Even his inveterate opponents wouldn’t contest that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has few peers in employing social media for political gains. Since August, when he overtook Amitabh Bachchan on Twitter, his personal handle @narendramodi has been the most followed account in India, and he is the only non-Bollywood personality on the top 10 list of the microblogging site, besides his official@PMOIndia handle which is ranked tenth. In comparison, Barack Obama, the outgoing US president, has the fourth slot in his country. Wait. Modi is also the first world leader to use a Twitter Mirror, an exclusive app that produces autographed selfies and posts them on Twitter while he is on tour. He is immensely popular on Facebook as well. Like Obama before him, and US President-elect Donald Trump after him, Modi has zealously used these alternative platforms to navigate his way around the print media and TV outlets.
With more political leaders following in their footsteps in this rapid transition away from conventional communication channels and using social media as the lynchpin of their campaigns, the global political landscape is witnessing a massive churn, a key aspect of which is the participation of and interaction with the common man via the internet. While billions were spent on social media campaigns in the recently concluded US presidential election, leaders elsewhere are also investing a substantial amount of time and energy on these sites. German Chancellor Angela Merkel maintains an Instagram blog called Bundeskanzlerin; and Vladimir Putin of Russia puts out bold statements on Twitter, making commentators wonder whether the web is being used for Cold War-style propaganda. From Greece to Brazil and China (where Facebook and Twitter are banned) to Canada, leaders are taking exclusively to social media to vocalise themselves, a trend that makes the TV reporter Christiane Amanpour worry about the future and usefulness of journalism through traditional media, edited and filtered as it is.
Yet, as the Arab Spring demonstrated, it is social media that is the sole hope for pro-democracy movements and for marginalised groups such as women in many countries of the Middle East and North Africa that are under repressive regimes. It has the power to link up people who would never have met otherwise, but like a double-edged sword, it also promotes ghettoisation by encouraging homogenous groups to bind. A smartphone with a net connection is for some a window to the world, but it could also tune people out who don’t conform.
Modi understands both. So do Obama, Trump and other leaders like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. After all, what came in handy for Erdoğan to address and rally people against a ‘military coup’ earlier this year was FaceTime, an iPhone video chat feature. “Go to the streets and give them their answer,” Erdoğan told a reporter who held up her phone to CNN’s camera.
The triumphant Narendra Modi campaign of 2014 used video-sharing apps and social-media pages to connect with disparate groups across the country and deployed technology to reach villages unconnected to the power grid, an outreach exercise that featured mobile vans and holograms. Having achieved vast popularity through direct contact, Modi now routinely addresses his countrymen with his Mann ki Baat radio programme and frequent Twitter videos.
Modi learnt it the hard way. Faced with an unofficial boycott and vilification in mainstream media following the 2002 Gujarat riots under his watch as Chief Minister, Modi first began to strike up friendships with editors of local dailies. A functionary of the Chief Minister’s Office would regularly scour Gujarati newspapers to pick up bad news—say, about a school without a roof in an interior part of the state. The Chief Minister would despatch an official right away to have the problem fixed. Then the CMO would contact the daily’s editor to thank him for bringing it to its notice. Impressed, the editor would reward the leader with favourable write-ups. Next, the ‘war room’ at the CMO began to align with religious groups and gurus such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and corporate bodies. It was around this time that Modi discovered the power of social media. It was exactly what he needed. He had found a sure-fire way to get past mainstream media.