Kolkata: Trinamool Congress MPs and MLAs have recently opened social media accounts in droves, but many of them seem to have no idea about their presence on the platforms or the posts their accounts have put up.
Several Trinamool leaders privately expressed growing displeasure at strategist Prashant Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) taking over many existing handles, thereby “making individual leadership irrelevant”, while others said they only came to know about their Twitter presence or the content of their posts after-the-fact. ThePrint spoke to more than 10 party leaders, and most of them appeared miffed.
The I-PAC and Prashant Kishor have been tasked with formulating the Trinamool’s strategy in the run-up to the 2021 Bengal assembly polls. The I-PAC is best known for bringing Narendra Modi and the BJP to power in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and several parties in the states thereafter.
One of the keys to the 2014 victory was the BJP’s increased social media presence, but the Trinamool Congress, whose leaders say it justifies its name by having the best grass-root connect, is relatively new to the social media game.
Approached by ThePrint for a comment, Kishor called the allegations “baseless”.
West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, who has been at loggerheads with Chief Minister and Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee for months, was among the first to allege that the party’s Twitter accounts are handled by “hired agencies”.
Several state government-related handles have also come up or become active. A recent example came when Governor Dhankhar had a Twitter tiff with Trinamool MP Mahua Moitra over a viral video showing “decomposed dead bodies near a crematorium”. Many of these accounts jumped in to counter him, with Bengal’s home department posting a thread of five tweets on 13 June to clarify the government’s stand and procedures on the issue.
GOWB respects the credo of dignity at death and, while handling the COVID pandemic, it has espoused the principle by laying down transparent procedures…(1/5)
— HOME DEPARTMENT – GOVT. OF WEST BENGAL (@HomeBengal) June 13, 2020
The home department’s handle has not been very active — the last four tweets before this burst had been posted on 12 June, 1 June, 28 May and 24 May, about issues like buses that have been arranged for migrants, countering “misleading gossip”, and resumption of electricity service post Cyclone Amphan.
A Trinamool MLA from Purba Medinipur said it was a challenge for many leaders to suddenly be “active” on social media, and that is why party’s “teams” posted on their behalf.
The MLA, whose handle shows regular updates, said: “I do not do it on my own. The party told us that it needs to enhance our social media presence, there are teams who post on our behalf.”
But this leads to some unpleasant surprises for the leaders. An MLA from Paschim Medinipur district said he was shocked to learn he was present at a programme held the previous day, where 400 BJP workers joined Trinamool Congress — or at least, his Twitter handle said so with pictures.
“I do not remember any joining programme taking place in the last five days. Hundreds of BJP workers joined us a week back at some places, but the location was different,” he said.
A senior leader and MLA from Howrah district also said he had “no idea” what had been tweeted from his handle.
“I work on the ground. I made it clear to the party chief that people remember me when I reach them physically. In Bengal, not even 1 per cent of people see Twitter, and no one can win elections by tweeting. I have no idea what they do from my handle,” the Howrah leader said.
MLAs from Birbhum, Burdwan and Nadia districts also expressed similar views.
A senior cabinet colleague of CM Mamata Banerjee said the party had authorised I-PAC to speak on issues, and he would not comment beyond the statements put out on social media.
A senior Trinamool leader added on the condition of anonymity: “We have no problem with I-PAC handling our social media accounts. But, they at least need to tell us what they post using our handles. We wake up to this fear every day — what will be there on Twitter using our names? The idea of individual leadership is gone… we are almost irrelevant.”
Prashant Kishor’s response
ThePrint approached I-PAC chief Prashant Kishor to comment on the Trinamool leaders’ displeasure. He simply called them “baseless allegations and irresponsible statements”.
Asked about the Trinamool’s digital media strategy, Kishor said: “It is for people to observe and comment. I have nothing specific to say.”
About Governor Dhankhar’s “hired agencies” remark, Kishor said he would not like to “comment on a person occupying a constitutional position”.
“What he chose to do or say is his call… In my view, in a democracy, it is the responsibility of all concerned to keep people holding constitutional positions like the Governor’s office out of routine political discourse,” Kishor said.
‘Fear of fake news’
Asked why the Trinamool had chosen to expand its digital footprint, Colonel Diptanshu Chaudhary, convener of the party’s social media and digital communication committee, said it was to ensure the two-term Trinamool government’s good work would be shown everywhere.
“In the age of information, ignorance is a choice. We have a network of trained young volunteers with a presence down to the booth level, and they passionately use social media to highlight the good work of Didi, especially the way she led the way during the Covid and Cyclone Amphan crises,” Chaudhary said.
“Twitter is still an urban concept but Facebook has deeper penetration. We use both extensively. However, we are yet to learn the nuances of spreading fakes from (BJP’s national information technology chief) Amit Malviya, and my fear is that his fake quotes for Bengal, which millions on the internet will believe and spread,” he added.
In response to this allegation, Malviya told ThePrint: “Mamata Banerjee should worry about the decrepit, corruption infested, incompetent government that she has been running for the past nine years.
“People are dying of Covid in West Bengal and the poor are being denied their dues post Amphan, and all she is worried about is the truth finding its way to the people. She knows the people of Bengal have made up their minds, and she is now on borrowed time.”
A senior member of the BJP’s social media cell in Bengal explained that the party’s social media strategy differed from the Trinamool’s and that of I-PAC.
“A senior Union minister, who is very active on Twitter, has a group of almost a dozen people who handles his posts. We have our units, but the senior leaders have their own teams. They tweet whatever is approved by the leaders. We do not post content on their behalf,” the social media cell member said.
Biswanath Chakraborty, professor of political science at Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University, said all signs pointed to a “proxy war”, and that the Trinamool Congress was going the BJP way in “manipulating public perception”.
“Prashant Kishor’s ideas were first implemented by the BJP and then several other parties. So, when Mamata Banerjee, who always relied on her own charisma, brought in Kishor, she knew what she would get,” Chakraborty said.
“There is a proxy war going on, and we have to wait and watch if this changes people’s perception before the 2021 assembly elections,” he added.