Amit Malviya, National Convenor, Information and Technology, BJP speaks to The Sunday Guardian.
Q: It is an undeniable fact that BJP reaped massive electoral benefits in the 2014 general elections due to the way it used social media to reach the masses. Do you see social media playing the same important role in the 2019 elections?
A: If 2014 was an election that saw the emergence of social media as a force multiplier, 2019 is going to redefine the paradigm completely by taking the fight to handheld devices. The number of smartphones users is expected to rise sharply from 350Mn today, to approx. 650Mn by 2019. Mobile data consumption per user in India is expected to reach 1,704Mb/month by 2020, a steep jump over 185Mb/month today. 220Mn Indians today are on Facebook and close to 40Mn on Twitter. These are gigantic numbers. Social media has changed the way information is consumed today and I reckon it is going to have a massive impact on the outcome of 2019. In my estimate, it will have a definitive impact on approximately 350 seats, if not more.
Q: BJP has been accused of “patronising trolls” and encouraging vilification of individuals who are seen to be “liberal” or anti-BJP. What is your view regarding such individuals who indulge in abuses and threats against individuals?
A: Social media has democratised the discourse. Today it is no more the exclusive domain of a few, who thought it was their ordained right to set the narrative on issues of social, political and cultural importance. Research and opinion making on art, culture, history and politics isn’t confined to tax funded institutions and academics therein. There are opinions and counter opinions, there are debates, and established narratives are being questioned, if they are found wanting. There is a sudden rise of independent voices, researchers, amateur historians and blogging enthusiasts, who have created a niche for themselves. The power of their ideas and articulation has earned them a committed readership, which is growing rapidly.
In yesteryears, many of them would have gone unnoticed, because they couldn’t find a publisher or a newspaper editor did not give them space. But internet and social media have changed all that. Today they can publish and share their work widely. Digital media has reduced the cost of reaching an audience that would be otherwise excluded. And what is most interesting is that social media is facilitating this churn.
The emergence of social media platforms along with rapid innovations in handheld technologies has meant that almost every individual is somehow linked to the wider audience on the World Wide Web. Whether it is students, social activists, scientists, special interest enthusiasts or businesses, big or small are today leveraging social media platforms to put across their points of view and communicating beyond traditional means.
This comes with its own share of challenges, because users of the medium come from diverse social backgrounds, have been to different schools and express themselves differently. The BJP, as a responsible political party, realised this much early and issued a comprehensive guidelines on what constitutes good social behaviour. Since the BJP shapes the narrative on social media, it is convenient for our detractors, mostly so-called “liberals”, to park the burden of unacceptable behaviour of a few at our doorstep. However, it is no secret that these “liberals” are the most intolerant of differing views.
Q: A strong perception has emerged that the Congress, the main opposition party, is now matching up to the BJP’s sharpness when it comes to social media campaigning. As a result of this, the BJP, for the first time, is on the back-foot, at least on social media, especially on Twitter. Do you agree that you are facing a “resurgent Congress” on social media?
A: Social media is a means to communicate a party’s plans and programmes and not an end in itself. BJP’s dominance on social media has much to do with its ideology, unwavering focus on improving lives of people and its visionary leadership. Our wide cadre base and deep outreach programmes among all sections of society power our social media campaigns. It isn’t something we built overnight, but have nurtured over many years. Political communication, irrespective of the medium, is relevant only when it is transparent and honest. The Congress leadership doesn’t measure up on both these counts.
Q: Citizens, cutting across sections, have questioned the logic behind the Twitter handle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi following some users who use unparliamentarily language against other Twitter users. This practice gives a message, according to these citizens, that the PM is supporting these abusive handles. How do you see this whole issue?
A: This is a mischievous and contorted attempt to create a controversy. Prime Minister following (someone) is not a character certificate and is not in any way a guarantee of how the person will conduct himself. He follows a lot of normal people and can be often seen interacting or responding to them. He has never blocked or un-followed anyone and truly believes in freedom of speech.
Q: Is the input of BJP IT cell used while deciding on whom the PM would follow on Twitter?
A: There is no one channel for input. I have often seen common Twitter users writing to Prime Minister asking for a follow, or just tagging him to highlight the good work they are doing and the Prime Minister acknowledges their work by following them back.
Q: How much importance is given to the reactions, insights and suggestions that the various BJP Twitter handles receive from citizens when it comes to formulating government policies and responses?
A: In large measure, the success of social media is because it is a two-way communication channel. We are constantly listening to what is being said. Every suggestion or feedback is duly evaluated and channelled for appropriate follow up. My Gov is an institutional framework for encouraging participative governance. Many suggestions and ideas for Prime Minister’s Mann Ki Baat are sourced from social media. In addition, a lot of feedback on various policy measures such as demonetisation and GST were picked from social media. It is the hallmark of an open and sensitive government. Similar process exists for political inputs that come to the party. It is our inherent belief that common people out there have great ideas and the country and party will benefit from listening to them. It strengthens our institutions and democracy, both.
Q: What is the biggest challenge of leading the IT team of the world’s largest political party?
A: While social media has expanded our ability to communicate, too many parallel conversations sometimes make it incoherent and difficult for people to listen. There is a lot of information, which is often detrimental, and hence what is needed is better filters, trusted channels and curated content. As someone responsible for leading the Information & Technology department of the world’s largest party, I am constantly looking to improve the quality, variety and quantity of information we put out through our official channels. We have had reasonable success with our efforts. Our social media channels have seen exponential rise in subscription over the last two years. We have approximately a 1.4 crore-member strong Facebook community and over 70 lakh followers on Twitter, which is the largest for any political party. BJP Live, our internet TV, sees approximately 8 crore views every year. These are sizeable numbers.
Q: What is your future plan regarding how to use the IT cell to repeat what happened in the 2014 general elections? Do you feel that the social media template used in 2014, when Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook, for the first time, were used so extensively for political campaigning at the national level needs to be changed or modified? Especially when one considers that for BJP, 2014 was more about how to dislodge the Congress, while in 2019 it would be on how to remain in power.
A: It is early to comment on our strategy for 2019 and anyway I am unlikely to reveal it in an interview. Needless to say, much will change over 2014 both in terms of content and delivery. But our government’s policies and programmes, their social and economic benefits and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visionary approach towards building a New India will anchor the narrative. The audacity, with which Prime Minister has taken bold reformist decisions such as demonetisation and GST, launched social schemes such as Ujwala and Swachh Bharat and introduced the world’s largest financial inclusion programmes such as Jan Dhan and Direct Benefit Transfer, will all be part of the campaign. The success of Mudra Yojana and empowering those who are at the bottom of the economic pyramid are all stories that will be reiterated. Our government has so much to its credit from foreign policy to national security, which we could be sharing with people for days, and yet we will have a lot more to say.