New Delhi: “Modi builds Ram Mandir, but he also builds IITs/IIMs and AIIMS”, “He makes people bang utensils, but also gets vaccines made”, “Modi buys Rafale…but also sells BrahMos” — the random list of ‘accusations’ and their ‘rebuttals’ goes on in this unofficial WhatsApp message. It represents a new reality in political canvassing.
Through this election season in Uttar Pradesh, spanning the pre-polling campaign and the six phases of assembly polls, political parties have tried everything in their playbook to woo voters — rousing speeches, door-to-door appeals and use of traditional media.
Amidst all this has been present an undercurrent of direct messaging — a veritable online contest in the form of unofficial WhatsApp forwards circulated by supporters of various parties.
This contest of unofficial WhatsApp forwards has its own properties — it doesn’t seek to focus on facts and its sole aim is to taint the opposing party, targeting a leader or a party’s policies through rumour and hearsay.
Political experts say that the forwards can influence crucial ‘swing votes’, cast by voters who have no definite political choice.
Though created by the same ecosystem as social media content which has the stamp of the party, these messages are “unofficial” and forwarded across groups on WhatsApp.
The reason for this? Plausible deniability. By its very nature, it absolves a party of any possible charge of defamation or deliberate ill-intention.
Most of these WhatsApp messages push an agenda that might help the BJP and its allies.
Moreover, in the ongoing avalanche of these unofficial messages, the Opposition in UP has but a slim foothold.
The seventh, and final, phase of polling in Uttar Pradesh will take place Monday.
Voters’ phones flooded in Uttar Pradesh
Vinod Jaiswal, a shopkeeper near the Kal Bhairo temple in Varanasi, explained that he gets at least a dozen such WhatsApp forwards in a day.
A staunch Samajwadi Party supporter, Jaiswal said he keeps deleting them because he knows he has to vote for the Samajwadi Party.
“Bhejte rahte hain (They keep sending such messages). I often delete them without reading. There are so many messages,” he said.
Not just in Varanasi, but across Uttar Pradesh, people’s phones are flooded with such WhatsApp forwards, either of parties praising their leaders or lashing out at the opponents.
Jaiswal has also received the aforementioned list on WhatsApp.
“Modi Rohingyayon ko bhagata hai, toh Modi Kashmiri Panditon ko basata hai. (Modi shoos away Rohingyas, but then he also helps settle Kashmiri Pandits),” reads one more point from the list.
Mobile phones everywhere, forwards could impact swing vote
While most of these WhatsApp forwards, directly or indirectly, work in favour of the ruling party, others have now hopped in on the bandwagon as well.
A video being circulated amongst supporters of the Samajwadi Party lashes out at Yogi Adityananth, saying “Main jaa raha hun…(I am leaving).
“Farmers are worried sick and anxious, with many dying. But here, he (Yogi Adityanath) is casually eating the roti made by farmers, not worrying about them. I am leaving, I am leaving (Haeran hai pareshan hai, til til kar mar raha kissan hai. Aur yahan ussi ke ugaaye anne se, chain ki roti kha raha hun main. Jaa Raha hun main Jaa raha hun main)”, said the video, criticising the Yogi government’s lack of concern for farmers.
Badri Narayan, political analyst and professor at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad, explained that with many even in remote areas having a phone, WhatsApp messages have the power to influence a significant voter base.
“In rural areas, every community has a phone these days. They are watching films on these phones and are also on multiple WhatsApp groups. The same things which are circulated in cities are circulated in villages as well. WhatsApp is extremely prevalent”, he explained.
Narayan explained that a crucial ‘swing vote’ makes up its mind a day or two before the polls. These voters do not have one particular party to vote for.
“There are many who are not convinced even a day or two before the polls, and this is exactly whom the WhatsApp forwards are meant for and who gets influenced by them. The swing vote is a small percentage of the non-base voters of a community,” he explained.
A former associate of political consultancy IPAC, who has worked with different political parties to help them win elections, explained that the WhatsApp forwards are effective in reaching out to voters.
There is a separate machinery (followers and friends) of different parties’ IT cells which ensures their traction and sees that they reach out to the maximum number of people, he added.
How the WhatsApp forwards work, ‘Bhule toh nahi’
But, all said, in the jungle of WhatsApp forwards, the supporters of the BJP are king.
WhatsApp, said UP BJP’s IT wing chief, Kameshwar Mishra, was a conduit to push ideology and ideas, and hit out at the Opposition and show their faults.
This is usually done through a parallel WhatsApp channel, which is later available on Facebook as well as Telegram, to propagate information at the ground level.
These unofficial channels, also called ‘market content’, were developed by ‘followers’ and not officially by the party, explained Mishra.
“All major content we design is about positive news about our own government,” Mishra said.
Mishra, explained that a lot of the social media campaigning was to “ensure people had not forgotten the atrocities which took place under the SP rule”.
One such campaign was ‘Bhule toh nahi’ (You haven’t forgotten?).
“Under our ‘Bhule toh nahi’ campaign we have reminded people how under the SP regime a police officer was tied to the bonnet of car because he went against the dispensation. We are taking these campaigns to the public to ensure they never forget any of this,” he said.
“Another thing we are constantly bringing up is how (SP leader) Azam Khan said ‘bachchon se galti hoti hai’ (‘children make mistakes’), when a teen girl was gangraped in Bulandshahr,” explained Mishra.
The purpose behind the campaign, pointed out Mishra, is that people need to be reminded that if they have done all this in the past, they will do even worse in the future.
“Agar Prithiviraj Chauhan se koi naaraz hai no vikalp ko Mohammad Gauri nahi hona chahiye” (Even if someone is upset with Prithviraj Chauhan, they should not take the side of Mohammad Ghori), reads another WhatsApp forward, likening the SP with the 11th century ruler.
The Smaajwadi Party has taken a selective approach to combat the flurry of forwards that favour the BJP.
A member of the Samajwadi Party explained that while the main focus was to keep the focus on central issues, any disinformation spread through WhatsApp messages had to be debunked.
The game of narratives is on the street and not on social media, said the SP member.
“No matter how ballistic their social media campaign — attacking SP or Akhilesh Yadav, our line of attack is not to counter everything BJP says. Instead, we focus on the promises they made and have not kept,” he said.
“Once the SP manifesto was announced our focus has been to articulate and explain the promises we are making,” he added.
(With inputs from D.K. Singh in Varanasi)
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)