It was social media that delivered Manipur to the BJP in the recent assembly election — although the party won only 21 of the 60 seats in the assembly (Congress won 29), it has formed the government there with the support of three regional parties — the Naga People’s Front, National People’s Party, and the Lok Janshakti Party.
BJP, which has been trying to make inroads into the northeast for decades, seems to have hit the jackpot with three quick wins — Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and now Manipur — in the region.
It all started in with its landslide victory in the general election in 2014. It’s become a pattern now — Assam in 2016, UP in 2017, and now Manipur. The party just knows how to work social media to its advantage and only seems to be getting better at the game.
In November 2016, BJP kicked-off a high-pitched social media campaign in Manipur on more than 100 WhatsApp groups, a number of Facebook pages, Twitter handles and Twitter channels
In November 2016, BJP kicked-off a high-pitched social media campaign in Manipur on more than 100 WhatsApp groups, a number of Facebook pages, Twitter handles and Twitter channels. The campaign was run by a three-member election management team (EMT) led by “wonderboy” Rajat Sethi and his two associates: Shivam Shankar Singh and Subhrastra Sikha. The team reported to Ram Madhav, BJP national general secretary.
The EMT mounted a tailormade campaign in each constituency, enabling a direct connect with the voter, based on linguistic profile, gender and age group. It used party workers to get Whatsapp contact details of voters. Data used to target Congress was obtained from various surveys, news reports and RTI replies.
“I feel that without that five-month long campaign, the results would have been different,” says Shivam, political consultant and member of the BJP’s EMT, and a graduate from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Going by the results, it obviously worked like magic. In the 2012 Manipur assembly elections, the BJP had just 2.1% of the popular vote. The Congress commanded 42%. Five years later, the BJP’s vote share rose to more than 36%. The Congress’s share fell to 35.1%. BJP ate into the vote share of the Congress and the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). The latter’s vote share reduced from 17% in 2012 to less than 1% in 2017.
“I feel that without that five-month long campaign, the results would have been different” — Shivam, member of the BJP’s EMT
From less than a 1,000 likes on Facebook to crossing the 30,000 mark, this no mean feat was achieved in just five months. The EMT touched all the right chords — it even used the Meitei language to connect with the locals.
The language connect helped the BJP mop up votes. “The youth in my constituency are very active on Facebook. We sit down at some friend’s house every evening and read Facebook posts out loud and discuss them,” says a young woman of Kherai constituency. “It helped that the posts were in Meitei. They made us aware of what’s going wrong in the state and what we need to do to correct it.” Kherai chose the BJP 33-year-old Leishangthem Susindro Meithei as its MLA.
Congress’s social media campaign fell flat
The Congress too launched a social media campaign, but it failed to make an impact. The BJP’s Facebook page BJP4Manipur has 32,580 likes while ours, Manipur with Congress, only 3,230 likes. The Congress Twitter handle has just over 250 followers.
The BJP’s Facebook page has 32,580 likes while the Congress’s has only 3,230 likes. The Congress Twitter handle has just over 250 followers as compared to BJP’s over 6,500
“These days, people get their news first on Facebook and Twitter and go to TV and newspapers only after that. Election results depend a lot on how you handle social media. Social media was an integral part our Manipur campaign, but it didn’t catch on,” says T N Houpkin, president of the Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee.
Congress’s loss was BJP’s win. The EMT seemed to have its strategy right in place. “We realised rhetoric wouldn’t count in Manipur. We wanted to show how bad the state was under the Ibobi rule; so, we gave the people real facts to prove the claim,” says Shivam.
And BJP got it just right
The BJP is adept at using social media to its electoral advantage. To some extent, India in 2014 was delivered to Narendra Modi on a social media platter. Having realised the power of social in previous elections, the party upgraded its social media strategy in May last year, ahead of the seven state elections in 2017.
It had leveraged social media in Assam in 2016 and vowed to repeat its victory in Manipur. It left no stone unturned to capture voters’ minds with an intense social media campaign in the state, especially to get around biases and affiliations that often abound traditional media.
In Manipur, the EMT used WhatApp groups to great effect. Groups like BJP4ImphalEast and BJP4Ukhrulci sent back vital information on constituencies. They focused on the people’s problems, what the Congress government was doing to mitigate those problems, if at all. And what BJP was promising it would do if it came to power.
When the EMT launched the campaign, the BJP4Manipur FB page had only 980 likes, reveals Shivam. “After we took charge, the number of likes went up to nearly 31,183. We started posting what the BJP government was doing in other northeastern states and what it could do for Manipur,” he says.
The EMT decided to target Congress on corruption and use social media to do so. The EMT did months of research to identity potential vote banks, and posted 100 chargesheets filed by the party against Congress workers in Manipur on Facebook and WhatsApp.
“Newspapers and other media soon picked up on the corruption cases. It was a big blow for the Congress. We used our Twitter channel @BJP4Manipur to highlight corruption and Manipur’s problems to the national media,” says Shivam. They have 6,536 followers on Twitter.
The campaign was aimed at influencing people and shifting perceptions, and the EMT achieved that goal very well. “In India, social media is not widespread enough to rope in voters to win an election. But, we used social media to influence what people talked about. The conversation did change after our campaign,” he adds.
New northeastern frontiers ahead
Having seen the power of social media more than once, the party is going full steam ahead to replicate the model in other states of the northeast with Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram and Meghalaya all scheduled for elections in 2018.
The goal of BJP’s social media campaigns in the northeast is to get people talking about issues in their states and the lack of development in the region. “We want to show people that a better future is possible with BJP, under PM Narendra Modi’s leadership,” says Shivam.
Six months before the elections next year in the other NE states, the EMT team will start doing extensive research about their political history and building ground teams to analyse the voting pattern
Six months before the elections next year in the other NE states, the EMT team will start doing extensive research about their political history and building ground teams to analyse the voting pattern, he added.
“Social media is a powerful tool in shaping conversations. Even if a large part of a state’s population is not on social media and won’t vote for a party based on online posts, the medium helps us in influencing what people are talking about,” he signs off.
And influencing is the starting point of changing the game.
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Lead visual: Angela Anthony Pereira Images: 101Reporters Pictures The ‘Tech Meets Bharat’ series brings to you stories on how technology is impacting and changing lives in hinterland India. Syeda Ambia Zahan is a Guwahati-based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.