With the explosive growth of smartphones in India, WhatsApp within no time has turned into the most used social networking app. As a result, it turns out to be the primary campaigning tool of elections for India’s political parties. More than Twitter, Facebook or any other social media platform, WhatsApp has become the most effective way for all the political parties to influence its voters, especially— the youth and women voters ahead of the upcoming elections. It seems that WhatsApp groups will play a vital role in the 2019 elections.
Ketan Mohitkar, President BJP IT Cell Nagpur expressed, “Our main aim is to outreach the people with our party’s ideology. It is not always necessary that IT cell department only put allegations on the opposition, as it could prove to be perilous, because people do react to such things more aggressively. We just try to spread the truth with real facts and figures to the voters. All parties do try to reach to people. Most important thing is that people will not believe in those trying to gain publicity for namesake.”
According to reports in 2018, the monthly active WhatsApp users have crossed 250 million. It is not surprising that WhatsApp has become a huge favourite in India for chats, calls and messaging; as the data marked a record of Indian users to 2 billion messages on this New Year’s Eve alone. Therefore, each party has their own set of dedicated groups and managers accumulated in specific states and areas to broadcast videos, audio clips, posts and false articles designed specifically to rile up the sensation against the opposition party.
It all began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2014 general elections campaign. The campaign strategists of Modi had successfully used social media in the 2014 general elections which had an immense impact on the youth of India and led the Modi-wave to flow here. Since then, all political parties have turned to it in a big way. Their focus is mainly on the messaging service used by more millions of people in India, including those in dusty towns and villages that high profile campaign rallies will not reach.
Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant stated, “Social media campaigning war was started by none other than BJP in our country during the 2014 elections. Our party is prepared to express our thought through social media and tackle BJP’s false propaganda with facts. I believe that people of this country will support the truth and positivity of the Congress.”
In a most recent case of intense social media campaigning that grabbed the attention was in the Karnataka elections. WhatsApp was used few months before the elections by the political parties, religious activists and others to send messages and distribute news to Karnataka’s 49 million voters. BJP and Congress parties claimed to have set up at least 50,000 WhatsApp groups between them to spread their messages. Even in the Uttar Pradesh state elections in early 2017, the BJP created more than 6000 WhatsApp groups to get its messages to every district and village. Its landslide victory there prompted the Congress party to mobilise its own WhatsApp army.
NCP spokesperson Nawab Malik commented, “BJP workers are more active on social media. BJP and RSS activists try to use Whatsapp effectively to spread lies. We have an NCP page on Facebook and Twitter but we do not produce or endorse lies and we used that platform to communicate with the people for spreading the truth.”
While many messages were ordinary campaign missives, some were intended to inflame tensions and others were downright false, with no way to trace where they originated. Similarly, with a large number of people not having access to computers or the ability to check facts, there is also worry that many tend to believe what they are reading. Hence, when the facts are revealed the party faces credibility issues. Also, with the amount of messages being forwarded constantly, can hamper the voters and it could also go the other way round and have a negative impact on some of them.
Shiv Sena spokesperson Manisha Kayande said, “Every party is leaving no stones unturned to go ahead of each other on social media as it is the simplest way to connect with voters. Due to changing political scenario, an initiative by BJP seems to be backfiring on them as no other party is much active and aggressive on social media. Sometimes content is not verified and doctored videos of Rahul Gandhi or Modi are considered as the last words. This is a disadvantage as even pictures are also morphed at times.”
Over the past year and a half, WhatsApp has become the country’s default communication mode — and the most preferred medium for distributing campaign messages. The battle on WhatsApp is likely to intensify as India heads into next year’s general election. Looking at the current scenario, all parties are expected to face tough opposition, and are on the go to mount an all-out social media campaign to woo their share of voters.