In 2012, when the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh debuted on the popular social media site, Twitter, among the early followers to greet him was Ms. Poonam Pandey, a Bollywood actor infamous for her risque conduct, who welcomed him by tweeting at him a lingerie-clad photograph of herself. The establishment, particularly those in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), were aghast. How could someone do something like this to the Prime Minister of the country? The short answer was that they could. Twitter was still relatively new in Indian political circles then and the paradigm of free-for-all social media not well understood. The fact is that Twitter, unless used for obviously libellous or illegal activity, is pretty much a platform where people can say anything they want to. Political leaders were not used to that.
Twitter is like a pulpit open to all. Anyone can have a Twitter account and post whatever they want to—give vent to their thoughts, opinion, anger, love, hatred, anything. There are more than 330 million active Twitter users in the world; in India, in 2018, the estimated number of Twitter account is expected to grow to more than 30 million. While Twitter is an open access platform, as it has grown popular in India, politicians have taken to it with gusto, using it not only to get their messages out to followers but to take on their rivals—to challenge, argue with and put down political opponents. Also, most importantly, to try and use the medium to influence public discourse. Twitter’s short posts (capped at 280 characters) make for pithy statements and those who can use them with wit and vocabulary skills can create an impact.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi is not nearly as popular on Twitter as some of his opponents, including Prime Minister Modi, are. Mr. Gandhi’s Twitter handle, @OfficeofRG has 5.7 million followers; Mr. Modi’s handle, @narendramodi, has nearly 40 million. Yet, and understandably so, much of Mr. Gandhi’s tweets are directed at Mr. Modi, his arch political opponent. And of late, they have become salient—not only because of their timely, topical content but also because of the wit and humour he’s begun to employ. Last month when the Prime Minister went to Switzerland to address the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos, Mr. Gandhi shot out a tweet that said: “Dear PM, Welcome to Switzerland! Please tell Davos why 1% of India’s population gets 73% of its wealth? I’m attaching a report for your ready reference.” The attachment was an online report that quoted an Oxfam survey on India’s alarmingly wide income inequality.
A few days later when Mr. Modi returned to India from Davos, Mr. Gandhi shot out another cheeky tweet. “Dear PM,” he tweeted, “Welcome back from Switzerland. Quick reminder about your promise on black money. Youth in India were wondering if you got any back with you in your plane.” An obvious reference to Mr. Modi’s emphatic but unfulfilled promise that he would bring back all the unaccounted for money that tax-evading Indians had allegedly spirited away in Swiss banks. That tweet got nearly 36,000 likes and 14,000 retweets—far less than what the immensely popular @narendramodi’s posts get but it hit the spot when it came to using the social medium most effectively.
Compared to other Indian politicians, including many in his own party, Mr. Gandhi has been a latecomer on Twitter. And he had begun testily. In his early days on Twitter, Mr. Gandhi’s posts were often knee-jerk reactions, sometimes laced with thinly veiled anger. This made him a troll magnet, attracting the wrath of armies of pro-BJP trolls, known as ‘bhakts’, on Twitter who are quick to barrack any criticism of the party or its leaders and ministers, not to mention the Prime Minister. Those early tweets were neither memorable nor impactful.
Things started changing sometime in 2016, when Mr. Gandhi changed his tweeting style. By mid-2017, before two state elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, his tweets became better crafted. Anger, aggression and impulsive reactions got replaced with humour, wit, and the liberal use of Hindi. The latter, use of Hindi, has made a difference. Last month a news website reported a story quoting the Prime Minister, whose penchant for hugging world leaders is well known, as saying that he was a common man who didn’t know much about official protocol. Mr. Gandhi promptly posted a tweet composed in Hindi: “Khud ko batate hain jo bahut ‘aam’; “Khas” ko hi gale lagana unka kaam; Modiji, aisi bhi kya majburi, gale lagane walon main kisan, mazdoor aur jawaan ka hona bhi zaroori (‘You call yourself a common man but embrace only the powerful elite; Mr. Modi it is important that you also embrace the farmers, workers and the youth’).”
Behind all this seems to be a considered strategy. Communicating more frequently in Hindi has helped Mr. Gandhi and his party members to connect more with people in North India—a region where the Congress has been ousted from power in most states. It has also made his tweets more accessible to those who follow him on Twitter. The number of times his tweets are re-tweeted—a common measure of positive response to posts on Twitter—has increased. Mr. Gandhi’s close circle of advisors and aides say he composes most of his tweets himself although he also leans on his team sometimes for help.
Twitter is one part of Mr. Gandhi’s new communication strategy. After he was elected unopposed as his party’s president last year, he adopted a new avatar at least with regard to his public presence, utterances, and statements. Faced with at least six state elections this year and the parliamentary election next year, the new party president’s main task is to reverse the debilitation that the Congress has suffered. In 2014, it was all but wiped out by a triumphal ‘Modi wave’ that brought the BJP to power, and, subsequently, its performance in state elections has largely been pathetic.
Some of Mr. Gandhi’s newly-minted communication methods as well as the way he conducts himself in public has already had some effect. Not very long back, he would commit faux pas in his speeches and frequently display political naïveté, leading his critics to dismiss him as someone who was a dilettante in Indian politics. Not any longer. This January, in India Today magazine’s survey of the mood of the nation, Mr. Modi still towered above everybody else as being the best suited for being Prime Minister with 53% of the respondents believing that his performance in the top job was good. That wasn’t much of a surprise. It was Mr. Gandhi’s scores in the survey that may have been unexpected by many. In 2017, only 10% of respondents saw him fit to be a prime ministerial candidate; in last month’s survey, 22% of the respondents saw him as the best prime ministerial candidate. It would be facile to attribute such a gain to communications and social media strategy alone but, as we all know by now, big stories often break first on Twitter!