A tool in the hands of Populists? The Role and Operation of Social Media by the BJP for Populism

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This paper tries to analyse the role of social media in the rise of Modi and how it is closely intertwined with ideas of political populism. It analyses various themes that surface over social media and the strategies used for political campaigning. It scrutinised the operation, the effects and themes that frequently emerge online and their potential role in helping the BJP. It tries to lay emphasis on the questions of whether social media helps populist gain and sustain support and if yes, how? Finally, it stresses on the challenges posed by new media to the Indian political landscape.


The last few years have witnessed major social and political changes. This generation has been marked by high speed communication, technology and connectivity. Along with globalisation, internet and social media, the idea that “the world has shrunk” has proliferated. At the same time, the past few decades have also been marked by certain political changes especially with a series of economic crisis witnessed globally. Populist parties, mostly radical right ones, have come to the forefront (Backes and Moreau, 2012).

Although the definition of political populism is contentious since it is contextual and manifests in various forms, most scholars define is as a “thin ideology”, one that is flexible and malleable to other forms (like nationalism) and is often marked by: popular sovereignty, corrupt elite, pure people and a threatening other. Right wing populism is also marked by a glorification of the motherland and community (Kriesi, 2014, Mudde, 2004 and Taggart 2004). Populism is also closely intertwined with media especially social media as demonstrated by an almost ubiquitous phenomenon from Trump’s Twitter presence, to La Pen’s digital prowess with an office and team devoted solely to social media while Alternative for Germany (AfD) boasts of its facebook following compared to the opposition.

India has not been left behind in catching up with this trend. With the BJP winning elections in 2014 and the rise of Narendra Modi, India commenced its own experiment with populism. The rise of Modi is interesting not only in terms of the global context it can be placed in or that it won by a clear majority of 282/ 543 seats in the Lok Sabha but also because the campaign was single handedly represented and dependent on the personality of it’s leader, Modi. Modi was not only omnipresent but he also saturated the public sphere with his campaign, it’s strategies varying from conventional poster to the newest technological trends (Jaffrelot, 2015).

This paper tries to analyse the role of social media in the rise of Modi and how it is closely intertwined with ideas of political populism. This paper in no capacity desires to attribute the rise of populism solely to social media and recognises the innumerable forces at play; rather it aims to analyse the close relationship between the two. Many scholars (Chako, 2018; Chakrabarty, 2015) have argued Modi’s relationship with issues of citizenship, purity and hindutva, along with campaign reflect on right wing populist underpinnings.

The key themes that are brought out are recomposition of the leader-citizens, a recomposition of the idea of the leader as a god like figure, use of new tools, strategies, narratives and rhetoric and how they are juxtaposed with theories of what composes political populism.

Communicative Strategies of Populists

Scholars have different approaches of what comprises as populism. It involves unmediated and direct communication between the leader and the people, creating popular consent for anti democratic authority exercised by the leader (Sinha, 2017). Populist, according to Mazzoleni (2007), have a media-genic aura and specific speaking skills that include very emotional and provocative speeches. They are often associated and marketed using slogans which leads to a propagation of their agenda to create an emotional identification with the masses who eventually feel connected to their leader.

Populism often relies on other ‘thin ideologies’ that gather large sections of people from different background to work towards a common agenda. They exploit the concept of “personal action frames” (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012) that is often used to create a collective identity which can also distributed on social media.

India’s first encounter with populism was under the reign of Indira Gandhi, which was however ‘left leaning’ populism. Slogans like “Garibi Hatao” and “Indira is India” circulated widely and her campaign relied heavily on media and information dissemination especially to mobilize large chunks of unorganised voters. The use of a radical pro-people and anti establishment rhetoric was framed on different media channels including televisions and newspapers. However, because of low literacy rates the radio was most extensively used. In 1971, the penetration radios was almost double of 1967, 12.77 million and her party was very aware of the impact radios could create and kept in under tight government control (Kenny, 2017).

Modi’s campaign also recognised the importance of media and optimally used new communication strategies especially social media. The populist nature of the modi-centric campaign relied heavily on mass communication including new and old strategies (Jaffrelot, 2015). The RSS network was used along with the creation of new strategies like engaging volunteers and a digital team which are discussed in the following sections. Information dissemination and voter mobilization techniques included emotional appeal: slogans like

“achhe din aane waale hai” (good days are coming),”sabka saath, sabka vikas” (everyone’s support, everyone’s development) were sensationalised. “Personal action frames” were incorporated by mobilising people with the promise of development persuading them to work towards the common agenda: growth. It is also within this framework that social media was used heavily to share videos of speeches, pictures/posters and information. Modi was also considered to be one of the most followed personalities on Twitter and the most popular political with 42.4 million (now second to Donald Trump).

Charisma, an elusive concept according to Weber is often used to demonstrate political legitimacy and can often be used as a populist tool (Jaffrelot, 2015). Modi, a gifted orator and a charismatic figure, portrays the image of a strong leader who is masculine and belligerent boasting of his ‘56 inch’ broad chest. Modi also publicizes his charisma on various platforms where media often pays attention to his stylish attire posing sophisticatedly with global leaders. According to Kenny (2017), populist leaders rely on personal charisma and use media to establish a connection with people, especially unorganised masses who can easily be mobilised using these tools. These messages are increasingly conveyed using social media.

Apart from all the advantages social media offers populist leaders for communication, Dittrich (2017) argues that there are primarily three reasons why populist may want to engage with this new tool.

  1. Efficiency: Social media is efficient since it’s cost are very limited and it reaches out to a large audience at a fast pace. It also requires a relatively smaller team to manage content and platforms.
  • Building of community: It helps garner new supporter beyond party workers by reaching out to new audiences and focusing on multiple themes.
  • No path dependency: In the absence of institutional and financial constraints, it helps newer parties to compete with well established ones.

This paper tries to analyse the modus operandi of social media campaign especially in the context of BJP in India and its effects on the socio-political landscape.

Infrastructure of Populism: How does it operate?

BJP’s social media following involves both a well organised and institutional structure responsible for campaigning and a large unorganised group of followers from all over. Vote mobilizers, individuals whose support for a party is beyond voting and requires financial and personal investment in campaigning, are recruited extensively. Only 19% of vote mobilisers were BJP members in the 2014 elections and the others were hired and organised strategically (Chibber and Osterman, 2014). BJP was one of the first few parties in the Indian political sphere to devote sufficient attention and resources to digital campaigning. IT cells and digital campaign teams were formed with almost 100,000 volunteers and IT experts/ US trained

professionals were working on “Modi 4 PM” mission (Jaffrelot, 2015). An example of this is the team called ‘Citizens for Accountable Governance’ in Gandhinagar which recruited paid interns who worked at grassroot levels to mobilize voters. Other portals like I support NaMO, SwarajyaMag, Mann ki baat also informally helped with the campaign.

The BJP IT cell under the supervision of Arvind Gupta set forth the National Digital Operations Centre in New Delhi in 2013 with the single agenda of using digital technology to win the 2014 elections (Sardesai, 2014). They used the strategy of “multimedia carpet bombing” that included shooting 40,00 tweets daily along with emails and videos in strategically planned manner. They went to the extent of identifying “digital seats” i.e. areas with good internet penetration where digital tech will be most effective in the campaign. (Mahurkar and Pradhan, 2014). At the same time, BJP also relied on its conventional and well developed network of RSS cadre who supplemented the campaign at the grassroot level.

Swati Chaturvedi(2016) in her book “I am a troll” brings forth a more nuanced understanding of BJP’s operation on social media that involves trolling, attacking and harassing people who criticize the government. She also throws light on the existence of BJP’s secret digital army which attacks critical journalists, including her, Barkha Dutta, Ravish Kumar or even ordinary citizens or students like Gurmehar Kaur. BJP has also been criticized for creating fake users/profiles especially those portraying Muslim women who endorse the BJP to create a sense of legitimacy from the “other” (Quint, 2018)1. Some scholars like Chaturvedi (2016) suspect that these trolls are often on a payroll by the BJP to garner attention and support.

These supporters, trolls, students and allies often run numerous Facebook pages and Whatsapp groups. Some even operate twitter handles and are followed by important BJP members including Modi himself. They engage on themes of nationalism, communalism and propaganda on behalf of BJP and have been responsible for serving to the populist project and making Modi a political brand.

Effects of Social Media:

Modi’s campaign is exemplary of what is called ‘mediated populism.’ It refers to phenomenon where media is deployed for the project of “people making” and “road building” endeavours towards identity issues like religion/nationalism (Mazzoleni et al.). Mediated populism in Modi’s case doesn’t just stem from increased visibility or expenditure on campaign but also its new forms of manifestation through political mediation.

Simultaneously, social media also changed the paradigms of “collective action” and created new forms of participation where citizens are “pro-sumers” i.e. both producers and

  1. Source: Pratik Sinha, The Quint

(https://www.thequint.com/news/webqoof/fake-social-media-profiles-muslim-identities-bolster-bjp-case -study-gini-khan-giniromet)

consumers of news (Bennett and Segerberg 2013; Castells 2013; Jenkins et al. 2013). It has led to new relationship, dynamics and challenges like fake news and lack of credibility.

The telecom regulatory authority of India’s latest statistics (2017) showed that there are almost 1,186 mobile subscribers with almost 430 million internet users. Even in rural areas of states like Uttar Pradesh, whatsapp is the most downloaded app with almost 200 million users in India followed by Facebook. According to Jha (2017) BJP often juxtaposes its key cards the development card and the hindu identity to create a common narrative. The party itself, from its Uttar Pradesh headquarters in Lucknow, operates around 800 whatsapp groups and uses them to spread (mis)information.

Persuasion and Propaganda

At its basic level, social media, like traditional media including newspapers, televisions operates as a tool for political persuasion and propaganda. Persuasion, according to Schwartz 1974 responses to emotional appeals and instead of giving them content to think about, it evokes a response including appeals to national values, social dreams etc. Propaganda builds on this persuasion to mislead audience and exploit their beliefs. In Noam Chomsky’s Manufactured Consent he explains the propaganda model that the media-industrial and political nexus is built on. Researcher have argued that social media supplements traditional news in this aspect (Chadwick, 2013).

Modi’s campaign revolved around similar themes of persuasion and propaganda through themes of development, nationalism and identity. The politics of visualisation and compelling images need to be paid heed to. Iconoclasm and image power have been optimally and strategically used by Modi. Images when grounded in ideology can be used for persuasion and can disturb viewers emotional equilibrium (Soules, 2015). Modi’s bombarding of public spaces and the mediasphere using banners, photos, videos and even masks has hence been very effective and exemplary of what Jaffrelot calls “visual populism.” Images and videos at the same time seem more convincing and are often go unquestioned as a reality or fact.

Modi has dominated the television and social media scape through his visual populism and has ‘saturated the public space”(Jaffrelot, 2015) with information. Although, traditional media especially television has been particularly responsible for this, social media supplements his visual presence everywhere optimally utilizing a non verbal mode of political communication.

Outreach: Social Media and the BJP Mandate

Modi’s political campaign was premised on two key issues: On one hand, it appealed to people in the name of “development” where he sold his success story from Gujarat and

promised to emulate the gujarat model of development at the national level. Slogans like “achhe din” were abuzz and Modi was portrayed to be the change India needed.

On the other hand, it also sold its politics of “Hindutva” (not explicitly) by appealing to people’s religious beliefs and othering non-hindu groups, especially the muslims.

Social Media could influence both these ideas. At the development level, Modi’s use of social media and technology reflected on his modernity and the promise that these technologies would be accessible through policies like “Digital India”. He held 437 rallies and even used the most advanced 3D technology to create holograms of himself in different regions.

Sardesi notes how BJP allocated almost 200 crores for a 12 day campaign that used about 125 3D projectors to create holograms. Other strategies like using video vans also contributed to this politics of visualism.

The use of this technology has multi- fold benefit: Firstly, it reaches out to the earlier apolitical sections including the urban-youth who can now engage in politics because of the ease at which information reaches them through their smartphones. Secondly, the usage of smartphones, technology and social media also reflects on the “development” agenda as a modern, western technique where twitter, facebook reflect aspirational values symbolising a new modernity (It appealed to NRI and Indian expatriates elsewhere too and ties with research on how social media reverses political apathy among the youth (Delli Carpini, 2000). Topics and issues were also strategically chosen to make then more appealing to the youth with artefacts and trends like selfies (#selfiewithmodi) (​Pal, et al, 2016)​. Through promises of WiFi and ‘Smart Cities’ he also represented “desire for development” (Nigam, 2011) of the neo-middle class. Finally, it created a cult around the leader where he was often seen as a God like figure, who people need to pay their heed to or “darshan” especially regarding holograms and its fascination in villages as something ‘magical.’

Creating a “Cult of the Leader”

Modi has been very successful in creating a brand around himself. An discussed above, his charisma is often a topic for discussion on various news platforms: from his attire, what is called the “Modi kurta” ( Mukhopadhyay, 2013) to electoral rallies where he is considered a god like figure, Modi has been successful in creating a cult around himself. The launch of the NaMo Rath (rath translates to a religious march) and slogans like “Har har modi, ghar ghar modi” “Vote for BJP is vote for me” has led to a personalization of power. Jaffrelot also argues how this “darshan” culture is embedded in Indian society and religion and Modi has benefitted from it to an extent where his followers are often called “Bhakts” (devotees/ pilgrims).

Creating a cult also involves a sense of exaggerated self promotion which is a lot more subtle and easy to share on social media. The pace at which content goes viral is almost incredible. The BJP campaign relied on the new “Modi Brand” and went to the extent of creating a

“Narendra Modi Mobile App”. Constitutive of his technopopulist project was the representation of Modi’s self as a man ahead of his times which he talked about in his interviews as to how the first thing he would do in the morning is check his ipad/phone.

Source: Sinha, 2017.

As demonstrated in the example below, social media/networks are deployed not only to worship the leader but also to criticize the opposition. According to Dittrich, populist rallies increase polarisation since they alienate their adversaries through a “ping-pong like game of insults, denials and accusations. Bhakts and trollers often target the opposition, especially Congress leader Rahul Gandhi who has almost become the centre of all jokes. This strategy of glorifying the leader as the true representative of the and delegitimizing the opposition as unworthy and and irrational is being employed at all levels from national television, Facebook groups and Whatsapp conversations.

Source: Facebook group BJP Social Media2

2 ​Source: https://www.facebook.com/groups/BJPSMediaTeam/about/

Vernacularisation and Regional themes: Expanding Outreach and Issues

Social media is simultaneously also a tool for regional marketing. Vernacularisation and focus on regional themes and issues like Brahmaputra in Assam, agriculture in Punjab and fisherman in Tamil Nadu could be made possible. Modi uses this “regional tone” while addressing different audience from dissimilar areas since people are likely to be receptive to local issues than disconnected policy debates in New Delhi, and social media in a way facilitated this process by “regionalising” news/information dissemination. Traditional media often focuses on issues which the populace may not relate to while social media can create local regional news and circulate it on a small scale. Mainstream media also faced challenges of penetration both in terms of cost and the lack of infrastructure (Mullik and Devi, 2017). Social media has changed both the production and consumption of news in this respect and even journalists now rely on whatsapp for news creation and dissemination.

In an investigative study conducted by the Caravan Magazine, brings borth how whatsapp and facebook have changed news creation-consumption even in small towns of India. Whatsapp serves as a means of exchanging texts and videos by keeping tab on locally trending issues. Journalists create and spread news on Whatsapp and on an average are part of 20+ groups. The investigation also revealed that news on Whatsapp is tightly controlled by political figures in each district who use it to shape discourse by deploying around 1,000 boys under different names who create groups and share material (Mullik and Devi, 2017).

Source: Facebook group BJP Social Media3, accompanied by the message call on xxxxxxxxxx number to be party of these groups
  • 3 Source: https://www.facebook.com/groups/BJPSMediaTeam/about/

Online social networks are used not for large scale mobilisation but also for planning and strategizing including summoning for meetings within political parties/groups. It had also strengthened the internal organisational structure of these groups s like Hindu Yuva Vahini and ABVP, the student network of BJP. This has also made political propaganda easier, with lesser accountability or consequences.

Political Polarization, Fake News and Communalism

Almost a decade of research has proved how social media facilitates political polarisation, ideological segregation and fragmentation (Sunstein, 2007; Prior; Gentzkow, 2011) and how it has manifested itself in voter performance. Research has also shown that exposure to populist mobilization on media effects political behaviour and voting preferences. According to National Election Survey data, more exposure to media increases voter preference for BJP (Kenny, 2017). This is particularly true for television and empirical research on social media has been limited but since the two don’t operate in isolation, its impact cannot be negated. In this paradigm, fake news and misinformation has become a political tool for polarisation.

The absence of gatekeeping or fact checking on social media makes fake news, rumours and misinformation to spread at almost lightning pace. Perceived within the framework of an attention economy, where more polarising and “controversial” content the greater the interaction/ views it gathers, fake news and rumours are often circulated for political agendas. Unlike traditional media, where newspapers/ channels have to maintain accountability, Whatsapp/ Facebook/Twitter have easened political polarisation and also resulted in spreading of fake news. Populists are not oblivious to the ‘media logic’ that scandals and conflicts are more “newsworthy.”

Fake news plays a big role is reinforcing populist ideologies. Populist mobilisation also thrives on conspiracy theories and do not usually require any proof (Taggart, 2000). The proliferation of conspiracy theories disguised as “news” has increased drastically. Lately, content on Indian social media has been polarising and a common theme across most polarising content is communal tension. It is within this paradigm that othering of other groups, political polarisation and sectarian themes operate. Messages are constructed in a manner where they project a blatant threat to a group and especially narratives of “hindu insecurity” are created.

A classic example of these three themes coinciding were the Muzaffarnagar riots which sparked as a video went viral on whatsapp which inflamed communal sentiments and the violence led to the death of 55 people. This has often been the case with illegal slaughterhouses which has also led to the lynching of many muslims and dalits. These rumours find their solace in visual material which only reinforces ideas, is persuasive and at the same time solidifies opinions on polarising issues.

Source: Facebook group called BJP Social Media4 (The admin asked the question if this is correct, comments translate to:
“Kill them all” and “hit them with 10 sticks and send them to another country”)

Unmediated Linkage between Leader and Citizens

With the rise of social media, the communication chasm between leaders and the electorate has reduced drastically and it creates a channel for direct communication between them. This has resulted in a new form of relationship which has reshaped electoral politics. It gives citizens power or at least a facade of power through visual access, helps with political action and mobilisation. It changes both the nature and scope of political communication increasing speed and frequency of interactions with the leaders, creating the illusion of peer-to-peer politics which is especially effective in social movements while most populist rhetoric is often clad in larger social-political movements. Modi’s policies are almost unequivocally a movement varying from “Swachh Bharat” to “Make in India”. These campaigns can be used to mobilise supporters which can be garnered, mobilised and organised easily on social media.

Social media creates an unmediated and non restrained linkage between the authority and people and is multidimensional. It not only allows citizens to receive political information faster and more frequently but also to engage and interact with it through commenting or voicing out their opinions. This has further changed the idea of communicative immediacy (Mazzarella). Bartlett (2014) emphasises that ‘the short acerbic nature of populist messages works well in this medium’

  • 4 Source: https://www.facebook.com/groups/BJPSMediaTeam/about/

It also leads to psychosocial forces that creates a personalisation affect siphoning off question of participatory governance because of the perception of a interpersonal interaction. This includes hashtag campaigns like #selfiewithModi or personalised messages. In this way, populist figures bypass institutions like traditional media and journalist to reach out directly to the people. Modi has tactically used both traditional media in transmitting official messages and social media for a more personal connection which would help him in relating and representing the people, to create what a populists ultimate dream would be: Modi as the people’s person, truly representative of the people of India (hoping to evolve the rhetoric into ‘Modi is India’).


Social media is interconnected with television and print media for planning campaigns. The Modi campaign was also very prominent on the television also with key channels like Aaj Tak, Star Plus clearly owned and supported by the BJP. Modi developed and deployed a hybrid media system using traditional and social media, each serving its own purpose. Witnessing the effect of social media in India, this paper concludes that elections are only one part of the Modi/the BJP’s populist project but it also has a larger influence on understanding of everyday political-social life. Populism also thrives on the logic of connective action, communication and a platform for mobiliation. Social Media building up on the ‘politics of spectacle’ and visual populism” can have detrimental consequences by spreading propaganda. It’s impact on voter behaviour is yet to be discovered but the new themes and challenges it poses like fake news, communalism and polarisation need to be tackled because it won’t be long before these become tactics used by other parties too to create a race to the bottom.

On the whole, social media can be used as a political tool and there needs to be structural and political changes in the way it functions. At the same time, traditional media needs reform in its ownership, content and quality to make information more reliable and not play a tool in the hands of political leaders. These will be impossible without the civil society recognising the grave consequences of campaign strategies to pursue implementation of a stricter control policies, however, ensuring that control measures don’t restrict/suppress freedom of speech. Investigation into the role of vote mobilzers, trolls and party apparatus also needs to be conducted to accurately assess how complicit BJP is in spreading communal hatred and fake news. Finally, democratizing potential of social media needs to be recognized and projected onto mainstream discourse and debates to save the world’s largest democracy from the perils of populism.


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