Narendra Modi’s social media handlers defend his growth projections, shout down his opponents, and, importantly, project him as the “hit and fit” Prime Minister for 2014. By SAGNIK DUTTA

The Hindu nationalistic fervour captured the public imagination in the 1980s, but the support base necessary for the revival of a Hindu identity was built only in the following decades with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power at the Centre in 1998. The dominant characteristics of this era of supposed Hindu revivalism were the assertion of an aggressive masculinity, as an answer to the perceived historical injustice done to Hindus, and an attendant demonisation of Muslims and other religious minorities as the “cultural other”. This aggression was conveniently conflated with an upper-caste identity that fed on the anti-lower-caste rhetoric during the Mandal agitations. Post its defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, one of the central concerns of the BJP has been its official position with respect to the discourse on Hindutva ideology. Commentary in the mainstream media in recent times seems to suggest that the projection of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the party’s possible prime ministerial candidate points to a renewed emphasis on “progress” and “development” rather than assertion of Hindu identity.

However, a careful study of Modi’s use of social media brings out a focussed and, to an extent, orchestrated attempt at projecting him as a masculine, aggressive and unstoppable achiever, one who has decidedly embarked on the path of attaining the position of Prime Minister in 2014. An elaborate machinery is at work to bring this to fruition. According to Modi’s political opponents, the online campaign is often characterised by exaggerations and false claims. A noticeable feature of this campaign, especially in social media fora such as Twitter, is the intolerance shown towards any tweeter who tries to counter the claims made about Modi, displaying the very same characteristics of machismo and force that constituted the backbone of Hindu nationalism in its heyday. It is important to understand the Modi phenomenon as well Modi’s much-touted project of development from this perspective too.

The social media campaigns specifically targets a sizable chunk of non-resident Indians (NRIs), who are by and large admirers and supporters of Modi. Incidentally, the rise of Hindu nationalism was marked by the enthusiastic support extended by NRIs who saw in it a revival of an “authentic” Indian culture (“Yankee Hindutva”, Frontline, May 3). The markers of religiosity are also not hard to discern, with the occasional mention of the observance of Hindu upper-caste rituals by Modi. Though the BJP’s central leadership says that the activities of the online groups are mostly spontaneous, interviews with volunteers working on the ground in Gujarat give a somewhat different picture. Systematic efforts are on to create and consolidate a support base for Modi as the prime ministerial candidate. The initiative to mobilise more and more people to follow him on social media often works in tandem with the BJP’s intellectual cells across Gujarat.

The campaigns on Facebook and Twitter are primarily directed at the upwardly mobile middle- and upper-class youth who share a certain degree of disdain for “corrupt” and “non-performing” politicians and look at Modi as an alternative.

Nandita Thakur, who is with the BJP’s intellectual cell Maryada at Nadiad in Gujarat, explained the focus of the campaign: “Until December 2012, the entire focus of supporters of Facebook and Twitter was on the development projects of Gujarat and the achievements of the government. This included a focus on women’s empowerment, extending roads and infrastructure to the most interior parts of Gujarat, 24x7 supply of electricity and the boost to businesses and small-scale industries. Post-2012, there has been a strong emphasis on projecting Modi as the Prime Minister. At present, there is a Facebook campaign titled “Ek Hi Vikalp Modi”, which is aimed at projecting him as the real alternative. In Nadiad, there is an IT cell where about 6,200 boys are handling various pages on Facebook. On Twitter, the supporters of Modi are constantly engaged in countering the lies and misinformation campaign against the Chief Minister from various quarters. Whenever Modi delivers a lecture or makes a presentation somewhere, the supporters upload and share videos on Twitter.”

The social media campaigns are organised in such a way as to maximise the support for the BJP on the ground through the intellectual cells in the district. Nandita Thakur explained: The intellectual cell in Nadiad, which organises leadership and development training courses and lectures for the youth and college students once a month, encourages them to get on to Facebook and Twitter and spread the message of Modi’s development. We get about 25 students every month. These cells exist in most cells of Gujarat. However, the extent to which these cells are active depends on the initiatives of the respective district presidents.”

She also emphasised the significance of social media in the district because of the sizable number of NRI families living there. “This is an NRI city so social media can play a significant role in spreading the message of Modi’s development across the world.”

The religious hue of the social media campaigns is not hard to discern. Nandita Thakur said: “There are several important facts about Narendra Modi that people need to know. Like the fact that he fasts during the whole of Navaratri and only has lemon water.”

Parthesh Patel, co-convenor of the BJP IT Cell in Gandhinagar, is passionate about handling the Facebook pages of Mission 2014 for Narendra Modi. Patel is the administrator of a number of pages and groups that demonstrate their unequivocal support for Modi as Prime Minister. The most popular of these is the Facebook page titled “Modi Nu Gujarat”, which has received 87,395 likes at the time of writing this article. Patel also runs a group by the same name, which has 29,486 members. Interestingly, “Modi Nu Gujarat” portrays Modi mostly using masculine idioms. Sample some of the adjectives used to describe Modi: Hit and Fit for PM 2014, Bharat Maa Ka Laal, Bond of India 2014. The page also describes Modi as a campaigner for education of girl children, a reader, a photographer and a visionary.

Patel, who has been running the Facebook campaign for two years now, said, “The popularity of Modi among the youth is growing. Today, 60 per cent of the youngsters would consider Modi and not Rahul Gandhi as the next Prime Minister. Our target is to spread the message of Modi’s development at the ground level in villages and small towns too.”

Patel claimed that there was a growing interest in social media even in the villages of Gujarat. “During election campaign in Manasa taluk last year, we found at least 15 people in two villages who were interested in getting on to Facebook.” Patel, however, was not sure about the level of Internet penetration in the State.

He also claimed that about 200 to 300 NRIs wanted the facility of online voting to be made available. Patel also claimed that he received 40 to 50 messages every day on Facebook from Modi admirers across the world. Asked if the party gave him instructions about handling and designing the Facebook pages, Patel said he did the work voluntarily with no top-down instructions.

Explaining the significance of social media in politics today, the BJP’s Delhi unit secretary Rajan Tewari said: “The younger generation is quite comfortable with smartphones and is continually present on social media platforms. The Anna Hazare movement showed how social media can play a significant role in mobilising people. The party is now focussing on the use of Facebook, Twitter and bulk-messaging to reach out to people. But this is mostly being done by individual members who have Twitter accounts and personal handles. We do not have any call centre kind of thing to manage social media. The use of social media is important to know the pulse of the people, especially the literate, urban youth.”

Responding to allegations that a number of Modi’s followers on Twitter are actually fake accounts, Tewari said, “Narendra Modi has around 15 lakh followers on Twitter. A very small portion of that, maybe 5 to 10 percent, could be fake. That does not diminish his popularity.”

Public relations management

Modi’s deft organisation of the Vibrant Gujarat Investment Summit shows his ability to use public relations agencies to make grandiose claims about his development record. In August 2007, Modi hired the American lobbying firm APCO Worldwide to improve his image among the world community. APCO has been engaged in organising the Vibrant Gujarat Summits since 2009. The event is hosted by the Industrial Extension Bureau of the Government of Gujarat in partnership with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

An industry source said: “It is wrong to say that APCO is doing image-building for Modi. Its primary responsibility is to project Gujarat as an attractive investment destination to industry associations and bodies through outreach programmes and advertisements. The job of APCO is to package and market whatever information is given to us by the client, in this case the Government of Gujarat.”

On being asked if the firm carried out any independent scrutiny of the data provided by the government on development and investment indicators, the source said, “The mandate of APCO is to market and distribute whatever information we receive from the client.”

Critics of the Vibrant Gujarat narrative question the veracity of the data presented by the government and label the claims relating to investment as a public relations gimmick. Priyanka Chaturvedi, district general secretary of the Mumbai Youth Congress and a vocal opponent of Modi’s growth claims, “The Gujarat government has claimed that the State attracted a total of $876 million as foreign direct investment during the Vibrant Gujarat Investor Summits between 2003 and 2011. This, in effect, means that the State has surpassed China during the same period. However, an independent analysis shows that FDI inflows into Gujarat have gone down and Maharashtra is leading in FDI inflows. The State has an organised PR machinery which exaggerates its development achievements and manages to hush up a lot of bitter truths. There are other States with a similar track record of development, such as Madhya Pradesh, which do not get as much media focus because of the absence of a similar kind of robust PR machinery. Since 2007, public money worth $25,000 is paid to APCO Worldwide every month to carry out the public relations exercise for the Gujarat government.” APCO Worldwide, when contacted, did not share details about the amount received from the government for its services.

Narendra Modi is the first Indian politician to debut on Google+ hangout, an application that facilitates group video-chat with a maximum of 10 people at a time and provides an opportunity for interaction between politicians and common people. Modi was the only Chief Minister to be invited to address the Google Big Tent Activate Summit in 2013 in March based on the theme of “Technology in Politics”. It is interesting to look at the process of selection of questions and participants for these hangouts. In an e-mail response to Frontline, a Google spokesperson explained: The questions for Shri Modi were sourced via various Internet platforms, including YouTube and Google+. The best nine were selected and invited to be a part of the hangout with the Gujarat CM. The platform is open for all to participate and the Chief Minister’s office decides on who will be the participants on the basis of the entries they receive.”

On being asked if the discussions on the hangout were spontaneous or if there was a set agenda, the Google spokesperson said, “We do not have a set theme for these hangouts on the basis of which all discussions are further carried out. Since it is a live interaction, the discussion does take a spontaneous route as it is all about citizen engagement at the end of the day.”

Modi’s hangout is said to have received an enthusiastic response. The Google spokesperson informed, “Shri Modi’s hangout created a lot of enthusiasm amongst the citizens and we received an overwhelming response not only for this hangout but also for a previous hangout that we hosted with the Gujarat Chief Minister that we hosted last year. Last year’s hangout was watched live on YouTube by close to 82,000 people from 116 countries. Millions watched across other media platforms. The Chief Minister’s team received close to 20,000 questions over the course of three weeks. The questions for the hangout were submitted via the Internet and through other platforms.”

But the process of selection and screening of questions and participants is carried out by the Chief Minister’s office, which leaves one wondering if anyone critical or sceptical of Modi’s development track record will be allowed to participate.

The social media space inhabited by Modi supporters is also marked by widespread abuse and intolerance of criticism. Political opponents say that anyone who counters Modi’s exaggerated claims in the online space is instantly attacked by his supporters.

Priyanka Chaturvedi said, “If they do not agree with you, they will shout you down. I have been subjected to unmentionable, gross abuse by Modi supporters online. His robust PR machinery has ensured that issues such as malnutrition and atrocities against Dalits in Gujarat are conveniently hushed up.”

Social media sites have also witnessed pitched battles between Modi’s admirers and critics. After Rahul Gandhi’s speech at the CII in early April, a pejorative hashtag “Pappu” (meaning dumb boy) started to trend on Twitter, making fun of the lack of imagination and depth in the speech. Congress supporters retorted with the hashtag “feku”, a veiled reference to the false claims made by the BJP Chief Minister when he addressed the FICCI Ladies Organisation.

There are grave risks in any simplistic readings of Modi’s engagement with social media as merely an innovative attempt by a politician to reach out to a large section of society. A studied analysis of the same exposes the sophisticated repackaging of a majoritarian ideology meant for the literate, aspiring youth and the middle classes.