On October 17, a YouTube video by a platform calling itself The Open Letter claimed that the Congress’s official Facebook page was targeting Pakistanis with an advertisement claiming the only way to save the Indian democracy was by removing Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A few hours later, Bharatiya Janata Party IT cell head Amit Malviya repeated the allegation on Twitter. The Congress denied the claim. But by evening, Arnab Goswami had made it the topic of his prime-time debate on Republic TV.

This was just another indication of how passionate, polemical YouTube videos produced by The Open Letter and a clutch of other 20-something internet personalities on both sides of the ideological divide are capturing the political imaginations of young Indians – and helping shape the debate in the mainstream media.

“With easily available internet, people are getting empowered with knowledge and these guys are putting information on the table,” said the Aam Aadmi Party’s social media head Ankit Lal. “Not everyone in India might have a smartphone but those who are watching these videos are driving conversation in their respective areas.”

Added Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien, “Without sounding condescending, I would like to salute the young men and women, and there are so many, that are doing these exposes.”

During the 2014 election, social media was expected to influence voting in 160 of the total 543 Lok Sabha constituencies, according to a study conducted in 2013. Said Lal, “The number will cross 300 this time, and these young influencers will play a big role in it.”

The beginning

Much of this new activity owes its existence to 24-year-old Dhruv Rathee, the first Indian to mine YouTube’s potential as a political soapbox. His channel has more than 1.4 million subscribers. Rathee began his video blog in 2013 as a way for him to document his travels but it took a political turn a few months after the 2014 general election, when he decided that the BJP was not living up to its promises.

Despite his constant criticism of the ruling party, Rathee refuses to describe himself as being anti-BJP: according to his channel’s description, he is aiming to encourage “critical thinking and awareness among masses”.

BJP IT Cell Exposed, Dhruv Rathee.

Disillusionment with the BJP also prompted Akash Banerjee, Wali Rahmani and Kumar Shyam to start their own YouTube channels. They were also driven by their perception that most mainstream TV channels were merely serving up government propaganda. “If all channels are criticising Nehru in 2018 and praising Modi at the same time, something is wrong, right?” asked Rahmani, a law student from Delhi.

Though they all aim to expose what they believe are the problems with the ruling party, they view their roles differently – Shyam calls himself a journalist, Rathee an educator, Rahmani a social activist, and Banerjee a political satirist.

They also have different audience niches. While Rathee’s crisply edited videos that mix Hindi and English made him popular in urban India, Shyam has found his audience in the Hindi belt. Both Rathee and Shyam make explanatory videos about what’s in the news. The majority of their videos examine government propaganda. Rahmani makes videos on similar topics but with a consistent focus on issues concerning Indian Muslims.

Banerjee, by contrast, uses humour to make political commentary. One of Banerjee’s popular characters is an unassuming but confident Hindu nationalist, Bhakt Banerjee, who makes a joke of himself while defending the BJP government. “What I do is I present facts produced from rigorous research, but with humour, which is different from parodying politicians something that The Week That Wasn’t [CNN News18 show] would do,” he explained.

Akash Banerjee as the DeshBhakt.

But these government critics don’t have YouTube to themselves. In 2017-’18, in came channels like The Sham Sharma Show, FMF, Aaj Ki Taza Khabar and An Open Letter which, by and large, are pro-BJP and critical of those who take on the ruling party. They regularly feature pointed attacks on journalists, the Opposition – and Rathee and his friends.

In fact, the frequent baiting of Rathee on these channels seems to suggest many of them started as a reaction to his popularity. Aaj Ki Taza Khabar tops this category with 19 videos that claim to “expose Rathee’s lies”. Three of FMF’s videos openly target Rathee, including one where he has two red horns photoshopped onto his head. An Open Letter has sparred with Rathee five times.

Dhruv Rathee – A Serial Liar, An Open Letter.

“There is some truth in this,” Shambhav Sharma of the Sham Sharma Show said. But, he added, he had other reasons to start his channel. Sharma, 28, said he was passionate about studying Hinduism, an interest that was piqued during his college years in Delhi University. Inspired by Hindutva scholars Sita Ram Goel and Ram Swarup and journalist Arun Shourie, Sharma said he wanted his channel to “spread knowledge about Hindu and Indic cultures”.

Taking a cue from the American internet’s conservative stars like Ben Shapiro, Sharma launched his channel from Chicago, where he lives, in October 2017.

“But you can’t bring in an audience without getting political,” Sharma observed. Starting off with capsule-sized news bulletins, Sharma moved to talking about what he believes is an anti-Hindu bias in journalism and academia, arguing for the need for Hindutva and re-branding Hinduism, while occasionally commenting on Indian politics.

The Sham Sharma Show.

Just as Rathee and his friends frequently feature on each other’s shows, Sharma, Aaj Ki Taza Khabar, FMF and An Open Letter promote each other, cross-pollinating audiences. Perhaps their clearest statement of purpose is the joint session titled Creating A Non-Left Ecosystem made by Sharma and the people behind Aaj Ki Taza Khabar. In the two-hour show, they outline their disdain for the Left and discuss the need for an alternative news media platform that serves up to their views.

Creating a Non-Left ecosystem, The Sham Sharma Show feat. Aaj Ki Taza Khabar.

These channels, however, are yet to match up to their ideological opponents in terms of subscribers and views. The Sham Sharma Show, FMF, Aaj Ki Taza Khabar and An Open Letter together have close to 6.4 lakh YouTube subscribers right now. Rathee, Banerjee and the others have over 21 lakh between them. “Perhaps, the BJP IT cell could send some viewers to us,” Sharma quipped.

Rathee doesn’t believe this is surprising. “Why will people watch right-wing content on YouTube when they are getting better produced material with the same views on television news daily?” he reasoned.

Playing it safe

Even as they battle each other politically and personally, what unites both sides in these YouTube wars is their reluctance to be slotted as “Left” or “Right”, their insistence that they are neutral. “Firstly, there is no Right or Left in India,” Banerjee said. “It is pro-government or critical of government. You speak against the government, you become Leftist. And why is one side winning? Maybe, that’s the side with facts and some humour.”

Sharma, on his part, describes channels like his as “non-Left” as “we are united by our common distaste for left-wing and left-liberal views”.

Twenty questions for Dhruv Rathee, Akash Banerjee.

Rahmani, meanwhile, altered the tone of his content to find more takers across religions. “As I was getting popular on the internet talking about Yogi Adityanath and the BJP, a vlogger Vikas Ratan Goel asked me to look for Hindu names among the ones who were praising me on Facebook,” he said. “It was shocking to find none. Then, he asked me, if I want to be a national leader or a Muslim leader. That’s when I began to talk more about secularism. Now, my subscribers are 50% Hindu and 50% Muslim.”

Rahmani continued. ““Me or Dhruv are not anti-BJP. It’s not about Right or Left but criticising the government. We will do the same even if there’s the Congress at the Centre. We haven’t come here with the narrative to protect Modi or the BJP.”

Rathee summed it up: “Praising the government is the easiest thing to do which is why actors are dying to do it now. It is difficult to flow against the tide.”