Popular reels from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Instagram (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
A YEAR AGO, MyGov captured 65 hours of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to three European countries—France, Germany and Denmark—in 60 seconds, through reels on Instagram. Modi, it said, held 25 meetings, on the trip. The reels on the official Instagram account, which connects government with citizens, with 2.4 million followers, got 40,000 likes.
This is minuscule compared to the response to reels on Modi’s own Instagram which, with 74.6 million followers (as of April 25), makes him the most followed politician in the world. As Modi treated his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida to gol gappas at Delhi’s Buddha Jayanti Park, the 30-second reel on the Indian prime minister’s Instagram got nearly 5.7 million likes. With more people getting hooked on to short videos on Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, the terms of engagement on social media have undergone a change, all set to be serenaded into the political arena. Sensing the power of the reel rage, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has factored it into its social media campaign in the run-up to the 2024 General Election, particularly aimed at targeting the youth which forms the bulk of its users.
A series of meetings addressed by the BJP leadership earlier this month laid out the roadmap for party leaders and members of Parliament (MPs) on use of social media platforms—Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—right down to the booth level. As in 2014 and 2019, besides hitting the campaign on the ground, BJP would aggressively wield the social media weapon in the digital war. But this time it would be more about reels. While digital tools like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp have been intrinsic to the party’s political war rooms and campaigns in the past, reels have rolled into people’s lives after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. “Our focus has changed. We have realigned to this new reality that penetration of videos is higher than the written word. Reels are a do-it-yourself medium, creative and addictive. People who do not have the bandwidth or time to read have this option,” says Amit Malviya, who has headed BJP’s information technology (IT) cell since 2015.
The emphasis on political messaging through videos reflects in an internal note circulated by the BJP parliamentary party, listing out the daily social media tasks for MPs who, as representatives of the largest number of people, are seen as political influencers. The ‘to-do’ list says seven-eight pieces of content should be posted daily on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram each, and at least 60 per cent of it should be videos. It also prescribes focus on political content, such as attacking opponents and testimonials of beneficiaries of government schemes and initiatives.
At the meeting, addressed by BJP President JP Nadda, party general secretary Vinod Tawde and Malviya, it was suggested that reels could be used to showcase Modi’s development agenda. A party leader, who attended one of the meetings, said it was pointed out that a child aged 10 in 2014, who would turn 20 by 2024, having grown up seeing only Modi in power, should be exposed to the governance of pre-BJP governments, underscoring the comparison of work in their respective tenures. Besides, the party plans to involve common people in its social media outreach. Reels showing beneficiaries speaking of how various welfare schemes have reached them can be propagated through videos on Instagram.
When someone in the audience, which also included the party’s social media heads from various states, said Congress was using abrasive and vicious language, the leadership clarified that BJP should appear graceful even in the face of provocation in its social media engagements and refrain from stooping so low.
In 2019, despite the increase in use of social media in comparison with 2014, the percentage of users in India was still very low. Today, of about 85 crore internet users in the country, nearly 50 crore are on social media. In 2014, the number of internet users in India was around 24 crore. What also changed is the pace of internet penetration in rural India, as cited in the ICUBE 2021 report called ‘Internet in India’ that says it grew 37 per cent year-on-year. The government, quoting TRAI, said in Parliament that the quarterly performance indicator reports published on February 3, 2023 put the number of internet subscribers as of September 30 last year at 85.09 crore, of which 34.38 crore were in rural areas. India has the largest number of Instagram users in the world at 22.9 crore. This is outnumbered by users of other social media and/ or messaging platforms—Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp. Experts in the field of IT say taking Instagram from photographs to short videos, which can convey messages without having to read pages of written content, has changed the behaviour pattern of social media users. At the end of a tiring day, before sleeping, every farmer will check his Android phone, says a state BJP social media head who attended the meeting.
According to Malviya, the social media space has evolved over the past five years with proliferation of reels and YouTube becoming the biggest social media platform, beating even Facebook. “It’s important for political parties to be in tune with this shift. But the crux of it depends on leadership, policy and volunteer base. The prime minister leads our engagements, enabling people to see hope. So, 2024 will be an election to make India’s young aspirational population leap into the next cycle of overall well-being.”
With Modi being one of the first Indian politicians to pick up the threads of the game, his party has gained an advantage over its rivals in the digital campaign war. BJP, with its aggressive online campaign, army of digital apostles and large following, conquered the space, eclipsing Congress in the social media war. It is said that in 2014, when Modi was BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, social media had an impact on 160 seats. By 2019, nearly four times more Indians had started using Facebook than at the time of the 2014 General Election, according to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) data. The number of seats influenced by social media is believed by experts to have nearly doubled. By 2019, other political parties also got into the act. “By 2023, social media is the primary battlefield. From the reach perspective, it provides opportunity to directly engage with consumers. All platforms will get integrated into the campaign,” says Arvind Gupta, head of Digital India Foundation, a think-tank aiming to promote digital inclusion. As for BJP, Gupta, who scripted the party’s digital campaign in 2014, says digital is now in its DNA and Modi understands the power of social media. Gupta, however, warns of its flip side—the dangers of fake news and misinformation campaigns.
Former US President Barack Obama, one of the first politicians to use social media widely in his presidential campaign in 2008, had said “[P]art of what’s changed in politics is social media and how people are receiving information.” Later, however, he struck a note of caution regarding online “disinformation”, saying it was threatening freedom the world over.
BJP has asked its leaders to focus on ‘positive’ messaging on social media, highlighting the development work done by the Modi government. Like its strategy on the ground, BJP’s digital campaign revolves around Modi. The party leadership has asked its MPs to source content from the prime minister’s social media platforms to retweet and share them each day. Besides this, their online posts need to have content aimed at ensuring the victory of the parliamentarian in the seat and the party in the state. The Delhi BJP has started a series of reels called ‘Seva hi Sankalp, Vikas hi Lakshya (Service is vision, progress is the goal)’. These videos show Modi’s speeches, depicting his vision before he became prime minister, and illustrating how he has worked towards achieving it, says a party leader. The BJP4Delhi Instagram account also has reels like ‘Pappu ko kya pasand hai’, taking on Rahul Gandhi, and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s “u-turns”. An MP from poll-bound Karnataka says the party leadership has asked state leaders to project development work done by the Central and state BJP governments on social media platforms and keep away from the caste and creed debate.
The party is planning to take its social media campaign hyper-local, creating content in regional languages, says Malviya. “The attempt is to decentralise our outreach. We are looking at people and volunteers who can shape a conversation in a remote corner of the country, even beyond cities and towns.” BJP has 36 units of social media teams, each ranging from 10-35 members, covering all states and Union territories, besides teams of one-to-five office bearers at various levels—districts, Lok Sabha, Assembly constituencies, mandals and booths.
On Modi’s own Instagram, with 585 posts, recent reels include him walking down a road in Kochi wearing the traditional white mundu with kasuvu (golden) border and people showering marigold petals from behind barricades, riding a jeep on a safari in Bandipur, wearing khaki trousers, a hat and camouflage shirt, watching an India-Australia cricket match along with his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese in Ahmedabad and a road show in poll-bound Karnataka. Each of them has likes ranging from nearly 20 lakh to over 50 lakh.
Last year, addressing school children, Modi asked, “When you do online reading, are you really reading or watching reels?” At a similar event this year, he posed a similar question to another group of students.
“When you start watching reels, are you able to get out of it?” Modi then went on to offer his mantra to the students against becoming slaves to gadgets, suggesting digital “fasting” for a few hours every week. Citing data, he expressed concern that as against 20 minutes of talk-time earlier, people in India now spend six hours on screen each day. Admitting that he was himself active in the digital world, he said despite that he was hardly seen with a phone in his hand, as he set aside some time for it. He will use technology, he said, but only on his own terms about the extent of its usage. The advice was given to students at Pariksha pe Charcha which the prime minister also put on his Instagram. As a top political influencer, standing head and shoulders above other politicians within the party and outside in terms of social media popularity, Modi is aware of the other side of the coin.
“It shows the prime minister understands what one needs in different stages of life. He knows the importance and need of any medium of information, but at the same time is mindful that one does not get addicted to it,” says Malviya.
Even as Karnataka goes to polls on May 10, BJP is already gearing up for the road ahead—on the ground and online.