Can Narendra Modi use social media to propel him to the top?
A simple way to look at Narendra Modi’s Google+ hangout is this: Most of the viewers were his most impassioned supporters (the rest were probably his most intractable detractors), who use such opportunities merely to reaffirm their absolute faith in the Modi mythology. For these supporters, it matters little what Modi actually says; they will defend and celebrate his comments regardless of the content or context. In that sense, such endeavours are merely echo chambers and they would make little difference to the larger political picture.
Two things. First, a frequent mistake a lot of political commentators commit is assuming that everyone is as invested in politics as they are. Most people have real jobs; real families; and only a passing interest in the political news of the day. They scan headlines and that is usually the extent of their political engagement. The recent headlines have been dominated by the Naroda Patiya judgment where a former member of the Modi government has been convicted and sentenced. Google hangouts and other such social media mobilizations allow Modi to offer a competing narrative which may hold some appeal to the disengaged majority. That of a strong leader focused on development who is well-versed with the technology of tomorrow. The urban vote may still not be decisive in India but its importance is increasing by the day and politicians would ignore it only at their own peril. Considering that the Congress party is almost exclusively focused on the rural poor, the urban voter is a constituency which is up for grabs.
Second, Narendra Modi’s recent exertions are aimed directly at his party bosses. One of the curious terms in Indian political lexicon is ‘hawa’; momentum would perhaps be its most appropriate approximation (though it fails to capture fully its richness) where the assertive frequently appears to be the inevitable. By leveraging his large support base on the Internet, Modi is attempting to send the message that he is the BJP leader with the widest support among the cadre and the party’s base. Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar has launched a preemptive attack to prevent precisely this outcome—no doubt with the tacit support of some of BJP’s top leaders.
Who will will this battle? It is hard to predict but it is clear that a battle royale is in offing with Narendra Modi staking his claim to BJP’s future. And if history is any guide, Modi is unlikely to back down without a major struggle.