Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Twitter account may not be as newsworthy as US President Donald Trump’s, but on Thursday it was discussed enough that the Bharatiya Janata Party felt the need to respond. After it emerged that several accounts being followed by Modi had expressed glee at the murder of reputed journalist Gauri Lankesh, #BlockNarendraModi was trending for much of the day. In response, the national head of the BJP’s IT cell issued a statement saying the prime minister following someone is “not a character certificate”.

He explained: “PM Modi is the only one leader who freely engages with people on social media platforms. He follows normal people and frequently interacts with them on various issues. PM following someone is not a character certificate and not in anyway a guarantee of how a person would conduct himself.”

The controversy, which Malviya calls “mischievous and contorted”, arose after a section of Right-Wing supporters took to social media to justify or even in some cases celebrate the death of Lankesh. The reactions were significant enough that Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad felt the need to condemn them publicly.

Despite this condemnation, Twitter users continued to point out that accounts followed by the prime minister were tweeting out abusive messages and celebrating Lankesh’s death. In response, a number of Twitter users chose to block Modi’s account, using the #BlockNarendraModi hashtag, which trended all day on Thursday.

Malviya’s statement is not just interesting because it suggests the BJP felt concerned enough to react to the hashtag and the commentary surrounding Modi’s account. It also is an interesting enunciation of how Modi and the BJP’s social media team sees the role of the prime minister’s Twitter account.

There is no doubt that Modi was a pioneer, at least in India, in using Twitter to send messages directly to the public, without having to go through the media. Modi and the BJP had spent years using the medium before the Congress even decided to set up a full-fledged team dedicated to social media. It is also true that Modi’s use of the medium is hardly as controversial as US President Donald Trump, who frequently plugs friendly television shows, rants about the media and his critics and on occasion contradicts his government’s policy stances. In comparison, Modi’s Twitter accounts – his personal @narendramodi account and the @PMOIndia handle – are relatively straightforward, posting messages to other foreign leaders and updates from his travels.

Yet, as many in his party and government are still figuring out how they should be using social media, Malviya’s statement offers a few takeaways.

  • “He follows normal people and frequently interacts with them.” By normal people, Malviya presumably means ordinary citizens, and not other heads of state, important politicians, celebrities and so on. It is important to point out that Modi need not follow ordinary citizens just to interact with them – Trump’s handle follows just 45 people, and yet interacts with many more. This also does not provide a clear rationale for why Modi’s account follows certain accounts and not others. Modi, of course, has the right to follow whoever he wishes, but there is no doubt that these public actions also send a message. 
  • “He is a rare leader who truly believes in freedom of speech and has never blocked or unfollowed anyone on Twitter.” Never mind the problematic freedom of speech comment at a time when it seems to be under threat or about a state that has become infamous for using internet shutdowns. This comment should be useful guidance for others in Modi’s party and government. The suggestion is that blocking people on Twitter is a problematic thing to do, especially for government officials and politicians holding public office. Yet public agencies like the Unique Identification Authority of India, which manages Aadhaar, and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj have been known to block users who have asked questions or been critical of them.  
  • “PM following someone is not a character certificate.” But should it be? Whether the government admits it or not, Modi’s social media usage sends a signal to the wider public, and all of his actions are open to questioning. Especially at a time when many users mention “followed by the PM” as a badge of honour, it is worth laying out what exact rationale Modi uses when following accounts, if only to lay down preferred practices for others in his party. 
  • Malviya goes on to say that Modi also follows Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and a former BJP volunteer who has now joined the Congress and is extremely critical of the prime minister. He mentions that Gandhi is “accused of loot and fraud” and that both Kejriwal and the former BJP member “abused” Modi. But this is exactly why one can question how Modi is using social media. Kejriwal is the chief minister of a state, so it stands to reason that the prime minister’s handle would follow him. Gandhi is a Member of Parliament, but does the prime minister follow all MPs? And the volunteer reference brings up the same question as before: What prompted Modi to follow him? Malviya mentioned that the prime minister never unfollows anyone, which is a fair point to make, and one can imagine the difficult situation this puts him in. But it would be useful, again as a way of setting an example, if Modi’s team were to lay out rules that they go by, both when following accounts and also what might prompt them to unfollow someone. 

The tone of Malviya’s comments, which is predicated on the conceit that only Modi is criticised for his abusive supporters, is plainly political, rather than explanatory. Yet the statement gives some indication of how India’s prime minister, one of the world’s most followed politicians, uses social media. The government could even use this opportunity to formulate and publicise a list of best practices for an evolving medium that has become a crucial way to reach out to the public.