Political fortunes wax and wane like the moon. The heady hunter of 2012 and 2014 is the hamstrung hunted of 2017. How times change.
Time was when Chief Minister Narendra Modi had the nation in thrall as he used social media to build public opinion and deliver a devastating blow to his political opponents in the run-up to the 2012 Gujarat Vidhan Sabha elections and the 2014 general elections in the country. He swept both.
Switch to 2017. Five years later. Again the run-up to the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha elections of 2017. The BJP at the receiving end of a devastating social media campaign that has the rulers of Gujarat and India fumbling for an answer. The way the campaign has gone viral indicates that it was born out of the harassed commoners’ travails and is a reaction to the glib talking of the party and governments in power in Gujarat and the Centre.
BJP President Amit Shah seemed nervous when in Ahmedabad he told youth not to fall prey to the anti-BJP propaganda being ‘mounted’ by the Congress on social media. What a change in just one Vidhan Sabha term. BJP, which pioneered the social media as an electoral weapon of opponent annihilation, is warning people to beware of its use by the principal opposition! This is the first indication of unease in the ruling camp in Gujarat. The fact is ‘vikas’ jokes have gone viral on social media amongst Gujaratis all over the world. ‘Sab ka sath, sab ka vikas’ has been the domineering punchline of the ruling BJP pre-2012 which was adopted for the nationals in 2014 by Narendra Modi and his party. This was taken up to counter the Congress campaign of ‘disha badlein, dasha badlein’.
It was in addition to an ‘injustice to Gujarat’ campaign by the ruling set-up in the state pointing fingers at the UPA-ruled Centre. The ad on TV, radio and the social media reverberated with the sound of a stunning slap and proved effective. In the 2007 Vidhan Sabha elections in Gujarat, Modi masks were the rage.
This time, however, as the gap widens between the real position on the ground and the poll propaganda created haze, the ruling party is becoming the butt of ridicule on the social media. And ‘vikas’(development), the swan song of the BJP has been brought to ‘life’ as a living being.
It all began with a simple innocent joke that for all the years BJP has been in power in Gujarat, Vikas should now be of marriageable age. The state is yet to emerge fully from the recent flood havoc and the statewide Narmada rath yatra now followed by the ‘sankalp yatra’ and a rash of prime ministerial inaugurations or foundation stone laying ceremonies have set in. On the other hand, public meetings of the chief minister are on the social media with graphics of row on row of empty chairs.
The latest catchline is ‘Vikas gando thayo chhe’ (Vikas has gone mad). After the torrential rains in Ahmedabad recently, newspapers and television channels have been full of reports of cratered roads and people landing in hospital with multiple fractures. Every public grievance got hitched to this tagline which went viral. However, instead of attending to this problem on a war footing, the government seemed more bothered about Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe’s two-day visit to Ahmedabad on September 13-14. The government pulled out all the stops in decking the city for their visit even repairing the roads overnight on the route they were taking. “We pay the taxes, not the Japanese”, said a post and myriads of other variations came up. Modi as CM won three elections shoring up the ‘metro’ as one of his poll planks. The metro is yet to start and the bullet train is now a poll plank.
Of course, Vikas has now been replaced by another campaign which goes against the ruling BJP and has also gone viral. The tagline in Gujarati goes ‘mara hara chetri gaya’. In Hindi, it would mean, ‘Sasura ullu bana gaye’ and roughly in English ‘Bloody well, cheated us’. All the lofty poll promises, campaign claims, steps like demonetisation, surgical strikes, GST, petrol prices have become subjects of devastating black humour pummelling the government. There were even Navratri garbas on it. More importantly, Prime Minister Modi has not been spared either.
The fact is that the vikas jokes and the ‘cheat’ humour on social media went viral as a people’s campaign. The Congress has only now begun to see it as an instrument that it can put to use. While the BJP has been the first user of technology and social media as a poll campaign instrument to build public opinion, it rivals including the Congress, Aam Admi Party(AAP) and other social and political groups are now excelling in it and capitalising on the incipient anti-incumbency anger against the ruling establishment in Gujarat.
That the social media campaign going against the ruling party has serious implications is evident from two visits of Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley within a fortnight to just this end. In his second meeting is reported to have taken both the chief minister, deputy chief minister and the state media cell to task.
Interestingly, in a state racked by ethnic conflict, all those leading caste groups which are at loggerheads with the government, are putting social media to effective use. This is true of Hardik Patel who has been leading the Patidar community stir for reservation in jobs and educational institutions under the OBC or Jignesh Mevani who has been heading the Dalit stir or Alpesh Thakore crusading for the OBCs. As governments are prone to do, every time it hits a sandbank, it curbs the Internet, only causing further financial losses in Modi’s ‘Digital India’. The outcome of the Gujarat poll war may be three months away but the BJP social media fortress seems to be crumbling at this moment.