India’s political parties embrace social media with gusto

New Delhi, Jan 1: With the changing politics of India, ways of reaching out to a younger and aspiration population too are changing. Political parties used to the old ways of campaigning are increasingly embracing social media to woo the people. It is a long leap from the times when politicians relied mainly on posters, cardboard cutouts, fliers, graffiti and the tough house-to-house canvassing to win over voters.

All of these are still in vogue. But increasingly, in urban India, political parties are becoming tech savvy, realizing this is the only way to reach out to the articulate young.

Among the major parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has the biggest presence in social media. The BJP started using the social medium even before the 2009 general election – which it lost. But in recent years, it has dug deeper.

“We were the first party to launch a web site in 1998,” Arvind Gupta, national convener of the BJP’s IT, told IANS. “Technology has been in BJP’s DNA. We have always used technology very effectively, whether to give information to supporters or to make information available faster.”

Gupta, a doctorate in data analytics, has a team of 20 people working in the party’s digital operation centre.

“Everyone understands the importance of this medium and we are using it very effectively. And that is the key. The young and the educated India are all online. The aspirational India is online. They all want to understand what is going on. It helps us to directly keep in touch with the voters. It is a two-way tool,” Gupta said.

Gupta outlined what needed to be done ahead of the Lok Sabha battle due by May. “A lot of listening from the crowd is required. Feedback mechanisms are required between now and the elections. Second, we need to use the net more for micro messaging and targeted messaging. Finally, we need to do a lot of resource mobilisation.”

The Congress, India’s grand old party, realised the importance of the social medium much later, a party member associated with online activities said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

“We gave a lot of importance to the traditional media. But it can be manipulated. Now we have realised that social media is a much more direct connect with the common people,” he told IANS.

The member said the Congress was now aggressive on the social media and was vigorously promoting the achievements of the UPA government. “We will do much more online campaigning now on,” he said. The Congress has so far conducted 40 workshops in the states on social media.

Several telephone calls made by IANS to Congress social media cell head Deepender Singh Hooda remained unanswered.

In the BJP, several senior leaders – Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Narendra Modi and some chief ministers – are on Twitter.

Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the general elections, has his own team for his social media management. “Before the general elections the focus will be to engage more with the voters,” B.G. Mahesh, founder and managing director of Oneindia.in, who is mentoring Modi’s social media management team, told IANS.

He said Modi has been using Twitter for more than three years now with the sole intention of communicating with the citizens. He has 3,078,832 followers on the site.

In comparison, Congress leaders’ presence on Twitter is seldom felt except for Shashi Tharoor who has been a kind of pioneer among Indian politicians in this media and even got into trouble over it when others had not realised its power and reach. Other Congress leaders regular on Twitter are Hooda, Manish Tewari, Ajay Maken, Digvijaya Singh and Kapil Sibal.

Another party which has a strong presence in the social media is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whose Arvind Kejriwal became Delhi’s chief minister Saturday. Kejriwal has over 900,000 followers on Twitter.

The AAP, founded only a year ago, also has an interactive web site with a provision for online donations.

AAP spokesperson Aswathi Muralidharan told IANS: “Social media is one of the most important tools in our election campaign.”

Dilip Pandey, a strategist in the AAP’s social media cell, told IANS that the company’s overall philosophy to pitch before the general elections would remain same as it was before the Delhi Assembly elections. “We will do positive and constructive pitching through social media like we have done before the Delhi Assembly elections. We do not do political mudslinging.”

Pandey, who left his multinational company’s IT job in Hong Kong and became a full-time political activist with the AAP, said all the party’s social media activities are conducted by volunteers. “We do everything through crowd sourcing. We do not pay anything to anybody. You cannot pump in patriotism into someone by paying.”

He said the party tries to read the common people’s mind through the social media and act accordingly. “We analyse what they say and try to speak what they want.”

Though most of the limelight is hogged by the BJP and the AAP in the social media space, among the regional parties, the Trinamool Congress is very active on Facebook. It even has separate pages for the party’s supporters and fans. The supporters page regularly updates the party’s events and photos.

Others like the AIADMK, Assam’s All India United Democratic Front and the Biju Janata Dal also have Facebook pages with various activities.

(Aparajita Gupta can be contacted at aparajita.g@ians.in)

IANS