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Social media campaign confronts India's Modi

A nationwide social media campaign criticizing the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shaken up India's ruling BJP party - despite the party's concerted efforts at digital propaganda. Murali Krishnan examines.

A social media campaign that translates to "Development that has gone crazy" is targeting the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Prime Minister Modi's home turf of Gujarat state. And with crucial state elections barely two months away, the BJP is not taking it lightly.

The cyber campaign mocks the BJP's development work and social programs with memes, photos, jokes and short videos – and many are going viral. 

"I appeal to the youth not to blindly believe the anti-BJP propaganda being spread on WhatsApp and Facebook," said BJP president Amit Shah in a statement.

"Before making any judgments, you need to do an analysis of what was Gujarat before the BJP came to power and what the situation is today."

Shah's statement specifically refers to social media criticism of the so-called "Gujarat model of development" under BJP rule.

Indien India Mashal Jadavpur University Students Studenten Protest Banner bei Nacht (picture-alliance/NurPhoto/D. Chakraborty)

Indian university students protest the BJP in 2016

What makes the BJP a target?

The BJP first came to power in Gujarat in 1995. Problems with a small uprising among "lower-caste" Dalits along with recent floods have hurt the party's image and blotched its record.

The party's current image problem is compounded by assembly polls scheduled to be held in the states of Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Rajasthan and Tripura in 2018.

"All we need to do is to keep this alive for next few months and remind people what they have got in the name of development over the past 22 years," Rohan Gupta, who heads the party's cyber office, told DW. 

Organized opposition on social media is something new for the BJP party.

The BJP has a well-maintained online presence, comprising an organized band of tweeters, synchronized social media messaging to shape opinion, and trolls that have dominated social media commentary since Modi came to power in May 2014.

And the Gujarat campaign is not the only place the BJP is encountering problems online.

Other issues that are drawing the BJP social media criticism include the mess that followed India's demonetization, the imbroglio of the launch of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the inexplicable rise of petrol, diesel and gas prices. 

"When government said India's GDP will rise this year. They actually meant Gas Diesel & Petrol," said a tweet that went viral recently.

Changing minds online

Observers of Indian social media believe the winds of change are beginning to affect the affect the BJP, years after they came to power with a landslide victory, winning several crucial state and civic elections.

"Certain groups have decided to take on the BJP and it has got the ruling party worried and - more importantly- it has got them thinking,” Manish Kaprati, a social media analyst, told DW.

"The BJP still have the numbers on their side on social media but it is losing the ability to convince," political journalist Hartosh Singh Bal, told DW.

"Their claims are being subject to scrutiny, the right-wing troll army that echoes them continue to threaten liberals - but more and more people are calling their bluff."

"Eventually, in the absence of tangible achievements on the ground, their rhetoric is being perceived for what it is, just so much noise," added Bal.

Trying to control the narrative

The BJP uses social media to try and control public perception of public policies, some of which have gone wrong.

For example, the Modi government's ill-planned and badly timed demonetization exercise, which destroyed informal markets and robbed people of jobs, elicited major criticism on social media.

"Unlike similar campaigns in the past, the #DemonetisationSuccess effort wasn't just about garden-variety trolls pushing the agenda. This time, even cabinet ministers have been deployed by the BJP's high command to push the party line," journalist Kanika Kohli, told DW.

Incidentally, the government did not seem to have faith in the ability of its own ministers to creatively argue the case for the success of demonetization. Instead, the ministers were all seen sending out the same templated tweets that had been sent out to the BJP's social media foot soldiers.

"The BJP is not used to being on the receiving end of trolling. The Gujarat campaign shows that campaigns are picking up and these issues are resonating among people," Pratik Sinha of AltNews, told DW.

Sinha runs an anti-propaganda website that tries to counter propagandists that have established themselves in social media as well as on India mainstream media.

In the last general election, the BJP led the competition in the number of political tweets from its followers, in retweets, and positive posts throughout the campaign.

Prime Minister Modi has over 34 million followers on Twitter, only short of US President Donald Trump for global leaders. The BJP has dominated social media and outstrips other parties in sheer numbers, mounting campaigns against those they disagree with and have done so quite effectively. But it now seems the invincibility could be breached.

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