Rise of the Twitter campaigners

Written by Abhishek Chakraborty | Updated: Apr 6 2014, 08:29am hrs
LAST MONTH, when WikiLeaks tweeted that Priti Gandhi was the person behind the fake Assange endorsement of BJPs prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, the whistleblower website was referring to that member of the saffron party who, like many others, has gained ground in politics through the sheer power of social media.

Gandhi rose to prominence a couple of years ago after she led a vigorous campaign supporting Modi and the BJP and taking on the Congress in the frequently messy, and often nasty, battles on Twitter. Her catchy Twitter handle, @MrsGandhi, further helped her increase an already bloated fan following.

The Mumbai-based homemaker is among a new wave of supporters who have become spokespersons of political parties, fighting high-decibel battles on social media sites like Twitter and even appearing on TV debates representing the respective parties they endorse. From an unofficial spokesperson, she has now become official, with the BJP recently recognising her as the co-convener of Maharashtra state units communication cell. She is frequently seen on television debates representing the party, works with the local BJP corporator in Mumbai and is a vivid supporter of Modi on Twitter. She has over 51,000 followers on the microblogging site and counting, and is followed, among others, by party heavyweight Arun Jaitley.

Another classic example of an outsider getting into active politics through social media is Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha. A banker-turned-entrepreneur, Jha got involved with the party professionally during the 2004 elections when his leadership training company was briefly engaged to work with senior leaders on communication strategy.

Along with IIM Bangalore professor Rajeev Gowda, Jha started the website HamaraCongress.com around the 2009 elections. Now, Jha is a prominent face on TV debates and Twitter. Earlier in 2013, he was included on the partys official panel of spokespersons. Gowda, too, has found a place on the media panel of the party.

For any politician, its very important to see and know whats happening around. You must be keen to know what people think or are discussing about you, especially around election time, says Jha, adding, Social media is the best platform to see what people think about you.

Recognising the efforts of dedicated social media buffs like Suryanarayan Ganesh, Priyanka Chaturvedi, Rachit Seth and Gaurav Pandhisome of the avid Congress supporters on TwitterJha says these volunteers are doing a fantastic job for the party. However, we dont have a paid service system like that of the BJP, he adds.

Chaturvedi, a Mumbai-based professional who joined Youth Congress in 2010 and became a district general secretary in 2012, is an active Congress face on Twitter, with more than 38,600 followers. Her prominence on social media got her included on the panel of spokespersons of the party recently.

However, there are some, who, though not yet recognised by any party, are taking to Twitter by themselves and are being followed by many, including well-known faces. Suryanarayan Ganesh (@gsurya), a 46-year-old IT consultant who moved back to India from Singapore, tweets aggressively for the Congress. He was involved with the Youth Congress in his college days, but could not engage with politics subsequently.

I always supported the Congress. I was also disgusted by the BJP-RSS involvement during the 1992 and 2002 riots. Secular India is the key, says Ganesh, who has over 10,900 followers, including Congress leaders like Ajay Maken and Shashi Tharoor, among others.

Another such Twitter volunteer is Delhi-based architect Shilpi Tewari, who has over 28,700 followers on the site and is followed by BJP leaders like Arun Jaitley, Smriti Irani and Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Tewari started out on Twitter as a supporter of the Anna Hazare movement, but soon her tweets started turning in favour of Modi.

Talking about the proxy supporters on social media, Aam Aadmi Party member Rajiv Bhatia is of the view that positive and factual remarks always work in their favour, but negative and factual remarks contribute to informed decisions. Venting anger constitutes hot air and serves little purpose, but, strangely, attracts attention and gets recirculated, probably similar to print and electronic media, says Bhatia.

Although these volunteers have successfully raised the pitch for political parties, unofficially or officially, the problem arises when fake endorsements are circulated to propagate leaders, similar to the controversy in which Gandhi was caughtover a claim that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange endorsed Modi as incorruptible (WikiLeaks later accused Gandhi of pushing the fake endorsement and alleged that she created the posters with an intent to use it for fund-raising purposes).

Talking about the development, Shrikant Sharma, BJP national media convener, feels that it was the peoples anger against the Congress that was pouring out on to social media. People are fed up of the Congress party and are using social media to vent their anger. It is a medium where they can express their views openly. However, he adds, these comments have nothing to do with the partys views.

The Congress Jha feels that although the use of social media as a platform is still at a nascent stage in India, people who create malicious propaganda must be seriously condemned. The work of Priti Gandhi proves that the BJP is capable of distorting, morphing and brazenly altering facts. This should be taken into account, he says.