How are India’s new-age influencers shaping the electoral game?

Photo by Dibakar Roy from Pexels. Used under a Pexels license.

Photo by Dibakar Roy from Pexels. Used under a Pexels license.

India is poised for its upcoming general elections, which will take place for over a month starting from April 19, 2024. As the election dates draw near, political parties are bolstering their efforts to reach out to voters through various means. However, this time, parties are not solely relying on traditional methods like mass rallies and door-to-door campaigns. Many parties are leveraging the power of the internet and social media to maximize their outreach and engagement in the election process.

In July 2018, Shivam Sankar Singh, a tech enthusiast, presented a paper titled “Weaponizing Data for Politics” at a data conference in Bengaluru. During the presentation, Singh disclosed his involvement in a prominent campaign team for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), where he used constituency profiles and micro-level data to obtain actionable insights to gain an edge in the elections.

Fast forward six years, and India finds itself on the fast track to digitalization. With over 800 million internet users and the world's largest presence on Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp, it has become imperative for political parties to woo social media influencers to echo their messages to a wider audience. As elections draw nearer, parties have mobilized thousands of influencers, even gamers, with the objective of appealing to a young, heavily online population. Influencers play a crucial role due to their extensive reach, accessibility, and ability to connect with diverse demographics, particularly young people.

Influencers and digital campaigns

While all parties are intensifying their digital campaigns for the upcoming election, the ruling BJP seems to be leading the charge. With its robust active IT cell dedicated to digital campaigns, coupled with the inclusion of influencers, the party is gaining a significant advantage in the digital sphere.

In March 2024, just a month prior to the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP-led government of India introduced the inaugural National Creators Award, recognizing achievements in 20 diverse categories. Many prominent YouTubers and social media influencers were among the awardees. However, the awards faced widespread criticism as most recipients had a history of promoting the BJP's agendas and endorsing the government.

Journalist Akshit Chawla posted on X (formerly Twitter):

Chandni Bhagat, an 18-year-old with over 200,000 Instagram followers who has been producing devotional videos for the past three years, has recently begun incorporating political themes into her daily religion-focused Instagram reels. In her reels, she is often seen alongside alongside Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the former chief minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Veteran politician and former National Vice President of the BJP, Chouhan was instrumental in the BJP's strong performance in the state.

As part of the digital campaign, Bhagat recently shared a reel on Instagram urging people to celebrate the Hindu New Year instead of the Gregorian New Year.

“नई इयर्स पर रातभर मैं पार्टी करने वाला नहीं हिन्दू नववर्ष पर मंदिर जाने वाला चाहिए”

We don't want a person who party till midnight on the new year but one who goes to temple on Hindu New Year

Maithili Thakur is a renowned Indian folk singer known for her devotional melodies. She has 14 million followers on Facebook and over 4.5 million each on Instagram and YouTube. She saw her popularity soar to new heights when India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi shared her devotional song on X during the inauguration of a controversial Hindu temple in Ayodhya. Thakur was among the 24 influencers honored this March with the National Creators Award, celebrating “Storytellers of a Confident, Assertive New India”, and shared the event on her YouTube channel.

However, the BJP's political outreach extends beyond influencers, as the prime minister recently held a meeting with some of the country’s top online gamers. According to the “State of India Gaming Report” published by Google and Lumikai in 2023, the nation boasts 568 million gamers, with 50 percent falling within the 18 to 30 age bracket. This demographic presents a lucrative opportunity for engaging with the country’s youth.

These online gamers are followed by millions of followers on platforms like Instagram and YouTube, often surpassing even other celebrities, like prominent sports figures, in terms of follower count.

For example, Naman Mathur, known in the gaming world as “Mortal,” boasts 5.3 million followers on Instagram in addition to his 7 million subscribers on YouTube, surpassing the follower count of popular Indian cricketer Ravichandran Ashwin (4.7 million Instagram followers) and Olympic medalist P V Sindhu (3.7 million Instagram followers).

Although the meeting was labeled a forum to explore growth opportunities within the gaming industry, it is evident that it serves as nothing more than an election outreach strategy.

Payal Dhare, who participated in the meeting with PM Modi, shared a series of Instagram posts detailing the interaction.

Memes, cartoons and popular culture

However, these digital campaigns extend beyond influencers, with many political parties maintaining dedicated IT teams to disseminate their agendas across various platforms. Cartoons, memes, and trolls are among the key tools used to engage a new generation of politically aware voters.

Recently, the All India Trinamool Congress posted a video on X depicting Modi as an autocratic leader.

Likewise, a video was shared on Facebook by Assam's cabinet minister and prominent BJP figure, Pijush Hazarika, mocking rival Congress leader and election candidate for Jorhat city's Lok Sabha (the lower house of India's Parliament), Gaurav Gogoi, calling him a migratory bird during the election, having recently shifted from his previous constituency. The Facebook post also includes elements of Islamophobia, portraying Gaurav Gogoi participating in iftar and namaz among Muslim men, insinuating that he is solely a leader for Muslims.

A YouTube channel titled “India Wants Kejriwal,” a fan channel dedicated to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, uploaded a video on the platform. The video alleges that Modi and other leaders of the party have been implicated in bank scams and the illicit sale of public properties to criminals.

With the poll dates approaching, all parties are only intensifying their digital campaigns. In a digitally connected India that is more active online than ever before, the role of the internet, access to information, technology, and fact-checking will be pivotal in shaping the electoral landscape.

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