Thanks to Twitter, I've now learned a new word: Feku. Even as Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi addressed meetings in New Delhi, the first at the FICCI Ladies Organisation and the second at CNN-IBN's Think India festival, the hashtag, 'Feku' (boaster, teller of tall tales) began trending on the social network site.
Feku came on the heels of another hashtag, Pappu (the closest English equivalent would be dolt, but feel free to correct me) that popped up as Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi spoke to CII. Neither Modi nor Gandhi have declared their prime ministerial intentions. But that hasn't stopped their supporters - and detractors - from launching a full-scale war on social media. It's a battle that found reflection in mainstream media with Feku v Pappu as flavour of the day.
The Feku-Modi association is being been attributed to a Congress strategy, although the party has not claimed ownership. Sanjay Jha of HamaraCongress.Com tweeted: "Team Congress, your feku was a stroke of genius." By one account 'Feku' generated 45,000 tweets over 'PappuCII's' 40,000 - yes, there are people who keep track of this sort of thing.
First-mover advantage on social media goes to the BJP. It was the first party to have a website in 1998, leaders like LK Advani have been blogging since 2008 and Narendra Modi is the first Indian politician to host a Google Hangout. The event last September was such a success that the site crashed due to heavy traffic.
The BJP has a clear-cut 'cyber constituency'. Arvind Gupta who heads the party's cyber cell says 2014 will see 12 crore first-time voters, of these 40% has access to a mobile or the internet. "We've been building our cyber constituency for five years with genuine followers," he says.
The Congress, by contrast, is a social media newbie. Recent moves such as blocking the websites of journalists opposed to it or using Section 66A to arrest people for Facebook posts have not won it friends. Rahul Gandhi is still not on Twitter though several of his party's ministers like Shashi Tharoor have been active for years. More recently, even the PMO and Planning Commission have jumped in.
But late entrant or not, the Congress seems to be making up for lost time. In Kolkata, Narendra Modi complained that the PMO account was responding to issues raised by him in his speech even before it was over.
Perhaps this awakening has something to do with social media becoming a barometer of middle class opinion and a tool for change. The recent street protests triggered off by the December 16 gang rape in Delhi and the IAC's mass mobilisation on corruption, for instance, were bolstered by virtual protests on the internet.
But the Pappu/Feku battle points to two worrying trends. The first is the utter deterioration in the level of public discourse. While 140 characters are not exactly conducive to in-depth discussion, the virtual tu tu main main that has emerged over the last few days has both sides competing in the lowest denominator stakes. Feku is replaced by Internet Pappus. Abuse passes as comment. And on it goes.
The second is the appropriation of an open democratic space by organised political propaganda. The Congress denies it has paid and organised support. The BJP insists its followers are 'genuine'. Regardless, a space that held the promise of participative opinion is now being hijacked by a simple binary: with us/against us. Subtleties of argument are lost. And those who occupy a middle-ground, impressed with neither alternative, face abuse from both sides.
With 137 million active internet users and, according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, just 18 million Twitter ids, elections in India are not about to be decided by the trends on Twitter or the number of 'likes' on Facebook. But in the run-up to 2014 one thing now is clear: It's a long, slippery road downhill all the way, abusive tweet for abusive tweet, pejorative for pejorative. No one can possibly welcome that.
The views expressed by the author are personal