The race for the Delhi assembly has proved once again that the days when campaigning meant nukkad meetings and giant rallies alone are over. Today, a lot of the action is online, where hashtags rule.
Campaigning is over, but every political party worth its salt is using the web to woo voters and deliver a blow or two to rivals. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have both set up dedicated social media teams in their efforts to widen their reach in the virtual warzone
But it is the battle of hashtags that has got the most eyeballs. Sample this: #Mufflerman was a hashtag started by the BJP to mock AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal, who is often seen wrapped in a muffler, coughing through his words at rallies and news conferences.
However, AAP cashed in on it; they turned the tables and projected Kejriwal as a superhero named Mufflerman out to demolish corruption with a muffler around his neck and a broom (the AAP's election symbol) in his hand.
"Mufflerman was one of our most successful efforts on Twitter," said Ankit Lal, the social media head for AAP. "It changed the mood of the people", considering how the ubiquitous muffler jokes were countered by a superhero out to rein in corruption, he said.
After naming former IPS officer Kiran Bedi as its chief ministerial candidate for Delhi, BJP ran with the hashtag #IronLady. But after she walked out of an interview on Times Now, AAP returned fire with the hashtag #IRunLady.
One hashtag that the BJP can boast about is #PMModiCMBedi, which trended in Delhi and across the nation for a couple of days. However, it remains to be seen how much the party and Bedi can leverage Modi's image among voters for the polls.
Hashtags are generated on the basis of issues making the headlines, said Lal and Sumit Bhasin, BJP's social media coordinator. "It's a lot like how news organisations come up with headlines," said Lal.
The AAP has used social media to its advantage in a way that it now seems like the "BJP is running a negative and defensive campaign", said Mahesh Murthy, founder of Pinstorm, a digital advertising firm.
"Social media is much more important to the AAP than the BJP because the latter has a much bigger budget and is spending hugely. The AAP has to use free social media platforms to get its message across from mouse to mouth," he said.
Besides Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and text messages, AAP is using Quora, a question-answer platform. It is also using Frankly.me, where people ask questions and Kejriwal answers them through a video, and has launched a radio app for mobiles called Mango - "the aam aadmi ka radio".
The Congress too has attempted to use Frankly.me, but it lags behind when it comes to a presence on social media.
AAP has a 16-member team that works around the clock in two offices in Delhi, Lal said. The front office is at Kaushambi in Ghaziabad and the backend functions out of a small room in Patel Nagar. The party has about 5,000 volunteers actively campaigning online for Kejriwal across the world.
The BJP, on the other hand, has many more people involved in its social media efforts. There are 745 people working full-time across Delhi alone.
"We have 10 volunteers dedicated to each candidate and constituency," said Bhasin. "Seven hundred volunteers campaign for 70 seats in Delhi." The rest of the volunteers oversee all the operations.
"Our social media strategy focuses on spreading the vision and achievements of the government. We are more policy driven and are very vocal about issues. We don't believe in using unparliamentary language, unlike the AAP," Bhasin said.
The BJP's successful campaign on social media was given a lot of credit for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's win over the UPA in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The party's social media strategy remains much the same, but it seems like the AAP has given it a run for its money.