Why Rahul Gandhi can't get past Narendra Modi on social media
Congress President Rahul Gandhi interacts with Prime Minister in the Lok Sabha (File image) Image Credit: PTI

Rahul Gandhi, former Congress president launched a scathing attack against Prime Minister on Twitter, his prime vehicle for politics, on August 16. He tweeted — “Everybody believes in the capability and valour of the Indian army. Except the PM: Whose cowardice allowed China to take our land. Whose lies will ensure they keep it.”

Rahul has been relentlessly tweeting against Modi’s handling of the economy that has shrunk shockingly by 23.9% in the second quarter. Till now, 96,000 Indians have died due to . These figures demonstrate the failure of the Centre and State governments in controlling the effects of lockdown paving the way for critics to capitalise.

Even in the era of a hegemonic BJP, the Congress remains the only national level challenge to BJP. However weak that challenge may be, BJP’s interest in targeting the Congress hasn’t weakened.

The secular voters do expect the Congress to exploit anti-incumbency — the national crisis at the Ladakh border and Rahul’s own convictions are concrete grounds for him to expand his support base.

But, nothing of that sort is happening.

Some BJP leaders believe that Rahul Gandhi should be taken seriously when he receives the support of 50 million Indians on social media. Currently, he has 16.2 million followers and Modi has 62.6 million followers. But, by the time Rahul Gandhi reaches 50 million followers, the Indian political sphere could possibly turn fully Right, making his brand of politics redundant.

– Sheela Bhatt

Rather, 23 of his own senior colleagues recently questioned the Congress’s working and demanded internal democracy when pressure on Modi was impending.

That begs the question, why is Modi unshaken by the barbs of opposition leadership and the intellectuals when Indian borders have turned vulnerable under a nationalist government?

One of many reasons for the Congress’s failure is that instead of focusing on the Modi government’s economic failures, the Congress is challenging Modi on his home turf where he is invincible, by all means.

Neerja Chowdhury, senior journalist says, “Rahul is taking the bull by the horn. On China, Covid and the economy he is courageously taking on Modi but it’s not clicking as expected. His messages could be formulated differently. To call a popular leader like Modi a liar never works. He needs greater gravitas in his tweets.”

Modi is invincible on domestic turf

While talking about Modi’s national support, Dr Srinath Raghavan, historian and professor at Ashoka University says, “Whenever India faces external crisis, historically, people rally around the army and the political leadership. It happened in 1962 and 1965 when people voluntarily came forward to help. Even in 1999 Kargil war where initially certain missteps were taken, eventually the defence forces emerged victorious. Indian people supported then PM Vajpayee fully.”

Manish Tiwari, Congress leader, and a signatory of the letter questioning Congress’s internal affairs recently criticised the Modi government for dodging a debate in parliament on the tensions with China. He wrote, “Unfortunately, Vajpayee’s successors lack the moral courage to be forthcoming on the latest Chinese transgressions. They hide behind the specious fig leaf of national security to avoid the hard questions, labelling everyone who tries to hold their policies to account as antinational.”

But, if the debate on China was as important for Congress then where was Rahul Gandhi? He was absent throughout one of the most important sessions of the Lok Sabha.

Bhupendra Yadav, Rajya Sabha MP and in charge of Bihar elections says, “Without offline presence there can’t be online connect.” Yadav can reach out to the grass roots workers at 70,000 polling booths in Bihar in a matter of minutes.

Another important reason behind Modi’s continuous hold over his support base — in spite of some failures — is that BJP and the government are communicating in multiple ways with different constituencies all over the country all the time.

All digital tools to play politics

The BJP will be remembered how during India’s Covid era it fast-forwarded the adoption of all digital tools to play politics. In turn, increasing their virtual presence, by putting effort to reach out to 91 million plus voters.

BJP’s digital dominance started in 2013-14 but has been perfected in the Covid era. BJP, with its deep pockets and futuristic plans has travelled much faster than its rivals.

As soon as Modi moves a step ahead in infrastructure building, legislative amendments, policy interventions, the audio, videos and memes are shared simultaneously to millions through WhatsApp groups.

When asked, how did Modi government manages the public perception of Chinese intrusions at India-China borders in Ladakh, a senior source in the government explained, “Indian people are supporting Modi because they have understood one message, “Military PLA ko jawab de rahi hai. Military chup nahi bethi. (Indian army is responding to the People’s Liberation Army of China. Military is not passive). Rahul Gandhi needs to meet ordinary people on the issue.”

Like Dr Raghavan he also believes, “Indian people’s psyche is such that in such a serious situation masses tend to believe the strong leader of the nation. Rahul should have learnt from Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he supported Indira Gandhi in the Bangladesh war.”

China must be squirming to see the anti-China memes swarming digital space in millions of mobiles.

Modi has dialled the BJP leader above the age of 75 after Covid gripped the nation. Those BJP supporters who don’t have smart phones, the party gave them one mobile number to dial in and listen to the broadcasts of Modi. Amit Malviya, head of the BJP IT cell, assists party President J P Nadda to connect to an audience of 100,000 whenever required. He says, “We have 20 million verified mobile numbers of workers which connects us from our headquarters to every single taluka of India.”

Use of Hindi in Modi government

Significantly, the use of Hindi in this government has increased manifold. If not all the most important messages from the Home, Defence and Foreign ministries are exchanged in Hindi among the top brass.

When the language of communication changes, a huge impact follows. The percolation of ideas and perceptions is much faster under the Modi regime. How will Rahul Gandhi’s acidic tweets in Hindi and English make an impact when Modi’s messages reach faster to millions of villages in all major Indian languages?

In the last two years, Modi has insisted on getting all ministries to report in real time through respective ministries apps. From government to the party and from the party to the voters, messages are passed on daily.

Successful performers who run YouTube channels are contacted by the BJP and the government. A Patna-based successful performer was recently offered basic material on the India-China standoff in Ladakh by the government. He presented it sharply in Hindi on his YouTube episode representing government views attracting 3.7 million views.

Some BJP leaders believe that Rahul Gandhi should be taken seriously when he receives the support of 50 million Indians on social media. Currently, he has 16.2 million followers and Modi has 62.6 million followers. But, by the time Rahul Gandhi reaches 50 million followers, the Indian political sphere could possibly turn fully Right, making his brand of politics redundant.

Sheela Bhatt is a senior Indian journalist. She is based in New Delhi.

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