The sun has risen in Mumbai’s Juhu area. Its rays, shimmering off the Arabian Sea at India’s most eulogised beach, have woken up Priti Gandhi, a 35-year-old housewife who lives barely a stone’s throw away. It’s a regular morning at the Gandhi home. She sends her eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son to school. She has a cup of chai with her investment banker husband before he rushes off to work. Then, her second life begins.
Over in Delhi, 32-year-old Vikas Pandey is leaving for office, looking every bit a member of India’s bright, new workforce-close-shave, crisp shirt, black trousers, dark socks and leather loafers. Later, sitting with his friends for an after-work coffee in Bengali Market, he disappears periodically into the depths of his phone. Pandey is meticulously juggling his real world, where he is just another computer geek, and his parallel universe, in which he is a mini-celebrity.
Better known as @MrsGandhi and @iSupportNaMo on Twitter, with 30,000 and 18,000 followers respectively at last count, Gandhi and Pandey are among the most noticeable members of a fervent pro-Hindu, pro-BJP, pro-Narendra Modi, right-wing Internet community that dominates every social media discussion and every online forum.
This community may be guided loosely by BJP’s information technology cellâa 100-strong team of techies and social media managers run from the party’s head office at 11, Ashoka Roadâand by prime ministerial candidate Modi’s own unit in Ahmedabad, but it is an organic, uncontrollable, multi-faceted entity made up of people all around us. They could be in the next cubicle in your workplace or on the next desk in your classroom. Always scouring the Internet on their smartphones, they are connected with each other through an intangible network that is pulling people from different backgrounds. They feel their voices are finally being heard, and amplified, by like-minded political activists who operate on social media.
A mark of their overwhelming online supremacy can be found in the India Today Group’s e-lection poll, a mock online General Election in which users were asked to vote in Lok Sabha constituencies across India. The ballot worked through one-time passwords sent to mobile phones, ensuring only one vote for every cell number to prevent rigging. Of the unprecedented 556,460 votes that were cast over a 40-day period till October 30, 338,401 users chose BJP. Even in Uttar Pradesh, which witnesses a four-cornered contest every election, 87.1 per cent of the voters went with the BJP. The results from this self-selected sample may not reflect the ground reality but they prove one thing beyond a shadow of doubt: The Internet is saffron.
Internet penetration in India is only 10 per cent, with nearly 116.18 million users, according to Estatsindia.com. But a Google survey in October said four out of every 10 urban Indian voters, or 37 per cent, are now online.
The right-leaning online collective-sometimes abusive, often rabidly anti-minority and always anti-government-is disparagingly referred to as Internet Hindus, a term it has now embraced. “I love it when someone calls me Sanghi or right-wing or Internet Hindu,” says Gandhi. “I’m like, ‘oh wow, thank you for saying that’.” Their language, as Gandhi’s American-teenager misuse of ‘like’ reveals, is young and colloquial. But their agenda is a mix of post-modern and traditional. They oppose dynasty politics, particularly the Nehru-Gandhi clan, but offer no opinion on the father-and-son politics within BJP and its allies such as Shiv Sena. They call minority appeasement ‘pseudo-secularism’ with such fervour that their sentiment could easily be interpreted as Hindu supremacist or anti-Muslim. They are against lower-caste reservation, particularly because it is poorly implemented. They are concerned about internal security. But above all, they are against corruption.
Gravitating towards Modi
While the combative nature of their tweets doesn’t always show it, a number of them became active on social media only a couple of years ago, not to support BJP or its policies. Pandey opened his Twitter account the day he heard that Sachin Tendulkar had signed up. “There was a history of RSS support in my family but it was @sachin_rt that drew me out,” he says. “Once I was here, one thing led to another.”
Shilpi Tewari, 35, an architect by education, now runs a consultancy firm with her husband. She says she has been involved with the Government in projects in the past, and it was the voice of Anna Hazare and his Jan Lokpal Bill movement that first attracted her. “I was at Ramlila Maidan with thousands of others, demanding an end to corruption,” she says. It was only later, when the anti-Congress and anti-Government sentiment became overpowering, that she gravitated towards BJP and particularly towards Modi. Tewari now believes, as do several others like her, that their efforts were responsible in helping Modi win the prime ministerial candidature within BJP. “We have not just supported his elevation, we have made it happen,” she beams.
According to Anja Kovacs, director of the Internet Democracy Project in Delhi, the young middle-class BJP supporter is intrinsically tied with the rise of the Internet. “A lot of the leadership of this Internet movement was provided by techies who had moved abroad and were looking to connect with India. BJP naturally connects with the middle-class, upwardly mobile Indian who is more likely to be on the Internet than, say, someone who supports CPI,” she points out.
According to an IRIS Knowledge Foundation and Internet and Mobile Association of India survey, social media will influence 160 seats in the 2014 elections. The October Google survey says that about 42 per cent of all urban voters who are online are undecided whom to vote for, making them a large vote bank that can still swing either way. Not surprisingly, however, Narendra Modi was the political leader most googled by urban Indian voters.
Though these Internet warriors come in different shades of saffron, a large section has gravitated towards Modi with such enthusiasm that it believes he can do no wrong. Pandey, Tewari, and Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a 27-year-old patka-wearing Sikh who has had links with BJP and RSS since his teens, insist they are not blind followers of Modi; that they support him because of his policies, his development mantra, and his clean image. But when asked if Modi has done anything that they don’t agree with over his entire political career, none of them has a complaint to offer. “So he is always right?” we ask. “No,” they reply in sheepish unison, but have nothing to say to counter the question.
A high level of motivation coupled with a superficial understanding of politics seems to run across the online Hindusphere. In his book, Patriots & Partisans, historian Ramachandra Guha devoted a chapter to the ‘Hindutva hate mail’ he had received over his years as an author and contributor. Quoting several emails and letters to the editor, either branding him as a Gandhi family stooge or suggesting that he visit a shrink, Guha contended that he had been brought in contact with “a certain kind of Indian who gets up before dawn, has a glass of cow’s milk, prays to the sun god, and begins scanning cyberspace for the day’s secular heresies”.
At the risk of taking Guha too literally, his depiction of the average modern-day Hindutva online crusader is only partially correct. Large numbers of this breed wake up in the morning, go out for a jog, drink a cup of black coffee, and like millions of other office-goers, head off in their EMI-supported SUVs. They are doctors, engineers, IT professionals, bureaucrats, call-centre workers, journalists and business owners. They are good at their jobs but often their visceral knowledge of politics makes them ideologically malleable and eager to hit back against persecution even where none exists. In their world, there is only black and white, and no room for shades of grey.
“We are not anti-Muslim but if you push us against the wall, we are bound to react,” says Priti Gandhi, bringing up AIMIM leader Akbaruddin Owaisi’s hate speech in Adilabad last December, “otherwise, some of my best friends are Muslims.” Ironically, the ‘urban dictionary’, an online phrase guide, lists ‘some of my best friends are’ as “something prejudiced people say when they’re called out on their prejudice”.
Together they stand
Members of this online community now know each other offline as well. They have each other’s email ids, phone numbers, postal addresses, and try to catch up for a meal every once in a while. They go to each other’s homes when visiting their cities, and compare notes about everyday things, such as how their children are doing at school. This offline bonhomie often springs from the assurance that they have each other’s backs when trolled online by “pseudo-sickular” forces.
In some ways, this loose online collective serves as a kind of support group. A month ago, one of their own, 35-year-old Rudra Sekhar, identified by his twitter handle @RudraHindu, was in hospital suffering from a kidney disorder. The group pooled in their resources and, through SOSes sent on Twitter, managed to raise about Rs.2 lakh for Sekhar’s treatment. He passed away on October 7 with a last wish to be cremated in a BJP flag. “We had never met him but he was our friend,” says Bagga. Not only was his last wish fulfilled, Sekhar’s father got a condolence call from Modi himself.
But the principal complaint against members of this group is how they troll Congress supporters, Congress leaders, and journalists who they believe are all part of some amorphous pro-Government ‘paid media’ guild. They speak in a code language that borders on the offensive and often resort to abuse when pushed into a corner. It’s not that Congress supporters don’t get abusive or abrasive in this general lowering of standards of political discourse on social media. A Congress member, Amaresh Misra, had gone to the extent of threatening Shilpi Tewari in March with dire consequences in the worst possible language. By and large, however, the Congress’s radical voices get submerged by the sheer amplitude and volume of the BJP-supporting trolls.
Sagarika Ghose, deputy editor of CNN-IBN, is trolled regularly for her TV shows and articles. She says that while many of the tweets are harmless jibes, some are outright dangerous. “Once someone said they knew my daughter’s school timings. That scared me. Such voices give a bad name to Twitter, which is otherwise a wonderfully democratic platform,” she says.
Things reached a point where Arvind Gupta, head of BJP’s IT cell, had to upload social media guidelines this May for office-bearers, party members, and supporters, telling them that their social media conduct reflects on the party’s image. “A healthy debate on various issues is encouraged as it promotes understanding of various nuances and complexities of issues. However, debate should ideally not become a ruse to unnecessarily tag people and/or result in behaviour which can be construed as cyber bullying,” the document, a first-of-its-kind attempt at crowd sourcing, said.
Even if BJP or a section of their independent online brigade doesn’t approve of abusive or combative language, it is unable to disown the people who indulge in it. Handles such as the anonymous @HinduIDF and @barbarindian are mentioned as repeat offenders but not attacked by the supporters. The logic is that ‘they may be radicals, but they are our radicals’.
“The Internet is a reflection of society, like cinema or music,” explains Gupta. “Abuse is often a result of people not knowing English well enough. When you are having an argument in college, and you are not being able to articulate your point, you resort to foul language. But such people are 5 per cent. The majority of our supporters are educated and modern,” he adds.
While the means, the words, and even the beliefs of this online community need to be debated, most of them have come forward with the right intention-out of nationalism, to fight against what they perceive as injustice, and to effect change. A little less sophistry, a little less rhetoric, a little less negativity, and greater nuance about the pros and cons of their heroes would go a long way in making them a serious political entity.
“That’s the way propaganda works. It is sustained, repetitive, and loud,” says Congress spokesman Sanjay Jha, when asked about the BJP’s online supremacy. “They preyed on vulnerable people by carpet-bombing them with words and ideas. With the Congress presence on social media almost negligible until last year, they managed to get their way. The process of neutralisation has now begun. Social media is a platform where the first-mover advantage can be countered quickly.”
But the other Congress contention that BJP’s Internet fan base is orchestrated does not hold water judging by the sheer numbers involved. Social media has spoken clearly and emphatically about what it wants in the 2014 General Elections. Other parties can take heart from the fact that online fervour alone will not decide who comes to power. Nor can you tweet your vote, at least not yet.