Having been a student of world politics for many years, I have been fascinated by how campaigning has evolved over time and how different mediums and platforms have played a role in electing leaders responsible for governing hundreds of millions of people. In light of recent events regarding the US elections, I was reminded of a similar watershed election that took place in India in 2014 when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power with Narendra Modi as their leader and the Prime Minister of India.
This was the first election when campaigning went digital and the effective use of social media and online platforms by the BJP changed the way campaigning will be done in India going forward. As Idrees Ali points out in his article for VOA news “The sweeping victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recent Indian elections has been attributed to factors ranging from slowing economic growth to high levels of corruption.
But for the first time in the country’s history, social media played an important role, according to analysts who are calling the vote India’s first “social media elections.”
By the time he was sworn in as prime minister, Narendra Modi had more than 16 million “likes” on Facebook, the second most for any politician in the world, and he was the sixth most followed world leader on Twitter.
Election campaigning as a “business model” had consisted largely of massive physical rallies in smaller towns where people would aggregate from across the villages. They required massive organization skills and their success largely depended on the grassroots mobilization achieved by local party workers. In fact, Modi had first come to national prominence when he helped orchestrate the state leg of a countrywide rally for the BJP in 1990 which was a resounding success. “Modi coordinated the arrangements during the Gujarat leg and travelled up to Mumbai and it was a huge success in Gujarat – both in terms of seamless arrangements and public support”
The organization rallies combined with news on the television later remained the de facto mode of reaching out to voters. Even as recently as the 2009 elections, the search for “social media in 2009 Indian elections” on Google yields one result on the first page and the article talks about how social media might not be relevant in Indian elections till rural internet penetration is high. However, in just 5 years, Prerna Kaul Mishra, Editor of India Today writes in her article on the World Economic Forum website, “the loop has finally been closed on a 360-degree newsroom, where television, print, digital news has been cemented and layered with user-generated content through tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, videos, Instagram photos and much more.
In that way, social media is a natural progression for a democracy such as India. The intent has always been such, but the tools have only come into being. With social media platforms, Indians are voicing their opinions with a vengeance.
In all this, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram seem to have emerged and are being accepted as the fifth pillar of media after print, TV, digital and radio. More importantly, it is gradually being accepted as the fifth estate (if media was the fourth estate of a state or democracy”
The demographics of the country were perfectly aligned for this strategy to work. According to the New York Times, Of the 790 million eligible Indian voters, about 160 million were first time voters aged between 18 and 24 years old. I saw the power of this first hand while living in New York during the elections. Every day, I woke up to a social media feed filled with election discussion, articles and videos of rallies of Modi. Most importantly, a number of friends who were hitherto apolitical had suddenly become the biggest proponents of the party both online and offline.
Having seen the success and impact of social media on campaigning and even beyond that in matters of governance, it is important to realize its shortcomings. The New York Times states, “But social media can also be subject to significant abuse. Some politicians have been accused of boosting their apparent popularity on social media with legions of followers who don’t exist and of using social media to smear their opponents. Worse, social media have been used to fan violence against religious and ethnic groups.”
Looking ahead, having moved from an adulation based personality-cult interface to a more interactive digital connect with the masses, the challenge now is to further reorient the organization and collect, collate and analyse through sentiment analysis and use of big data and AI techniques the feedback in a manner resulting in a lasting relationship between the leader, the party and the followers.