ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Can An Election Be Tweeted to Victory?

AAP, Arvind and a City-State Called Delhi

Pamela Philipose (pamelaphilipose@gmail.com) is a senior ICSSR Fellow researching the media.

An analysis of the social media campaign of the Aam Aadmi Party in the Delhi elections. How and why did AAP’social media campaign succeed while that of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s failed?

The scale of the victory that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) achieved in the city-state of Delhi on February 10 has had commentators at a loss for words. Suffice it to say that AAP, through its intuitive politics, was able to emerge as the beneficiary of the prevailing mood among a vast number of Delhi voters. Its victory mimicked the BJP’s achievement in the 16th General Election of 2014. If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rightly sensed the widespread anger at the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and worked successfully to deepen this feeling to its advantage; AAP instinctively discerned the incipient but distinct disillusionment of voters with the ruling BJP government, the fragility of the Congress Party, and amorphous despondency at the pavement level induced by the tragic, in-your-face realities of everyday life.

Harnessing Social Media

What was also common to the two campaigns that led to the electoral landslides of May 2014 and February 2015 was the deployment of innovative communication strategies by the two parties, though the one that succeeded in 2014 has failed in 2015. While the strengths of traditional media like newspapers and television channels and familiar ways of election mobilisation like rallies and mass meetings were built on, the spearhead in both campaigns was a range of new media, from Whatsapp and Facebook to YouTube and Instagram. 

The evolution of such political use of the media and social media in India lead us to the Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption movement of 2011. It was to be the seedbed of experimentation in emerging communication techniques and the group that anchored it, “Team Anna”, was quick to grasp the crowd mobilizing potential of new media which, in those early days, largely meant bulk SMSs and missed calls with some Facebook presence and Twitter thrown in. Anna Hazare had commented at that point that if “Mahatma Gandhi been alive today, I am sure he would have used this technology to reach out to the masses.”

One man in particular in Anna Hazare’s group proved an assiduous learner. When Arvind Kejriwal went on to establish the AAP Party in November 2013, he had learnt well the lessons of political messaging, borrowing liberally from the Barrack Obama election campaign of 2008. He realised that a young, energetic bunch of volunteers who knew their communication technologies like the back of their hand, could be the key to not just carving out new political space but raising funds for a fledgling, cash-starved organisation. AAP first displayed its networking felicity as Delhi went to the polls in the winter of 2013. Not only did each assembly constituency have its own Facebook page, some 60,000 tweets with pro-AAP hashtags reached Delhi voters before they cast their ballots on 4 December.

Running parallel to the AAP strategy in 2013, a bottomless war chest and an array of social media proved to be extremely valuable for the BJP and its prime ministerial aspirant as they set their sights on wresting power from the UPA. According to Arvind Gupta, national technology head of the BJP, 160 seats were identified that were well networked and the party went about capturing them in a manner that would have made a corporate body proud. Like the AAP, the BJP too had a dedicated team working on adapting what was essentially the same message for various media and formats[i] to achieve stunning success in a campaign termed as Mission 272 Plus. Here social media was melded seamlessly with an overall political campaign that is believed to have been the largest such exercise ever to have been witnessed in India.

Differing Outcomes

The question as to why the same strategy did not produce similar results for the BJP in the recent Delhi elections is an intriguing one which we will revisit later.  What was indubitable, however, was that for the BJP, the AAP proved a more than worthy opponent in the social media space in 2015, making up for the obvious disparity in financial resources with the energy of its volunteer and fleet footed responses.

For purposes of the present inquiry, the focus will be on how AAP/Arvind Kejriwal capitalised on Twitter, the microblogging social media site which potentially, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in 2010, could upend the “the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will”.

AAP made use of Twitter in three distinct ways, both through Kejriwal’s own tweets which reached over 3 million followers and through those of other AAP leaders, volunteers and followers, using over 10 common hashtags. One, to goad and heckle their political opponents in a bid to expose them and to respond to their heckles in turn. Two, to define its own political agenda and underline its concerns. Finally, to guide and enthuse its base of volunteers and supporters. Photographs, newspaper articles and video clips were all grist for the AAP’s Twitter mill.

Coming to the first, two months before Delhi voted, Kejriwal had already taken to Twitter to taunt its main opponent.  In mid-December 2014 he tweeted,

Are Delhi elections being pushed to April? (Why is) BJP so scared?

Calibrated Response

During the Abhinandan rally that took place on 10 January, its star speaker, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused Kejriwal of being a self-proclaimed anarchist and a Naxalite. The return tweet was quick in coming, “I ask the people of Delhi, do I look like a Naxal?” It condensed what Kejriwal had already said in television and newspaper interviews. Incidentally on television, it was Arvind Kejriwal 2.0 that was on view – soft-spoken, injured but utterly reasonable and unruffled.  Much of this projection was essentially performative, although in his tweets the iron fist in the velvet glove occasionally glimmered.

It was with his chief ministerial challenger and former IAC colleague, Kiran Bedi that Kejriwal was at his most diplomatic. Unlike AAP colleague Kumar Vishwas, who skated on thin ice at least on one occasion, Kejriwal studiously kept away from personalising the face-off, even congratulating Bedi on her appointment as BJP chief minister designate:

@thekiranbedi congrats 4 being nominated as BJP's CM candidate. I invite u 4 a public debate moderated by neutral person n telecast by all.

This was followed up with a gentle reprimand:

Kiranji, i used to follow u on twitter. Now, u have blocked me on twitter. Kindly unblock me.

On 2 February there was even this tweet:

Dear @thekiranbedi Ji Welcome to @AamAadmiParty . please Read this Tweet again after Election.

Even before campaigning began it was clear that Kerjiwal had become the party and the party had become Kejriwal, and party lieutenants and acolytes were quick to repulse any attack on him. When the BJP unleashed its vicious cartoons parodying him, the retorts followed with no time lost. On the morning of 30 January, the day marking Gandhi’s assassination, Kejriwal, alluding tangentially to the Sangh Parivar’s deification of his killer, tweeted

Nathuram Godse killed Gandhiji on this day in 1948. BJP has killed Anna in its ad today. Shudn't BJP apologise?

This led to another tweet a few minutes later:

I will always pray for well being and good health of Annaji,

This, in case Hazare may have been hurt over being reduced to political football.

Around the same time AAP follower, Ashutosh Mishra, tweeted two contrasting images: the offending ad and a photograph of AAP volunteers holding up placards demanding CCTV cameras for women’s protection. He tweeted alongside:

This is what the final picture of vision and agenda being offered to the Delhi by political parties. Tough fight?

When the BJP came out with its “Upadravi Gotra” ad, Kejriwal tweeted that the party should apologise to the Agrawal caste to which he belonged, following it up with an observation that framed Delhi voters as the guardians of his party:

People of Delhi do not like politics of abuse and caste. People will give their reply on voting day.

Party leader Ashutosh added his own tweet to the pot:

BJP has not tendered apology in two hours. Rather they are defending the AD. We are moving to ELECTION COMMISSION to complain.

Over the coming days every time the BJP made an accusation, the AAP would emerge with its counter, often in the form of questions:

Mafia n ISI support #AAP ? hence AAP want to give away kashmir ? #AAPKiDilli .. #kejriwal #DelhiElections.”

Things turned more serious four days before the campaigning ended with the money laundering charge brought in by the AAP Volunteers Action Manch (AVAM), a group claiming to be a breakaway faction of the party. Here too Twitter was used with care in a three-pronged counter-attack that denied the allegation and attacked the Union Minister of Finance for giving credibility to it; it brought in Jaskirat Mann, a donor, to expose AVAM; and highlighted Kejriwal’s own image of personal integrity.

By the next day the twittersphere was a noisy space. While Malwinder25 tweeted:

If this AVAM drama was BJP's ace card...then guys, u hav totally failed...

Someone called Chris put out the line

FM Jaitley ‘knows’ AAP used fake companies to fund with BlackMoney thru Hawala, but he doesn’t order probe. Is the FM endorsing these crimes,

Sanjeev Goyal came up with

Dear Arun jatily ji u want to know the details of a company for a political party. Are u really FM of India?

All three tweets were hashtagged JawabDoAVAM.

Meanwhile Vikramadhiman was tweeting

BREAKING! Jaskirat Mann traced by @ndtv - says her transaction of 50 lakh rupees to #AAP was white & from Axis Bank & not Canadian dollars.”

With #hawala at midnight and #AAP funding scam were the top two Twitter trends, it was time to defend Kejriwal’s personal integrity. The man himself played the martyr card:

Finance Minister, Stop throwing muck. Act. Arrest me if I am guilty.

Meanwhile his supporters chipped in with messages like

U can't even Dream of Honesty that .@ArvindKejriwal possesses .. Dares to Arrest if Faulty;

BJP preaching about political funding is like a carnivore preaching about vegetarianism.

Each of these tweets was retweeted innumerable times. For instance, AAP leader Mayank Gandhi’s statement – “Dirty tricks,masterstrokes,120 MPs,entire cabinet,big money,Modi rallies- nothing working.The people of Delhi hv made up their minds” – was retweeted 177 times.

What was striking was the adeptness with which barbs and bites, including those made by the increasingly desperate Narendra Modi, were used to fashion the counter-narrative much like the early negative references to the muffler that Arvind Kejriwal sported going on to create the positive, superman-like persona of “Mufflerman”. One tweet that targeted the prime minister:

Whl promotng BJP in Delhi,Modi shd knw tht he is PM of India.Didn't expect ds kind of derogatory speech just 4 d sake of votes.

Tweets, by their very format, lend themselves to verbal swordplay. Putting them to the second use – defining the party agenda – was possibly more of a challenge. But even here AAP displayed a unity of purpose long before the Election Commission (EC) had announced election dates. By December2014, the catchy phrase “Paanch Saal Kejriwal” had been devised to signal the seriousness with which the party was taking the polls this time and to lay to rest the maidan chhod diya (he had left the field, a reference to his resignation from chief ministership in early 2014) accusation. On December 24, the party tweeted,

5 Saal Kejriwal Is Not A Slogan - It's A Pledge For ‘Good & Corruption Free Governance.

On the day before Prime Minister Modi’s appearance during the Abhinandan rally, Kejriwal tweeted, under the hashtag #DelhiasksPMModi,

Before polls, BJP announced 30% redn in elec rates. Delhi eagerly hoping that PM wud announce that tomo.

The hashtag #DelhiasksPMModi was designed as a platform for ordinary voters to express their thoughts:

PM addressing Delhi tomorrow for the 1st time. What are your expectations from him tomorrow? Tweet with #DelhiAsksPMModi and we will RT!

RT, incidentally, means re-tweets, and AAP volunteers proved to be indefatigable at retweeting all the favourable material that came their way, from supportive tweets to newspaper and television content, especially after election dates were announced on January 12. For instance when the Times of India put out a story on the how vegetables prices in Delhi were skyrocketing on Febuary 4, it was retweeted immediately:

Despite Modi Magic, Veggie, fruit prices soar by up to 100%.”

The fact that the BJP had not bothered to come out with a manifesto was not lost on Kejriwal and he drove it home on January 31:

Our manifesto is like Gita to us, like Bible; this is holy for us.

Similarly AAP’s call to the ballot box was framed in solemn terms evident in this tweet by AAP supporter Uma Singha in Hindi:

Sabhi deshbhakton se appeal.. bhavishya mein mombati utane se behtar hain aaj jhadu utha liye jaye” (calling all patriots...in the future, it’s better to raise the broom than light candles).

By 5 February, the party’s pledges and promises – ranging from “Revive the Yamuna No encroachments and construction banned” to “Free ambulance across Delhi for the needy people” and “Bus Marshals on every bus. Zero tolerance agnst molestation,eve teasing & violence agnst women”, were being tweeted under the hashtag #MyVoteKejriwal.

The anxiety that the BJP would steal the election also came through in AAP’s tweets. Kejriwal was the first to voice his apprehension. On 3 February, he tweeted:

Large scale EVM tampering? Yest, during inspection of EVMs in Del cant, in 4 machines, whatever button u pressed, light against BJP lit.

Similarly Ashutosh in one of his tweets claimed that TV channels that were carrying Kejriwal's interview were “put off”. These fears grew as election day drew closer. When on 6 February the Delhi newspapers carried front page advertisements seeking votes for the BJP by extolling the achievements of the Modi government, despite campaigning having officially ended, one tweet carried the image of the ad with the comment “campaigning continue today too y ?”

Finally, the third use – shoring up the party base – demanded messaging that united a disparate group for a common purpose, something that needed to go beyond the use of common hashtags. The Twitter wizardry of Kejriwal and AAP was arguably at its most apparent when it came to enthusing volunteers and supporters, whether by celebrating each and every road show and rally, or by ruthlessly exposing the opponent. An example of the latter was AAP volunteer Amit Mishra’s tweeting of a photograph of a well-attended AAP rally in a Congress bastion with the words:

Yeh wahi Gandhinagar hain jaha Amrinder Singh Lovely se koyi rajnitik dal takkar lene ki himmat nahi karta tha” (this, the very Gandhinager where no opposing political party dared to take on Amrinder Singh Lovely).

Psephologist and party leader Yogendra Yadav kept the prospects of victory real by tweeting his projections. On 3 February:

Most of the opinion polls are now reflecting what AAP's internal survey says. Delhi is all set for #AamAadmiKiSarkaar

Kejriwal himself adopted for the benefit of the party faithful the tone of a benevolent elder brother. The tweet set out on 7.51 am on February 7, voting day, captured this best:

Sab log naha dhokar aapne aapne Isha ko yaad karke vote dalne jaroor jaana :) aapki aashirwad jeet hogi (“Everyone after taking a bath, praying to god, do cast your vote, you will certainly win”).

The end of the day saw him expressing his appreciation:

My gratitud 2 Delhiites for their support. U r so amazing. U rejcted politics of caste n religion. Hope final results r as per exit polls

My sincere thnks n congratulations to all selfless volunteers of AAP, who worked round the clock for their country. AAP is bcoz of u.

As they say, you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose. How Kejriwal’s tweeting patterns change as the bonds of power tighten, only the coming days will reveal. The important question is not whether social media has puts its stamp on electioneering in India – the 2014 General Elections had already answered it – but how will it alter the nature of electoral democracy in India.

Three Significant Aspects

Delhi 2015 underlined three significant aspects. One, the instant opinion making of online conversations, through quick endorsements and rejections, can both build and undermine public support in ever shorter spans of time. Kejriwal knows this only too well and that is why he has asked Delhiites to give him some time before judging his performance as chief minister. Two, cyber conversations without chappals on the ground could prove infructuous, even counter-productive. With all his tweeting, Kejriwal never gave up on old fashioned, face-to-face campaigning, addressing several jan sabhas in each of Delhi’s 70 constituencies (Times of India 2015). The BJP’s social media campaign, which too had considerable heft in these elections, did not have the impact it did in May 2014, possibly because of a disgruntled ground level cadre, a disproportionate dependence on the Modi blitzkrieg and the lateral entry of Kiran Bedi. Three, given that Delhi was a highly media networked and relatively prosperous city state with a large proportion of literate youth among its voters, it would be foolhardy to suggest that it was representative of India as a whole.

Notes

[i] From a discussion on the 2014 General Elections at the Observer Research Foundation, July 2014.

References

Gladwell, Malcom (2010) “Small Change” New Yorker, 4 October

Times of India (2015) “Kejriwal address 110 jan sabhas in 2 months”, 6 February

 

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top