From Chaiwala to Chowkidar: Modi's Election Campaigns Online and Offline

In the 2019 Indian general election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi countered corruption charges made by the Indian National Congress's (INC) Rahul Gandhi through the Chowkidar campaign. The author analyses how Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were successfully able to employ the Chowkidar slogan on social media and integrate it with their offline campaign. The Chowkidar campaign and use of social media, the author argues, are a part of Modi’s populist playbook, noting the similarities the most recent campaign has with the BJP’s Chaiwala campaign in the 2014 general election.

Though the role of social media in the 2019 Indian general elections has been well documented, its precise impact continues to be debated. This article focuses on election campaigning on Twitter through an analysis of a campaign that centred around corruption charges made by then Indian National Congress President Rahul Gandhi against Prime Minister Narendra Modi—"Chowkidar Chor Hai" (the watchman is a thief). Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) countered this in their own campaign that emphasised the phrase: "Main Bhi Chowkidar" (I am a watchman too). The campaign around chowkidars (watchmen) was an example of a high-impact social media campaign that utilised synergies between online and offline modes of election campaigning.

Why Focus on Twitter?

Before examining the campaign on Twitter, I would like to clarify why I have chosen to focus on social media, and on Twitter in particular. This clarification is important in light of a recent report by the Lokniti Programme for Comparative Democracy, which argues that the impact of social media on elections in India might be “exaggerated.” According to the report, only 7% of regular social media users were using Twitter on a weekly basis, compared to 27% for Facebook (Lokniti-CSDS-KAS 2019: 7). Moreover, in India, it is estimated that Twitter’s user base is 30 million, which is only 10% of Facebook’s user base (300 million) (Poona and Bansal 2019).   

I chose to focus on social media and Twitter in particular despite these findings (which can be contested on methodological grounds) for two reasons. First, reports such as the one by the Lokniti underestimate the “second order” effect of digital media, which contributes to the framing of political personalities and the way offline election campaigns are conducted. Digital media has the power to frame agendas since topics that are discussed on social media are often written about by traditional media. This is particularly true of Twitter, which is much more “political” in its content than Facebook or Instagram. For instance, many politicians, most notably Modi, use Twitter to make important announcements, which then become news. Most journalists working for print and television media are also on social media, and their online presence is closely tracked by media organisations, blurring the boundary between traditional and online media. 

Second, while the electoral impact of social media platforms like Twitter is important, equally significant is the way it contributes to building a politician’s brand and image. As Joyojeet Pal et al (2016: 53) note, “Twitter is at once a means of communication and outlet of political brand signaling for the man who speaks through it.” This is particularly important in Modi’s case since, usually, he has shunned the traditional media and practiced “centralised, one-way messaging” (Pal et al 2016: 60). This also ties in with the “populist” elements of Modi’s politics, where he prefers to speak to the public directly.[3] Third, Twitter still makes data and analytics on a number of parameters accessible through application programming interfaces (APIs) unlike other digital platforms, particularly WhatsApp. Thus, researchers can use Twitter more productively than, for example, Facebook or WhatsApp. While tools, such as Facebook Graph API, can be used to analyse Facebook, this too has become harder in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal (Bengani 2019).

Inside the Chowkidar Campaign

Despite the BJP and Modi’s first-mover advantage in the 2014 general election, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress were active on Twitter in the run-up to the 2019 elections, which was held over six weeks in April and May. Importantly, while Modi has far more followers than Gandhi on Twitter—Modi’s count stands at over 50 million compared to Gandhi's count of over 11 million (as of December 2019)—engagement with Gandhi's tweets over the course of 2018 had outstripped engagement with Modi’s tweets. This trend is visualised in Figure 1.  

Figure 1: Retweets per tweet from January 2018 to December 2018

Source: Twitter[1] and Research 

However, there was a marked shift in these patterns in 2019. The campaign around "chowkidars" could be seen as an important milestone in the 2019 election in both online and offline campaigns. Modi first mentioned chowkidars in 2013, immediately after being nominated as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. At a rally, he declared that he would rather be the chowkidar of the nation than its Prime Minister (India Today 2013). However, the Chowkidar trope did not play a significant role in 2014 compared to Modi’s use of the Chaiwala (tea seller) trope (Sen 2016). Indeed, in 2019, there was a clear parallel to the 2014 general election where the Chaiwala jibe against Modi by a senior Congress member was turned into a central element of Modi’s election campaign. At the end of an All India Congress Committee meeting in January 2014, member of Parliament and prominent politician Mani Shankar Aiyar had said, “I promise you in [the] twenty-first century, Narendra Modi will never become prime minister of the country … But if he wants to distribute tea here, we will find a place for him” (Outlook 2014). Aiyar’s comment was made against the backdrop of Modi telling voters at election rallies about his humble background and of having sold tea at railway stations. 
Aiyar’s remark was immediately hijacked by Modi and his team to initiate events titled “Chai pe Charcha” (discussion over tea). The first event took place in February 2014 and broadcast to about "1,000 tea stalls in 300 cities across the country" (Bhan 2014). Chai pe Charcha was a good example of reaching out to voters using the potent symbolism of Modi’s rise from an underprivileged background. It also exemplifies how well Modi’s team married technology and electoral campaigning. Modi had already been emphasising his origins as a humble chaiwala to distinguish himself from the Nehru–Gandhi dynasty and traditional political elites. As journalist Rajdeep Sardesai (2015: 265) noted, the symbolism was very important: “A tea stall where a potential prime minister sits with his fellow citizens drinking chai – what could be a greater equalizer?"

Similarly, towards the end of 2018, Rahul Gandhi, while campaigning for the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, said, "Now a new slogan is rising in India Chowkidar Chor Hai. Modi ji says don't make me the Prime Minister, make me the chowkidar (watchman) of this country. But, after coming to power, the prime minister has betrayed the trust of people" (Business Standard 2018). Gandhi's comments were made in the context of the allegations of corruption by the Indian government around the purchase of high-value fighter jets from France’s Dassault Aviation.  

As in 2014, Modi countered Gandhi and the Congress by launching his own campaign around the figure of the chowkidar. On 16 March 2019, less than a week after the election had been announced, Modi began his Main Bhi Chowkidar campaign on Twitter with a tweet (Figure 2). As of 26 November 2019, Modi's tweet received around 55,000 retweets and more than 1.5 lakh likes.

Figure 2: Modi's Counter-Campaign

A day later, Modi prefixed the word "Chowkidar" to his Twitter profile (as shown in Figure 3). Other party leaders, including then BJP president Amit Shah, followed suit. Soon the Main Bhi Chowkidar campaign spread like wildfire on social media with “#MainBhiChowkidar” receiving around 15 lakh mentions on Twitter, followed by “#ChowkidarPhirSe” with about 3 lakh mentions. In contrast, the Congress-led “#ChowkidarChorHai” received hardly 1.63 lakh mentions (Rampal 2019). An estimated 20 lakh people added the prefix "Chowkidar" to their Twitter handle, which makes the popularity of Modi’s campaign on social media clear (Punj 2019). 
Moreover, while an analysis of Modi’s and Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter handles shows that while mention of "chowkidar" was highest for Gandhi and Congress in 2018, for Modi and the BJP it spiked in early 2019. This helped the BJP since its Chowkidar campaign peaked right before the 2019 election and most likely had a greater impact (Figure 4 and 5).

Figure 3: Modi's Temporary Twitter Name 

Figure 4: Percentage of Tweets by Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi that contained a variant of the word Chowkidar 

Source: Twitter and

Figure 5: Percentage of Tweets by the official BJP and INC Twitter handles that contained a variant of the word Chowkidar

Source: Twitter and

Online to Offline

The Lokinti study found that among the respondents who were not exposed to social media, nearly half had no knowledge of the "Chowkidar" slogans (Lokniti-CSDS-KAS 2019:41). It is noteworthy that the “awareness” of the two slogans among respondents who were and were not exposed to social media was roughly the same. This finding does not, of course, say much about the impact of the two campaigns on voters. Though the Lokniti study found that those with no or limited social media exposure were not aware of the "Chowkidar" slogans, Modi and the BJP repeatedly used these slogans during their offline campaigning. This is apparent from Modi’s speeches in the run-up to the 2019 elections and especially in the months of March and April (Figure 6). Not only did the mention of "chowkidar" and its variants spike during this time, it was used more often than mentions of defence, farmers, or the Congress (Figure 7).[2]  

Figure 6: Mentions of variants of the word “Chowkidar” per 1,000 words in Modi’s speeches from June 2014 to May 2019

Source: analysis of 1,198 transcripts (Modi 2019) 
Figure 7: Topics mentioned in Modi’s Speeches from 1 March 2019 to 18 April 2019 

Source: analysis of transcripts from (Modi 2019)

Like Modi did with the Chaiwala campaign, he integrated the Chowkidar campaign into his larger campaign. On 20 March 2019, days after the Main Bhi Chowkidar slogan was launched online, Modi addressed an estimated 2,50,000 chowkidars or (security guards) through audio conferencing. Subsequently, a town hall meeting was held on 31 March at Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium specifically around the Chowkidar slogan, which was broadcasted to 500 locations across the country (Sandhu 2019). At the event, Modi linked the Chowkidar campaign to national security concerns, which had become the dominant theme of the election campaign following the airstrike on Pakistan, in response to the Pulwama attack in February 2019. He said, "In this 2019 election, every chowkidar is fighting with me. I believe that people of country are like chowkidars" (Sandhu 2019). 

While it is difficult to discern the impact of the Chowkidar campaign on voters, it is clear that Rahul Gandhi’s original intention of using the phrase—to direct attention to alleged corruption by the Modi government—failed to have any significant impact. Gandhi's failure could be because of the success of Modi’s counter campaign as well as the nationalist fervour in the wake of incidents in Pulwama and Balakot. Indeed, a pre-poll survey conducted by the Lokniti and other agencies found that the Rafale deal was not considered among the most important issues on the minds of voters (Figure 8). Post-poll surveys conducted by Lokniti found a similar preference on voter's prioritisation of issues.  

Figure 8: Response to the question: “When you vote in the Lok Sabha election, which one of these issues will be most important for you while arriving at your final decision about who to vote for?”


Source: Lokniti-CSDS (2019b)

Cementing a Public Image

As with many social media campaigns, the electoral impact of the Chowkidar campaign is difficult to fully gauge. However, the response it generated on social media, as well as the repeated mentions it found in Modi’s speeches, suggests that the Chowkidar trope played a significant role in the 2019 general elections. It had similarities with the Chaiwala campaign of 2014, where Modi turned an insult into a badge of honour. But, more than the strategic acumen of Modi and his team, the Chowkidar campaign was consistent with Modi’s politics and the manner in which he communicates. 

Several scholars have noted the populist elements of Modi’s politics (Chacko 2018; McDonnell et al 2019). His communication strategies and the manner in which he establishes an “us versus them” narrative are significant parts of Modi’s populism. In 2014, Modi used the chaiwala campaign to project himself as a poor, “lower” caste challenger whom a majority of Indians could identify with. In 2019, as the incumbent, Modi used the Chowkidar campaign not only to combat allegations of corruption, but also to project himself as the custodian of India’s security following the attack in Pulwama and the subsequent retaliation in Balakot.

The extensive use of social media and Twitter, in particular, is also part of Modi’s populist playbook. Social media enables Modi to circumvent traditional mediums and communicate directly to people. As Subir Sinha notes, “Modi took to social media to bypass elite media and to establish unmediated relations with the population to compose a specific people” (Sinha 2017: 11). Hence, Modi rarely addresses the media or gives interviews. When he does give interviews, it is usually during election time and often to friendly journalists and celebrities. At other times, Modi regularly addresses the nation on the government-owned radio station, All India Radio, in a programme known as “Mann Ki Baat.”  Modi also uses special occasions, such as the reply to the President’s address in Parliament or the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, to directly address the nation. 

The Chowkidar campaign was specifically meant for the election season. Modi dropped the Chowkidar prefix from his Twitter handle on 23 May, the day election results were announced. Other senior BJP leaders followed suit (Business Today 2019). This change was reflected in the popularity of the term "chowkidar" online since search trends on Google show that while the search volume for the phrase peaked during March–April 2019, it virtually disappeared after the votes were counted (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Search volume for the phrase "chowkidar" on Google

Source: Google Trends[4]

The Chowkidar campaign displayed how adept Modi and the BJP were at controlling the election discourse and getting voters to identify with their message. This control of the election discourse was in part supported by their ability to spend on digital advertising at a far greater scale than other political parties. It should be noted that the BJP's heavy spending, both online and offline, was a function of the corporate funding it received, which was as much as 92% of total corporate donations in 2017–18 (Sahood and Tiwari 2019). Social media, and Twitter, in particular, has allowed Modi to directly communicate— “one way messaging” as Pal et al identify—with people. Social media has also enabled him to amplify his message in a way that traditional media, such as newspaper, radio, and television has not. The Chaiwala campaign was an early illustration of Modi’s prowess at such messaging.  

The author is grateful for the assistance provided by Rishabh Srivastava for gathering and visualising the data.

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