social media

The age of trolls: What the BJP's new spokesperson signifies for Indian politics

Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga was once known for his violent demonstrations and social media heckling. He is now speaking for the ruling party.

Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga first hit the spotlight in 2011, when he barged into the office of Supreme Court lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan and assaulted him. Bagga was angry with Bhushan’s remarks regarding a referendum on Kashmir. Bagga later tweeted: “He try to break my Nation, i try to break his head. Hisab chukta [scores settled]. Congrats to all. operation Prashant Bhushan successful [sic]”.

While the incident brought him notoriety, that tweet was also the beginning of Bagga’s rise to social media stardom. In the past six years, Bagga has been extremely active on Twitter, running online campaigns and targetting critics of the Bharatiya Janata Party. On Tuesday, he was rewarded for this when the BJP appointed him its spokesperson for Delhi.

Bagga’s remarkable rise – from a notorious troll to the spokesperson of the party ruling the Union government – is a good indication of the importance the BJP places on social media. While the saffron party has used social media extensively for a few years now, Bagga’s induction into the BJP a week before the Delhi municipal corporation elections will come as a boost for its social media warriors.

Online and offline trolling

Bagga has a rich history of starring in raucous protests in New Delhi at least since 2010. That year, he attacked the car of Kashmiri leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq to protest against his presence at Delhi’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club. In 2011, he disrupted Arundhati Roy’s book launch at the India Habitat Centre. In March 2012, he heckled Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani at a seminar in Civil Lines and two months later locked the main gate of the state-government owned Jammu and Kashmir House in the national capital to demand an increase in the duration of the Amarnath Yatra.

Bagga, however, did not just protest. He also made sure he advertised his disruptions. Journalist Swati Chaturvedi has pointed out that Bagga would call television channels and ask them to cover the events he was about to barge into. He also advertised his stunts on social media.

Over the next few years, Bagga invested a lot of time in social media. On Twitter, he organised pro-BJP trends and targeted journalists such as NDTV India’s Ravish Kumar. In one of his latest antics, last November, he stood outside the NDTV office in South Delhi and held up poster which read: “Dear Ravish, please unblock me on Twitter.”

More alarmingly, Bagga’s activism also includes the spreading of communal rumours. In 2012, he tweeted that he knew of a “North East sister from Bangalore” who had “got threat from local Muslims”, adding to hysteria that saw a panic-stricken exodus of people from the North East from Bengaluru to Guwahati. The tweet has since been deleted.

Later in 2013, Bagga started a social media campaign to support Narendra Modi’s candidature for prime minister called “Modi-fying India”. In his book recounting Modi’s prime ministerial campaign, the British journalist Lance Price wrote of how Bagga organised a concert at which Modi T-shirts were distributed, to make the BJP leader more attractive to younger voters.

In 2011, when Bagga spoke triumphantly of breaking Prashant Bhushan’s head, the BJP condemned it, with senior leaders such as Lal Krishna Advani and Rajnath Singh speaking up. Bagga claimed that he was once a BJP youth wing leader and had left it because it would not allow him the leeway to do “the sort of work we wanted to do”.

But 2011 was a different age. In 2015, Bagga was one of the 150-odd social media influencers Prime Minister Modi met at his official residence. And now the BJP, attracted by Bagga’s social media footprint, has welcomed Bagga not only as a party member but as a spokesman – its public face.

Social media importance

That a disagreeable social media personality has been appointed spokesperson for the party that leads the government might come as somewhat of a shock – but it is not unexpected. In many ways, it is continuation of the emphasis the BJP has given to social media over the years.

The party’s win in the 2014 Lok Sabha election was supported by a vociferous social media campaign. Some of this was organic, with affluent, urban Indians fed up with the perceived bumbling of the United Progressive Alliance government. But much of it was also top-down, driven by the BJP’s Information Technology cell. The BJP claims that its Information Technology cell was supported by 20 lakh volunteers who ran trends and campaigns on social media. While social media users are still a very small proportion of India’s population, they have a disproportionate amount of influence on the news given their wealth and urbanity. As Arvind Gupta, the head of the BJP Information Technology Cell, said: “Social media sets the narrative”.

After being voted to power, the BJP has used social media with even greater effect, driving conversation and discourse along lines favourable to the party.

In West Bengal, for example, Twitter handles sympathetic to the BJP have attacked the Mamata Banerjee government repeatedly on alleged instances of minority appeasement. While some of the these trends have been inaccurate or biased, they have nonetheless served to set the national narrative, forcing, for instance, television news channels in New Delhi to pay attention to the state.

The ruling Trinamool Congress, in turn, has hit out against social media, with MP Derek O’Brien even identifying certain Twitter handles by name in the Rajya Sabha. That a state government now responds directly to social media attacks is another example of the medium’s expanded role in Indian politics today.

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