Written by Aarathi Ganesan
After a dismal performance in the 2014 General Election, attributed to countless corruption allegations and Rahul Gandhi’s relative political inexperience, the Indian National Congress (INC) slowly lost its relevance in the Indian political arena. Amidst the din of news media and political parties, the INC has remained little more than a quiet political voice for the past four years.
If BJP had a film franchise it would be called Lie Hard #BJPLieHard #BJPLies #HowManyBJPLies— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) December 23, 2017
Yet over the past few months, the party (and more specifically their leader) has resurfaced in political debate thanks to a freshly oiled public relations team and strategic image management. The INC’s President Rahul Gandhi has managed to partially reinvent his image of a clueless dynastic politician. Part of this has been facilitated by the seemingly innocuous platform of Twitter. Aided by 280 characters and an astute PR team consisting of Divya Spandana, Sam Pitroda, and Ashok Gehlot amongst others, Gandhi’s political makeover has revitalized the INC in many aspects. As his Tweets gain traction and media coverage, it remains to be seen if Gandhi can translate this online capital into tangible electoral gains.
The Face of the Opposition?
There are many instances in PM Modi’s term where he has been embroiled in the complexities of his party. The BJP’s rhetoric in many localities accommodates for the inclusion of fringe or radical elements. Their power over the party’s stances on national issues is undeniable, often constricting Modi’s elbow room while making public statements. As expected, the Prime Minister is most diplomatic during trying times (if and when he even chooses to address the public), keeping in mind electoral strategies for critical vote banks.
Gandhi, on the other hand, has relied on the ‘celebrated’ national ideals of the INC and its stalwarts. Centred around secularism, freedom, and non-violence, the INC’s relatively uniform ideology and the subservience of its members to the top brass provide Gandhi with easy go-to standpoints on a range of issues that the Centre fails to comment on. These opinions often manifest themselves in the form of admirably up to date tweets on the various administrative ‘concerns’ plaguing the country.
My interview at Berggruen Institutehttps://t.co/RD52GDUdrO— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) September 29, 2017
This allows Gandhi — with his oppositional opinions and suggestions growing loud — to stay relevant in ongoing public debates. Much like Modi five years ago, his freedom to sit on the sidelines coupled with predictable opinions has lent credibility to his voice as the opposition. His uniformity in discourse is fostered by Twitter because it archives perspectives, making them accessible and available to the public at all times. His tweets have shown uniformity in opposing the Centre, clarity in ‘his’ beliefs and the growth of ‘his’ knowledge (past women’s empowerment and the RTI).
Gandhi’s online persona is slowly filling up the hole (albeit in a makeshift manner) of the Opposition left in the wake of BJP’s exploits in 2014. Now, highlighting the inconsistencies of the Centre has become easier what with the BJP’s convoluted party-politics and the annals of Twitter.
This extends to the international arena as well. The Prime Minister often escapes much vocal global criticism, carving a towering presence for himself and the country internationally. His less savoury political moments are often drowned out by positive PR from investment-friendly countries and institutions and the aforementioned in absentia opposition.
With his online credibility rising, Gandhi could very well end up as the new liberal face of India. This, coupled with his easy English, international talks and the mainstream media’s general weariness towards Right-wing governments only increases his palatability to global media houses and political commentators. It is no surprise that comparisons with Canada’s Justin Trudeau are already trickling in.
The Swing Electorate
Rahul Gandhi’s frequent Tweeting has consequences beyond bolstering his political profile. As archives, they end up refining election manifestos as well.
Undecided swing voters are a crucial electorate that all major political parties try to seduce; Data Analytics has only made it easier. Modi’s digital campaign manager utilized this tool in 2014 by identifying swing voters through their specific complaints and desires. With this information, customized election promises were made and later Tweeted by Modi. Of course, whether this entire digital electorate was converted remains undetermined, but the increasing impact of analytics in politics cannot be taken for granted.
The curation and crowdsourcing of manifestos, if also executed across the INC’s digital spaces, could boost its vote margins further. Gandhi’s Tweets become even more important in this context. His increasingly frequent conversations on hot and cold topics across India not only highlight his standpoints but also how multiple people respond to them and him. Using the flexible conversation that Twitter’s sub-tweets and direct messages encourage, the scope for manifesto-mining in the hope of securing the swing vote is huge. Cognizant of this, Gandhi recently created a Data Analytics wing, appointing former investment banker Praveen Chakravarty as its head. Speculation is rife that Chakravarty has been brought on to mine critical economic insights; these may prove to be invaluable for the INC in the aftermath of the Centre’s fiscal policies.
Excited to announce a “Data Analytics” dept under the leadership of Praveen Chakravarty to effectively use “Big Data”. pic.twitter.com/hvOBVZILlk— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) February 5, 2018
At the ground level, Gandhi has already some moderate success in manifesto curation offline. His Gujarat campaign chose to discard political mudslinging, operating instead on the basis of ‘love’, respect, and dialogue. The INC’s election manifesto partly continued this ethos by containing extensive inputs from stakeholders across Gujarat. Their most pertinent problems became its foci, thereby capturing the support of lucrative communities like the Patels and the Surat Chamber of Commerce.
Although the party still failed to secure an absolute majority in the state, these measures worked in some spheres. Certain commentators claimed that the party’s manifesto, which highlighted concerns raised across the state, secured some crucial votes from the swing electorate. If a simple offline survey potentially influenced swing voters, then concentrated digital analytics generated by Gandhi’s Twitter presence could work wonders for future electoral prospects.
Yes He Can?
The potential of Gandhi’s sudden appearance on Twitter is far-reaching. India’s millions need not log on to access his Tweets because they find their way into newspapers, websites, and family WhatsApp groups.
Yet, being retweeted by thousands in a day is one thing; securing the votes of millions is another ball game altogether. Despite his digital avatar, Gandhi’s ability to successfully manoeuvre people, partymen and campaigns towards party success is questionable. An active Tweeter doth not necessarily imply a good leader.
This is visible in the string of INC losses over the past four years. Additionally, although Gandhi manufactures a collaborative and friendly image for himself, party rumblings suggest otherwise. With Gandhi and his mother rarely seeing eye to eye on many an issue, the INC has been plagued by internal claims of poor management, infighting, and dynastic handouts.
A fractured party further spoils the credibility of his oppositional voice, affecting coalitions that could actually convert into electoral success. Conversely, Gandhi’s calls for alliances points to a weak INC stronghold in the long run. With their problems becoming increasingly circular, the INC’s prospects remain volatile.
So, if Gandhi is actually running the show alone in leading the party (as his online persona suggests), his electoral calculations thus far have barely dented the BJP’s dream of a Congress mukt Bharat. It remains to be seen whether he can hold his turf against Amit Shah’s tried-and-tested electoral machine without all the aides and Tweets rallying around him in the background. Having six million followers is impressive and his image will refine the INC’s tactics; and yet, Rahul Gandhi still has miles to go before his tryst with destiny in Indian politics is realised.