2014 was a landmark year in Indian politics. It redefined the way political parties approach elections. The grandeur of the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s extravagant electoral campaign in the run-up to the 16th general elections was fairly unprecedented. One of the many compelling aspects of that trailblazing campaign was the BJP’s emphatic use of social media (WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc) as an effective tool for political messaging. Since then, social media has come to dominate Indian politics and the myriad narratives around it.
Over the past seven years, social media has become increasingly popular among political parties. Today, every major political outfit has its own “cyber army” and is spending lakhs towards expanding its online base. Social media now forms an inevitable part of electoral strategy.
According to Google Ad Transparency Report and the Facebook Ad Library data, in about two years, between February 2019 and May 2021, a handful of national and State level parties cumulatively spent upwards of Rs 150 crore towards their social media promotions. But is it worth the hype? How much has social media helped the BJP and other political parties turn elections in their favour?
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Narendra Modi and his party, BJP, were the poster boys of social media when the NDA assumed power at the Centre in 2014. In the ensuing years, the BJP continued to enjoy the whip hand over the socio-cultural and political discourses on these sites. But with the opposition parties upping their social media game, that is no longer the case.
The power dynamics within the country’s virtual political space is changing, albeit gradually, as the BJP’s hegemony is being challenged at the regional level by various State-level parties. Currently, on Twitter, the BJP is trailing its principal opposition in 12 States (43%), and on Facebook, the party is lagging behind its rival in eight States (29%). However, at the national level, the BJP continues to maintain a formidable edge over its principal challenger, the Congress.
Among the five poll-bound States, the party is losing out to the Samajwadi Party on Twitter in Uttar Pradesh and, in Punjab, it is behind the Congress on both Facebook and Twitter. Should it be a concern for the saffron outfit? Scarcely so. Currently, there is no empirical evidence to suggest a corelation between a party’s social media footprint and its electoral performance. This data merely hints at the democratisation of these virtual platforms.
Engagements with Parties
The process of democratisation is also apparent from the recent Facebook Page insights weekly data. Although there is an enormous difference between the followers of the BJP and that of other major political parties in absolute terms, the contrast is not that stark when it comes to “engagements”. While the BJP, with a follower base of 16 million, has around 1.3 million post engagements, the Congress, with just about 6 million followers, has 1.2 million engagements on its page. Even the TMC has over a million engagements on its page with just around 1.3 million users. In terms of spending, as per the transparency reports of Google and Facebook, the disparity is exiguous.
A section of political observers and analysts maintain that social media had a pronounced role in BJP’s victory in the 2019 parliamentary elections. In 2020, the CSDS-Lokniti released a report, entitled “Social Media and Political Behavior”, based on its 2019 National Election Study data. The study disputed the idea that social media had a pre-eminent bearing on the electoral outcome. The researchers found that only one-third of the responders had access to social media and of them, only one-tenth were regular users.
In terms of reach and popularity, the gap actually narrowed between the BJP and the Congress among the social media users in 2019, as compared with 2014. The difference, however, widened to BJP’s advantage among the voters outside the ambit of social media. Furthermore, only 3% of the voters reported social media to be their primary news source. The data also evinced that 75% of the social media users believed India to be the country “for all”, a mood that doesn’t resonate well with the BJP’s explicit “Hindu bias”.
Other factors power BJP
The thumping victory of the BJP can be attributed, to an extent, to the party’s dominance on the ground with well-oiled machinery of organised cadres. The influence of the RSS should also be given due consideration. ‘Sangh Parivar’ works tirelessly to change the ground arithmetic in favour of the BJP. The financial prowess of the party too gives it a definitive edge and the BJP commands a huge majority of the electoral bond donations.
Recently, the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) claimed that 76% of the donations made by the electoral trusts went to the BJP. This makes it virtually impossible for any regional party to take on the BJP at the national level.
The Pew Research Center’s study on religious belief of the Indian voters also explains the gargantuan popularity of Modi and his party. The survey found Indians are highly devout people, with 60% of them praying daily. Additionally, 64% of the Hindus reported that it was important to be Hindu to be truly Indian, a belief that fits extremely well with the BJP’s political template.
In the recently concluded Assembly elections, according to the social media transparency reports, both the TMC and the DMK outspent the BJP in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, respectively. However, an analytical study of the data from the CSDS-Lokniti’s post-poll surveys in those States negate any significant role of social media in the electoral outcomes.
In both the States, television forms the primary source of news consumption. Around 65% and 40% of the electorate have never used the internet in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, respectively. Moreover, only less than 20% of the responders in both the States shared election-related materials or joined party/candidate-specific WhatsApp – the most used social media groups.
It can be said with the support of the available data and the vantage point of hindsight that social media currently has a fairly limited role to play in shaping public opinion. Despite the regular pelting of propaganda/ideology on social media by the political outfits, it is yet to evolve as a “game-changer” for them.
But, subjecting it to floccinaucinihilipilification would be a mistake. Although there is a disproportion in representation, social media, indubitably, has proliferated political participation in the country. In the coming times, with technology and devices becoming more cheap, accessible and smart, these virtual mediums would surely have more sway over the electorate.
(The author is a researcher in public policy, associated with Peoples Pulse, a political research organisation)