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Gujarat assembly elections 2017: How jokes and jibes on social media are adding edge to campaigning

From Gabbar Singh Tax and Vikas Gando Thayo Che to Hu Chu Vikas, Hu Chu Gujarat, political parties are resorting to catchy slogans on social media to create buzz ahead of assembly elections.

assembly elections Updated: Nov 10, 2017 17:15 IST
Hiral Dave, Aurangzeb Naqshbandi and Kumar Uttam, New Delhi/Ahmedabad
Gujarat elections,Gujarat assembly elections 2017,Gujarat elections social media
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, Patidar leader Hardik Patel and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.(HT)

As assembly polls inch closer in Gujarat, political leaders of all parties have streamed in for a high-octane campaign. But a far more fierce fight is being waged on social media as political parties try to outpace each other in the race to grab eyeballs.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress are running sophisticated centrally coordinated campaigns, but other entities such as Patidars have also tasted great success mixing local flavour with a dash of humour.

VIKAS HAS GONE MAD

The background is reminiscent of a famous televised quiz show with the lure of a prize money of Rs 7 crore beyond the final hurdle.

Question: What is the one thing that you can hear but cannot see?

Answer: Vikas (development)

This viral WhatsApp message in Gujarati wasn’t churned out by the well-oiled machinery of a major political party but by a group of young Patidar men in the cramped Bapunagar neighbourhood of Ahmedabad.

Their leader and creator of the successful social media campaign Vikas Gando Thayo Che (development has gone mad) is 20-year-old Sagar Savaliya, an engineering student who says he plunged into politics after the death of his friend and neighbour Swetang Patel in alleged police violence two years ago.

“We lost Swetang. My house was ransacked after the August 25 Patidar rally demanding OBC reservation benefits. Since then I have never missed a chance to take a dig at the BJP,” he says.

Savaliya is close to Patidar leader Hardik Patel whose Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti is actively fanning the campaign that has spread like wildfire over WhatsApp and Facebook, hurting the ruling BJP that is looking to win its sixth straight assembly election this December. Other viral ‘Vikas’ memes include a heart-shaped pothole with the caption: Vikas has fallen in love, and posters put up near a rutted road that read: “Be careful, there is too much development ahead”.

One of the memes doing the rounds on social media shows a pothole in the shape of a heart accompanied with a caption, Vikas has fallen in love. (WhatsApp)

The Congress, which is looking to wrest power from the BJP after 22 years, was quick in sensing the popular mood. Party vice president Rahul Gandhi peppered his speeches in Saurashtra, central and south Gujarat with “Vikas Gando Thayo Che” references last month.

The BJP, a veteran at the social media game, has hit back with several concerted campaigns of its own that the party claims has racked up big numbers. But as the poll dates inch closer, one thing is certain: The election is being as fiercely fought on WhatsApp and Facebook as it is on the streets.

Social media analysts say the importance of the assembly election has pushed all parties to mount increasingly acerbic attacks on each other.

“Social media has become a very important element in the overall campaigning. Three years back, Delhi showed the way, and this year it is in Gujarat,” said Naresh Gupta, co-founder of advertisement agency Bang in the Middle. “Gujarat is where the social media was used extensively by BJP in Lok Sabha elections, this time around both parties are fighting this tooth and nail.”

But he warned that the trend could also backfire.”There is a good chance that voters will get tired of it. The only way this conversation will reduce is when voters go beyond rhetoric and rumors,” he told Hindustan Times.

THE CONGRESS PUSH

The runaway success of ‘Vikas Gando Thayo Che’ made the opposition party realise that humour and local language messaging would work.

“For the first time, we are using humour in our online engagement,” said Rohan Gupta, 38, who handles the Congress party’s social media campaign running out of a mall in Ahmedabad.

Gupta heads a team of 40 “troops” — comprising video editors, graphic designers and content writers — who work in three shifts.

The Congress war room in Ahmedabad. (Gujarat Congress IT cell.)

The party tasted recent success after Gandhi’s coinage of the term Gabbar Singh Tax to describe the teething troubles of the Goods and Services Tax went viral.

A Congress functionary who did not wish to be named said a local leader travelling with Gandhi in a bus had lamented that GST chopped the hands of traders, just like the fictional robber Gabbar Singh did in the 1975 Bollywood blockbuster Sholay. Gandhi immediately asked his team members to note down the metaphor.

The party’s social media campaign is trifurcated — anti-BJP, anti-Prime Minister Narendra Modi and pro-Congress.

“But there are no personal attacks against Modi, only on issues and the promises he made but never fulfilled,” Gupta quickly added.

The war room’s content is disseminated to 2,000 volunteers, 50 in each district with six people monitoring 50 television channels.

There are 30,000 WhatsApp groups and 28 Twitter handles that keep 25 people busy round-the-clock.

The team also has what it calls “surrogates” — fake Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“First time, we have answered them (BJP) in their own language. Certainly, they were taken in for a surprise,” Gupta said.

The team has uploaded 200 videos in Gujarati, Hindi and English so far. One such video — Ek Tha Modi — got two million page views, claimed a team member.

Similarly, slogans such as Mara Hara Chetri Gaya (We have been duped), Dhanyavad Mota Saheb (Thank you Modiji), Aaya Pacha Chetrva (They have come back to fool us), Jo Jo Pacha Chetri Na Ja (Beware, don’t let them fool you again) have been created.

“All these phrases are spontaneous. We haven’t planned anything but kept the focus on positive campaign,” Gupta explained.

Another ‘war room’ -- set up at the party headquarters at Ellisbridge in the city – is tasked with providing talking points to state and central leaders apart from profiling all 182 assembly constituencies.

THE BJP FIGHT

Sitting in the quiet ‘digital operation centre’ at the BJP headquarters on Ashoka Road in Delhi, the party’s information technology chief Amit Malviya,40, flips through websites on his MacBook.

His eyes glow occasionally. A video campaign on Gujarat posted on the BJP’s Facebook page on November 1 got 1.3 million views in less than six hours. By November 6, the number had grown to seven million.

“Social media doesn’t work in isolation. It is manifestation of many things,” said Malviya. “Any campaign will attract such traffic, only when it is in sync with people’s sentiment.”

The groundwork was laid six months ago. Malviya and his team travelled across Gujarat to connect with workers and volunteers. Training sessions — on what, how and when of social media communication — were conducted at the grassroots level.

Today, the party boasts of an army of more than 15,000 workers and 10,000 volunteers linked to the BJP’s digital war room in Delhi and Ahmedabad. Most of the work — such as shooting, editing, posting — is done by a team in Ahmedabad. A separate team of about 25-odd people in Delhi’s office monitors implementation.

BJP’s social media drive kicked off with party chief Amit Shah’s town hall programme, targeting youth between 18 and 30, on September 10. The event was telecast at 200 locations. Then, the BJP launched a campaign — Hu Chu Vikas, Hu Chu Gujarat (I am development, I am Gujarat). The positive campaign was driven by the belief that Gujaratis will spurn any negative campaign about the state.

Legislators and other elected representatives have been asked to make the best out of WhatsApp groups to push the BJP’s social media campaign. “Any legislator is generally part of 300-400 WhatsApp groups. That is a strength that we are using to push our campaign,” Malviya said.

(With inputs from Geetika Rustagi in New Delhi)

First Published: Nov 10, 2017 14:09 IST