Decoding Prime Minister Modi’s second win

There is convincing evidence to suggest that Mr. Modi benefits from the well-oiled troll machine of the BJP and the power of social media

By Abhishek Bhati
Last Updated: Friday 14 June 2019
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On March 23, 2019, India elected 68-year-old Narendra Modi to rule the country for a second term.

Prime Minister Modi and ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) won close to 350 seats out of 545 in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament).

Just to put this victory in context: Modi is the first prime minister in almost 50 years to win a back-to-back majority in the world’s largest democracy.

It is baffling to theorise how one man can accumulate unprecedented power. However, the answer is relatively simple — by harnessing the power of social media and creating an army of trolls.  

A staggering 65 per cent of India’s population is under 35 years. In fact, no country in the world has more young people than India.

This growing young population in India is reflected by its increasing mobile data consumption and average time spent on social media.

According to a study conducted by McKinsey, “India is one of the largest and fastest-growing markets for digital consumers, with 560 million internet subscribers in 2018, second only to China.”

India is the biggest market for WhatsApp, with over 240 million active users. India consumes more mobile data than its neighbour China and on an average, spends more time on social media than any country in the world.

Modi clearly understands the power of branding and social media usage among Indian youths. He is arguably the only world leader whose social media presence is well crafted to perfection and spans several platforms and applications including LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter with combined followers of over 100 million.

He is reaching out to millions of people with web archives of his events and speeches, a radio programme Mann ki Baat, and his own TV channel NaMo TV.  

Using these mass communication media, Modi has meticulously crafted himself to be omnipresent everywhere, reaching millions of Indians day and night.

Political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta notes: “[Modi] can literally make himself the object of attention every second of the public discourse. Many leaders win because the public does not see an alternative. Modi won because he made an alternative unthinkable.”

Modi and the BJP effectively eviscerated their main rival, Cambridge-educated scion of the powerful Nehru-Gandhi family Rahul Gandhi, referring to him as pappu which means little boy and making him the object of aggressive trolling through social media and forwarded messages on WhatsApp.

Journalist Swati Chaturvedi who wrote a book on this issue, I am a Troll: Inside the Secret Digital Army of the BJP, argues that trolling is the modus operandi of the party, which targets politicians, intellectuals, or anyone who does not agree with the Modi vision or ideology.

The BJP has mastered the technique of harvesting the data of millions of voters based on caste, religious identity, policy issues, or causes and bombards them with messages to reinforce their biases and convince them only Modi will solve their problems.

How to Win an Indian Election authored by Shivam Shankar Singh notes that in the state of Karnataka, the BJP has over 20,000 WhatsApp groups. The party has built a similar number of groups in other states, providing capacity to send individual group-tailored messages to millions of users across the country.

Facebook and WhatsApp have become the main tool of spreading partisan and fake news content at an unprecedented level in India.

Last year, a false message on WhatsApp sparked a mob lynching in India. WhatsApp took some steps to limit the damage by limiting forwarded messages to five recipients.

However, reporting from Reuters suggested software as low of $14 can remove these restrictions and allow messages to be forwarded to thousands of people at once.

A report by University of Oxford researchers Samantha Bradshaw and Philip Howard, found evidence of the BJP being involved in cyber trooping to manipulate public opinion.

The role of social media in electing right-wing candidates is not restricted to India. Rather, it is a global phenomenon.

At the 2019 inauguration of Brazil’s far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, the crowd chanted “Facebook, Facebook, Facebook! WhatsApp, WhatsApp, WhatsApp!” They were crediting the platforms with their man’s victory, and they aren’t entirely wrong.

The jury is still out on whether social media usage is altering the fabric of democracies around the world despite some disturbing evidence to suggest social media acting as the propaganda machine for far-right candidates.

There is convincing evidence to suggest Modi benefits from the well-oiled troll machine of the BJP that works round the clock to promote his agenda and at the same time manipulates facts, spreads fake news and calls names to anyone appearing to be in opposition to Modi and the BJP. 

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