Amit Shah is often credited as the BJP president who has converted Indian elections from routine local fights into an all-out life and death ‘war’. Little surprise then when Mr Shah was quoted as having told a gathering of BJP social media activists in Pune that they must see themselves as ‘soldiers going into battle who take no prisoners’. Mr Shah may have been only trying to motivate his flock but the sharp rhetoric reflects a new election dynamic where a tweet, a Facebook post or a WhatsApp forward are the modern-day arrows and bullets aimed at bruising political opponents. If 2014 was the election where the poll battleground shifted seamlessly from the maidan to a television screen near you, then 2019 is an election which is likely to be fought on the smartphone in your hand.
There are more than 300 million smartphone users in India today and over 200 million WhatsApp connections and over 270 million Facebook accounts, massive numbers that mirror the country’s ever-expanding social media revolution. Effectively, social media can directly connect with almost a third of the voter population in the country, making it potentially a huge election influencer. Narendra Modi has been ahead of the curve: he is the third most followed world leader on twitter, and is the world’s most liked or followed leader on Facebook and Instagram. His official Facebook page is liked by more than 43 million people almost double that of the US president, Donald Trump. Rahul Gandhi, a reluctant entrant into the social media universe, has only now begun to make a mark.
However, the obsessive focus of its leadership on social media gives the BJP a distinct advantage in the battle to attract smartphone voters, especially in the 18-25 age group that could prove decisive in the 2019 elections. In 2014, the Centre for Study of Developing Societies post-poll numbers indicated that the BJP’s lead over the Congress in the 18-22 age group was the highest: 36 per cent here voted for the BJP and just 17 per cent for the Congress. For the youth demographic, the smartphone is no longer just an accessory but a necessity, almost a badge of identity that cuts across income barriers. A targeted approach to ‘young’ India via the smartphone is now an essential part of any political campaigner’s tool-kit. If in 2014, it was only the BJP which had set up social media units, now every political party has joined the bandwagon with the Congress now quickly playing catch-up: when even a Lalu Prasad has a twitter account, you realize that there is no escaping the medium!
And yet, to fight an election through ‘WhatsApp forwards’ or Facebook likes or twitter trends is to manufacture a digital reality that can be both toxic and intoxicating. The benefit of sending out instantaneous messages to thousands of WhatsApp groups is attractive to a politician keen to connect with large masses of people without requiring any pesky tv or print journalist as an intermediary. At the same time, the dangers of WhatsApp being used to create a digitally orchestrated fury have been revealed in recent weeks by a spate of lynchings over child lifting rumours spread through the messaging site. When propaganda can be electronically messaged to millions in real time, then it is obvious that a political party has been given a lethal weapon to use without any checks or accountability. The election commission cameras may monitor a political speech at a rally or keep an eagle eye on news channels, but who will monitor the millions of tweets, WhatsApp messages and Facebook Posts that are being sent out with the explicit purpose of muddying the political waters with a venomous mix of fake news and hate-mongering?
To expect the average citizen to act as fact-checkers in a polarized political environment is for the major social media platforms to shirk responsibility for unleashing an unchained monster in the digital jungle. Merely marking a message as ‘forwarded’ is hardly a reliable, hi-tech solution to a problem created by technology’s unique ability to bypass all legal scrutiny. When WhatsApp groups are set up to promote hate against the minorities or even against an individual, what is the red alert that will sensitise the user to the menace? Where then is the law and order machinery that will act as a deterrent to anyone misusing social media?
So far, the laws have always been a step behind the social media ‘warriors’. Tracking those who, often under the guise of anonymity, are able to launch missiles of misinformation, has proved to be well beyond the scope of the policing agencies. Does one seriously expect a police constable or a district official in rural Madhya Pradesh to monitor what messages are being spread through social media? A clash between a semi-literate local constabulary and a technologically well-equipped political force can only have one winner.
In 2014, the BJP under Mr Modi’s leadership rewrote the rules of election campaigning by pushing the boundaries in every possible manner imaginable. So, an election manifesto was released on the day of voting; ‘live’ rallies and roadshows were telecast while voting was on in a neighbouring area; the prime minister even brazenly brandished the lotus symbol next to a polling booth. In each instance, the model code of conduct was reduced to a worthless piece of paper, a seemingly helpless Election Commission unable to enforce its writ.
In 2019, expect the Commission to be reduced to an even more supine observer in a rapidly changing political universe. Atleast the indiscretions of politicians are visible and can be called out; the social media ‘armies’ that are being unleashed now are a potent, but invisible force, that are outside the realm of any jurisdiction. They are poised to change the template of our election campaigns forever.
Post-script: During the Karnataka elections earlier this year, at a village tea stall, a young man told me that he would never vote for the Congress because Rahul Gandhi had three wives! He then obligingly showed me a WhatsApp video of the Congress leader praying in a mosque with three burkha-clad women: a fake video distributed in Karnataka yesterday may well go viral across India tomorrow!