“No leader probably anywhere in the world is as obsessed with social media as Modi is, he even gets a detailed list of which social influencer has tweeted what about him every evening,” claims a former government official.
Every prime-ministerial tweet is vetted by more than one individual before being officially “cleared”, each tweet is aimed at shoring up Modi’s stature as the country’s tallest leader. As Gujarat chief minister, he would often tweet angrily against the Manmohan Singh government: for example, when the rupee was falling in 2013, he tweeted, “UPA government and the Rupee seem to be in a competition with each other on who will tumble down more.”
But once he was prime minister, the tweets revolved almost entirely around his achievements or the rituals of high office, like birthday greetings to his political rivals. “We don’t do anything off the cuff on Twitter or Facebook like a Donald Trump might, each tweet is carefully planned,” claims a Team Modi member.
By April 2019, on the eve of the general elections, Modi was by some distance the most popular leader on Facebook, with over 43.5 million “likes” on his personal page and 13.7 million on his official page. On Twitter, he had over 45 million followers, making him the second most followed leader in the world, next only to Donald Trump.
He has over 100 playlist videos on YouTube, and a LinkedIn account. As of October 2019, Modi has more than 30 million followers on Instagram, the preferred platform for millennials. “Modi has been at the forefront of the intersection of politics and technology like no other Indian leader before or since,” says Professor Joyojeet Pal, an expert in the relationship between social media and politics.
And it isn’t just Modi. Every senior BJP leader and member of his cabinet is expected to have an “engaged” social media presence, carefully monitored by the PMO. Most cabinet ministers have their own social media teams in their offices and their personal assistants stay in constant touch with each other through WhatsApp groups, sharing tweets and videos to be uploaded.
“We have a very well-organised system where any tweet from the prime minister is immediately liked and retweeted, any video he puts out is immediately shared,” claims a Union minister.
This systems-driven approach was tested on 17 March 2019, just weeks ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, when the prime minister changed his personal Twitter username to “Chowkidar Narendra Modi” a day after launching the #MainBhiChowkidar campaign on the service.
It was a calculated response to Rahul Gandhi’s “Chowkidar chor hai” jibe that the Congress was convinced was resonating with the voter. “Your chowkidar is standing firm and serving the nation. But I am not alone. Everyone who is fighting corruption, dirt, social evils is a chowkidar. Everyone working hard for the progress of India is a chowkidar. Today, every Indian is saying: #MainBhiChowkidar,” tweeted Modi.
Within minutes, every cabinet minister and BJP leader had affixed “Chowkidar” to their usernames. In another tweet, Modi uploaded a three-minute video to his personal Facebook and Twitter pages, urging his supporters to take a “Main bhi chowkidar” pledge. The video was also made available on the NaMo app which has around 1.5 crore downloads.
On 31 March, Modi interacted with a live audience of “chowkidars” in more than 500 locations across the country from Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium via video- conferencing. “I don’t think there has ever been a bigger social media event in Indian politics,” exults a Team Modi member.
The “Chowkidar” campaign was designed by the social media team at the PMO and executed by Gurugram-based ABM, the political consultancy linked to BJP president Amit Shah and reportedly functioning as his personal election unit. What Prashant Kishor’s event management skills had done for the Modi campaign in 2014 with innovative concepts like “Chai pe Charcha”, ABM was hoping to achieve in 2019 with the “Chowkidar” idea.
Only, ABM was much more secretive and under the radar, which is exactly how Shah wanted them to function. Astonishingly, the 31 March Chowkidar event was broadcast on Doordarshan even though the model code of conduct was in place. The lines between government and party, not for the first time, had become completely blurred.
The outreach didn’t stop there. Half a dozen “Main bhi chowkidar” videos and a theme song were released for TV and social media: the videos were the creation of Manish Bardia, the head of Moving Pixels, a small Ahmedabad-based advertising agency which has worked with Modi’s political campaigns since 2002.
“Main bhi chowkidar” merchandise – caps, T-shirts, wristbands – were also sold through the NaMo app. The “Chowkidar” campaign went viral almost immediately. The timing was perfect. In the first six weeks of 2019, it was the Congress which was trending more than the BJP on Twitter, its popularity driven by the high decibel “Chowkidar chor hai” slogan.
Then, on 14 February, the Pulwama terror attack happened and the political agenda shifted from corruption to national security. Within a fortnight, post-Balakot, Modi went from “chowkidar chor”, a symbol of thievery, to “chowkidar”, the valiant defender of national interests.
“The big difference between the Modi social media campaigns of 2014 and 2019 is just how much more finessed their messaging now is. Modi’s team knows just how to make something go viral in the shortest possible time,” observes Professor Pal.
In 2014, India had around 250 million internet users; in 2019, that number had more than doubled. The number of smartphone users – 155 million in the 2014 election – had tripled in five years to 450 million in 2019. With more than 300 million WhatsApp users and an almost equal number of Facebook accounts at the start of the new election cycle, Team Modi was convinced that the 2019 elections would be fought on smartphones, especially amongst the younger, more urbanized demographic.
“This is India’s first truly social media-driven election, fought on WhatsApp with much greater intensity than in a TV studio,” says Amit Malviya, convenor of the BJP’s IT and social media cell.
The slickly groomed Malviya, seen on TV in button-down collar shirts, was a corporate banker with the Bank of America and HSBC before formally joining the party in July 2015 as one of Amit Shah’s back-room boys. The task before him was to integrate and consolidate the BJP’s digital assets.
Working with a small team of around twenty-five people from the party headquarters in the national capital, Malviya eventually began travelling across the country and holding social media workshops for party workers and volunteers. “From the centre, we went right down to the booth level. In each of our booth committees, we now have at least five people who are tech-savvy and equipped with smartphones,” claims Malviya.
The sheer scale of the BJP’s social media outreach is mind-boggling. “When I started, our domain name BJP4India had 17 lakh followers on twitter, we now have 11.6 million. Our Facebook followers were 7.2 million, now the number is close to 16 million. We have 12 lakh registered social media volunteers. It’s a purely organic growth that has enabled us to mobilize people on an unimaginable scale,” he asserts.
At the heart of this mobilization drive are the lakhs of WhatsApp groups which BJP members and supporters have set up in the last five years, each group constantly interacting and sharing information with the other, making the app the ideal pipeline for unremitting political propaganda.
West Bengal is a classic case study in how the BJP used WhatsApp as a political “weapon” in 2019.
Ujjwal Pareek, an IT professional, helped set up the BJP’s Bengal unit IT cell in 2012 before taking a break to work abroad. He returned in January 2018 after a stint in the United Kingdom because he was driven, he says, by a “fierce ideological passion” to work for the BJP and defeat the Mamata Banerjee government.
In the course of the twelve months leading up to the 2019 elections, Pareek supervised the party’s digital outreach, travelling to district headquarters across the state to create an “army of digital soldiers”. By January 2019, he had assembled a team of 10,000 social media volunteers and created 50,000 WhatsApp and ShareChat groups, all connected from the booth level to the state headquarters in Kolkata through a distinct chain of command.
“There are 65 million voters in Bengal and 30 million smartphones; what better way to reach out to the voter than share videos in real time with almost half the voting population through WhatsApp?” says Pareek.
This WhatsApp-driven model of political campaigning was in evidence on 4 May 2019 as a highly charged Bengal campaign entered the final stretch. Pareek was having a relatively restful day in his office when he suddenly received a fifteen-second video of Mamata Banerjee confronting a group of BJP supporters in West Midnapore district and accusing them of abusing her, when in fact they were shouting “Jai Shri Ram” slogans.
Pareek and his team got to work right away: the video was sent out on WhatsApp, ShareChat and Facebook with the headline “Joi Shri Ram Kono Gaala-Gaali Noi” (Jai Shri Ram is not an abuse) in Bengali, and a scroll at the bottom that asked, “Joi Shri Ram e Didi’r ato raag kano?” (Why is Didi so upset over a Jai Shri Ram slogan?)
It was quickly subtitled in English and put out on Twitter to reach out to a wider national audience. Within minutes, the video had gone viral and become a prime-time talking point across news channels and everyday conversation in Bengal. “We managed to amplify the political message in real time with just one video and reach more people than a political rally ever can,” says Pareek gleefully.
In just one month of electioneering, the BJP4Bengal claims to have engaged with 20 million people on Facebook, many of them young voters, crucial to the BJP’s ascent in the state.
Excerpted with permission from 2019: How Modi Won India, Rajdeep Sardesai, HarperCollins India.