It didn’t take much for a joke on Twitter to transform into a spoof government of India.
Vidyut Gore, a resident of Nalasopara near Mumbai and an avid Twitter user, put out a poll on her Twitter handle on August 13.
“Someone commented on something I said on Twitter with ‘Vidyut for PM’,” Gore told Quartz. “As a joke, I created a poll claiming vast surge in popularity, and asking the public who they would vote for. Some people joked saying make a cabinet.”
Some 86% of the over 3,000 votes went to Gore. The only logical next step was to stake a claim and form a government. One thing led to another and Gore formed AltSarkar or the Alternative Sarkar on the internet, sarkar being the Hindi word for government.
AltSarkar is a role-play government that relies heavily on satire to present a parallel universe, an alternative reality. It mimics ministries of the Indian government – finance, telecom, water resources, parliamentary affairs, information and broadcasting – and presents counter policies to existing ones, often encased in deadpan humour.
Gore soon reached out to tweeple interested in being ministers and they responded enthusiastically. On August 24, AltPresident of India, Raja Swaminathan, invited Gore to announce and induct her alt-cabinet of ministers. AltSarkar also appointed Twitter user Sonali Ranade as governor of the Alt Reserve Bank of India.
A shadow government?
Meghnad S, alt parliamentary affairs minister and real-life associate editor with Newslaundry, is quick to point out that AltSarkar is not trying to be the real opposition. “We are pretending to be ministers and putting out fantasy policies that may not necessarily have parallels in reality,” he said. “This also pushes us to think out of the box and go beyond criticising the government. And we’re still working with the tone of our views. It will evolve organically. For now, it’s what we know was kataaksh [biting satire].”
A shadow government also has the role of a watchdog, which AltSarkar says it is not despite commenting on the real policies. “We have no interest in politics,” Gore said. “And, a watchdog is pretty meaningless when any entity that could call a government to account, the opposition included, has been decimated.”
In which case, AltSarkar offers itself up as a safe space for dissent.
Given that there have been arrests in India over unfavourable social media posts, this is the need of the hour. “Personally, I hope to achieve a safe space for dissent,” said Gore. “In a world where you can be targeted for dissenting, it doesn’t get safer than this. What are they going to do? Persecute a spoof for being more popular than them?”
This fear of being persecuted exists despite the fact that lampooning has been a part of mainstream media, be it through caricatures, daily cartoon strips, or video spoofs.
“I am a Malayali, and every evening in Kerala, our TV channels spoof the government, politicians, and celebrities: We laugh at ourselves to keep us sane,” said James Wilson, a civil engineer by day and AltSarkar’s water resources minister on Twitter. “Now in India, the space for satire is shrinking in a frightening way, forget about dissent. If a nation can’t laugh with its cartoonists, spoof artists, of course, we are having a serious mental health problem. AltSarkar is a small attempt to rekindle the laughter gene in us.”
For instance, before speaking to Quartz, prime minister Gore was addressing the nation on Twitter at 8 pm, because, she said, “That’s what prime ministers do.” It was a not-so-subtle reference to prime minister Modi’s nationally broadcast speeches, often scheduled at 8 pm.
Serious digital humour
Digital marketing experts believe this mix of politics and humour works quite well on social media. “Digital cells of various political parties often create content using political satire,” said Jatin Modi, CEO of FrogIdeas, a digital marketing agency. “We saw this in the case of the US elections, with both Republicans and Democrats coming up with the cockiest hashtags for their opponents.”
Satire website FakingNews and parody accounts like @Troll_Modi and @PMNehru, have sizeable social media following. These accounts are largely anonymous and often have bold political commentary dripping with sarcasm.
AltSarkar has further expanded that universe, though it is not only about humour. The alt-finance ministry, for instance, tweeted about focussing the country’s expenditure on primary education.
The alt-telecom minister promised a level-playing field for companies and quicker adoption of 5G services.
AltSarkar’s information and broadcasting ministry also sent out an alert on Twitter warning citizens against the epidemic of fake news about child kidnappers.
“We are actually talking of things that would be boring, were boring till a few years ago,” said Gore.
No one, including Gore, is sure where all this is heading. For now, it’s all about having fun with serious national issues.
This article first appeared on Quartz.