. “Just as mainstream media is driven by negativity and scandal, the Indian social media is always looking for juice,” Chopra said. “There is no middle ground when people talk about Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi.”

Every last vote counts in a potentially fractured mandate, and voters have never been so easily and cheaply accessible to any politician. A report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India conjectures that social media campaigns could cause a swing of three to four per cent in 24 states where there are significant numbers of internet users.

Political parties and their informal armies have flooded digital spaces, but beyond registering their presence online, they do not seem to be doing much else. While politicians are certainly engaging with the medium and carving their own niches in it, they are still behaving as users and not drivers of the medium. On Twitter, sheer volume might work to overwhelm contrary opinions, but that is insufficient to shape the debate on services like Facebook, which notoriously keeps altering its algorithm to display stories on a user’s homepage.

"Is there any scientific approach to the medium?" asked Chopra. "It’s not just about creating Facebook pages. Strategy goes a long way in understanding how digital and on-ground media can work together.”

Chopra devotes a chapter each to the three political parties most spoken of on social media: the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party. The way they navigate  social media, it seems, mirrors their activities in real life.

The Congress is a late arrival to the party. Although Shashi Tharoor, its MP from Thiruvananthapuram, was one of the first Indian politicians on Twitter and was for a brief period the most-followed Indian on the site, not many of the party’s leaders followed suit. Many were still trickling in as late as December, and there are no clear guidelines from the high command about the line they should take.

“In the case of the Congress, leaders find it hard to be successful because the two party leaders, the Gandhis, are not online,” said Chopra. “Who is the face of Congress online? Who will be there to defend or propagate an idea? They do have senior leaders online, but there is no one strategy.”

AAP, however, has managed to project the personalities of its individual leaders, even as it builds its own image. AAP’s success in the Delhi state elections last year was largely due to its online presence, maintained Chopra. Unlike traditional parties, AAP did not have access to traditional sources of funding, so it crowdsourced its campaign and managed to convert online approval into money.

“There are a few things central to AAP’s strategy,” said Chopra. “For the Delhi campaign, AAP wanted to raise money. The chances were that if you tweeted to join the party, you might get a ticket in return. If you tweeted about wanting to donate money to the party, a volunteer would contact you within minutes to guide you through the process. AAP has used on-ground activity to fuse social media. It has taken the offline online, and the online offline. They plan on social media, but meet on the ground.”

However, the real challenge for AAP is to take a successful city-level strategy to the entire country, said Chopra. “There is some effort to use social media intelligently, but this also has to be driven by digital companies and their ability to conduct studies,” she said.

But what of the Modi wave that is allegedly sweeping the country and transforming young voters from diffident observers into passionate karyakartas? That, Chopra said, is indicative of a Modi wave, not necessarily a BJP one.

“Many of the people I spoke to were clear that they were voting for Narendra Modi,” said Chopra. “If Modi were not there, they would not necessarily vote for the BJP.” She added: “Modi is running a parallel machinery as far as BJP is concerned. The people handling Modi are far ahead technologically.”

On the face of it, the party is deploying technology quite extensively. Vinit Goenka, a member of the BJP’s IT cell, told Scroll.in that the party has employed various strategies to keep people connected. “We use YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to connect the party to voters, and we use Whatsapp and email to keep our volunteers, workers and karyakartas connected,” he said.

The party has outlined a clear chain of information where a message from the core group of national leaders and IT experts can spread throughout the country in a matter of minutes.

“I know that after I send a message, within 17 or 18 minutes, the last man in the chain will get a message," Goenka said. "We have multiple links so that if there is a break in the flow if somebody has no battery or is offline, the message will still go through.”

The question, Chopra pointed out, is what will happen to all this social media goodwill after the elections?

“While this election is important, the next few are far more important,” said Chopra. “The biggest test of politicians will come after these elections are over. How many stay engaged after elections, whether their supporters have been bought or built… These stories will be put to a very strong test.”

Chopra's book, The Big Connect: Politics in the Age of Social Media, will be released on April 2.