From politicians dismissing it as another fad to investing resources in it to be ahead of the curve, Twitter now occupies a key place in Indian political discourse.
Immediately after AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal came under fire for his threat to send media people to jail, there were flurry of tweets defending Kejriwal and attacking the media under hashtag #yomediasohonest.
This was not an off-the-cuff reaction from the party.
There was a strategy behind the concerted effort.
“There is a team of 20 odd people (the core team) that decides how to react to such a situation and which hashtag to choose,” said Ankit Lal who heads the core team.
This team then passes on the message to an army of 16,000 members.
When Kejriwal was in Kanpur for a rally on March 2, BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was in Lucknow. The hashtag #Kejriwalatkanpur trended ahead of BJP’s #namoinlucknow.
The BJP has had a history of embracing technology before its political rivals. Modi used it to communicate with supporters, without relying on traditional media platforms. At a meeting of party office bearers a couple of months ago, Modi told BJP leaders that the growing network of internet compatible mobile phone set has increase the penetration of Twitter and Facebook, and asked them to open accounts on social media.
The BJP’s official handle keep posting regular updates about party events, particularly Modi’s rallies, and it shares video footage of other events like press conferences and speeches by its leaders at different locations. Twitter has also become a site of political controversy, when Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman had a spat.
Congress only woke up to the power of such platforms when they realised how Narendra Modi had managed to generate a buzz. The party set up a social media cell under Deepender Singh Hooda. Last year, a national workshop was held to brief state units on digital strategies.
‘In itself, social media may reach a limited number of people. But it has a huge multiplier effect and sets the terms for the larger public discourse,’ said a Congress source.
Now, there is intensive planning and coordination on messaging. Every day, either the social media cell or Rahul Gandhi’s aides decide on the hashtag to push on Twitter.
Officials and sympathisers are used to counter BJP and AAP messages. On the official account, Gandhi’s rallies are engagements are publicised.
But in a sign of reluctance, Gandhi himself does not use the medium.
While some observers see it as a medium which has made leaders more accessible, and given a voice to citizens, others point to malpractices.
Followers are known to be bought. Hashtags can be made to trend in return for a fee.
Either way, India’s poll battle is also being fought digitally.