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Regional parties gain Twitter ground

Wednesday, 09 June 2021 | Navin Upadhyay | New Delhi

In key States like UP, Bihar, Maharashtra, Bengal, MP, BJP lags behind regional political parties

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP were darlings of the social media when the NDA came to power at the Centre in 2014. Seven years down the line, the PM’s popularity remains unmatched and the BJP remains way ahead of its political rivals at the national level,  but  the saffron outfit  is now trailing its rivals in several key States such as  Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal,  Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, etc, on microblogging site, Twitter.

Together these States make up for more than half of the seats in Parliament. Of course, there is no correlation between social media following and winnability in the Indian elections. But yet, platforms like Twitter have now become a powerful tool in influencing the public opinion with more and more Indians getting hooked to them.

The BJP has 16.2 million followers at the national level while the Congress has just around 8 million. But at the State-level, things have started changing.

“We see nothing unusual in these figures,” said Animesh Pandey, founder of P-Marq, a political Research and advisory start-up. “Most of the BJP supporters follow the national Twitter account of the party. As such, the State handle is bound to have a less following.”

His partner Abeen Theepura feels that the growing acceptance of regional parties on social media shows that things are changing at the ground level. While he did not think that the social media numbers could play any major role in deciding the poll outcome, he feels that regional parties could use Twitter or Facebook as major tools for political outreach.

The head of another political research firm, who did not want to be identified, said the regional players can never match BJP in resources, but they can rely on their growing acceptance of social media to bridge the gap. “If regional parties focus on exploiting the resources of social media, they can give then BJP a run for the money,” he said.

The growing acceptance of regional parties on Twitter shows the upward mobility of their support base, he pointed out, saying. “This is primarily because of access to education and mobile phones — both bring greater political awareness.”

Madhya Pradesh is the latest State where the BJP has fallen behind the Congress on Twitter following. On Tuesday, the MP Congress Twitter handle boasted of 905.01 k followers, whereas the

BJP was way behind with 774 k followers on its Twitter handle BJP Madhya Pradesh.

In Uttar Pradesh, where Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has always been in the news with frequent publicity blitz, the Samajwadi Party is ahead of the BJP in Twitter following. The SP has 2.4 million followers on its Twitter handle, where the UP BJP has 2.3 million followers. This is surprising because the SP has been traditionally seen as a caste-based outfit whose followers are not so enamored of social media as the BJP.

However, the BJP does not see anything out of the way in the emergence of SP as a major challenge in the social media arena.

“The BJP is a national party and has a following of over 16 million at national level. People want to know the policy which is duly carried out at the national Twitter handle of @BJP4India. Why a person will follow two accounts when he can get information at one source,” says Vijay Bahadur Pathak, vice-president, BJP State unit.

“You cannot compare BJP with Samajwadi Party which has a regional presence. It has just one Twitter handle and that’s all,” he added.

In neighboring Bihar, a bigger surprise awaits. Rastriya Janata Dal (RJD) is ahead of the BJP in the twitter following.  The RJD’s twitter handle RJDforIndia has 596.4 k, more than double of the BJP Bihar (265 k followers). This is when RJD chief Lalu Prasad is often ridiculed as “buffoon” who lacks the acumen to handle the sophisticated world of social media.

Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (U) is nowhere in the race with just 84 k followers on twitters.

RJD strategist Sanjay Yadav thinks that the rise of his party’s following on social media is driven by two factors. First, generation shift in the party; and second– transition from “lathi to laptop” narrative.

“The BJP embraced twitter in 2007-08 whereas RJD opened its twitter accounts in 2014.  Tejashavi Yadav has a huge appeal among his generation of men and women, who are as tuned with the world of social media as anyone else,” he said, adding, “The RJD is no more a party which used to hold ‘lathi rally’. Now, we have ushered in the laptop generation, and the people have reposed their faith in us. Our growing popularity on social media is reflected  by this.”

Prof Yadav claimed that the RJD social media growth is organic and they don’t take help of paid props to push up their numbers. “This is the reason the number of our followers have kept growing without showing any trend aberration,” he said.

Take the case of Maharashtra’s. With 384 k followers in its handle BJP4Maharastra, the BJP is trailing Shiv Sena (605.7 k)  and NCP ( 578k )  followers. The Congress is placed fourth with 249 k followers.

In West Bengal, where the BJP has been working hard for more than five years using aggressive social media outreach, the TMC is ahead of the saffron outfit. The TMC boasts of 447 k followers for its official handle AITCofficial, far ahead of the BJP which has 326 k followers.

In Tamil Nadu, both the DMK, and the AIADMK are ahead of the BJP, which, otherwise, also has a negligible political presence in the State.

In neighboring Karnataka, however, the BJP is ahead of the Congress and Janata Dal (S) in the twitter race. The BJP has 395 k followers against Congress’ 221k. Janata Dal (s) is a poor third with a mere 33 k followers.

In Goa, the BJP is way ahead of the Congress with 60 k followers on twitter. The Congress has just 28 k followers.

Predictably, in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, regional players like AIADMK, DMK, TRS and YSR Congress are way ahead of the BJP.

On the other hand, the BJP is miles ahead of the Aam Admi Party in the national Capital and dominates all the Northeastern States starting from Assam.  The party is also ahead of the Congress in Gujarat, Haryana, and Jharkhand, and Odisha.

Interestingly, the race in Jharkhand is very close, which is significant because JMM(S) is seen  primarily as a party of the tribals who are yet to fully embrace the world of social media. The BJP has a following of 125 k against JMM(S) 120 k.

In Uttarakhand, the BJP has 97.k followers where as the Congress has nearly 51 k followers.

In poll-bound Punjab, the BJP is placed third behind the Congress and Akali Dal. The Congress leads the pack with 1342 k followers, followed by Akali Dal ( 73.3 k) and BJP ( 54.1 k).

Social media’s ability to influence the poll outcome is debatable in a country like India, but the fact remains that during the Covid-19 time more and more people are now dependent on cyber space for accessing news. There has been a corresponding decline in print media growth and rise of social media. In such a situation, the fact that BJP is losing social media tussle should be a cause of worry for party think tanks.

Together with the BJP and the Centre ongoing tussle with the social media giants — twitter, Facebook and Instagram – the fact that the Opposition is able to match its formidable rival on the cyber turf, which was once seen as an exclusive domain of resource-rich, intelligentsia-driven party, may not be very comforting for the saffron outfit at a time when the centre has faced scathing criticism for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis on various social media platforms.

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