Social Media and the 16th Lok Sabha Elections

How social media was used in the 2014 elections

India, the land of outsourcing, tech-gurus and call-centres. What better place to have election campaigns that are run on social media, to the extant that they could affect outcomes? But did they really? And what is the role of social networking in political discourse?

Social media has become so integrated into our daily life it is like an extension of the self. Almost everyone has a public profile online, and, if not the whole population, there is strong evidence from the 18-30 demographic that social media plays in the major leagues in real world events. In the Indian election, social media users encouraged voting, using images of their ink-stained fingers on Twitter and Instagram, to make a statement.

The Numbers

The 2014 Lok Sabha National Election had a huge impact on Indian sociology. In the months leading up to the vote, Facebook said it received its 100 millionth user in India, a country that has an estimated 170 million internet users. The six-week election began April 7 and was held in stages across the country. There was a record turnout, with 66.38% of India’s 814 million eligible voters casting ballots, compared to the 2009 general election turnout of 58.13%.

It is hard to say just how big a part social media played in the increase in votes. But Narendra Modi’s campaign was extremely visible on digital surfaces, and fuelled conversation about politics in the country. Modi has over four million followers on Twitter and over 14 million “Likes” on Facebook – making him the second-most-liked politician on Facebook, coming after U.S. President, Barack Obama. This change is astounding as in the 2009 election there was only one Indian politician on Twitter, with only 6,000 active followers.

Vikas Pande, a media advisor and volunteer for the Modi’s Party, the Bharaitiya Janata Paty (BJP), is of the view that social media helped bypass the mainstream media and played an important role in reaching out to people even in small cities and towns. "Even in places like Gorakhpur, the reach of the internet, no matter how limited, helped voters obtain information, not only about Narendra Modi, but the elections in general."

How India got “Modi-fied”

Prime Minister Modi is known to be someone reserved and quiet, a leader who hardly speaks in English and is not well disposed to anything “Western”. He is the leader of the conservative BJP and he has worked with the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a religious group that is the ideological backbone of the BJP. Though praised for his business acumen, he has been tough on minorities as a legislator. He seemed to be the most unlikely politician to be making victory signs on Twitter, but here we are. Modi’s team used an aggressive social media strategy tweeting and updating Facebook multiple times per day. There was a dedicated blog, Modi himself used hashtags like #SelfieWithModi, and the digital campaign used viral stunts like 3D holograms to reach voters.

In the opposition camp Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party, AAP), has 1.79 million followers on Twitter. Though less popular than Modi, this was a 79% increase in followers since the beginning of the year. While the Congress Party leader, Rahul Gandhi does not have an official Twitter account.

Modi seems to know how to play the game. This one-time tea seller rose to the rank of the highest office in India and as Chief Minister of the State of Gujarat, Modi was praised for his economic policies, which generated an environment for a high rate of economic growth in Gujarat. He is doing the same for India right now it seems and if tweeting is the way to do it, Modi will tweet.

Message or Medium?

Yet with all the social media hype Congress came in second, and the AAP third even with a strong online presence. Dr. Ranjit Nair, CEO of Germin8, a company that works on data analysis, explains this phenomenon, “If you see it broadly, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had a fantastic outreach to people, but they failed in their messaging strategy, the BJP on the other hand did not have much of an outreach earlier on (it changed in the latter months) but their message was one that the people wanted to hear, whilst Congress woke up to the impact of social media messaging just too late.”

This proves the message of the party was as important as the medium. AAP and BJP both had outreach, but BJP came out on top. AAP’s lead in online traffic might have helped but it could not do better than Congress.

One Congress minister, Shashi Tharoor, who has more than 1.9 million Twitter followers, cautions against overstating the importance of social networks. “I think it can be a game influencer, but I wouldn’t go beyond that at this stage … social media happens to offer an additional way, not a substitute for any of the traditional means of campaigning.”

Future Developments

Old social customs and voting on kinship and party lines are factors as dominating as social media. While the 18-35 demographic is the most vocal online, there’s the rest of the population to consider. The impact was mostly on first-time voters, who wanted to hear a positive message that the BJP provided. This may also be the reason behind the rise in voter turnout from the last elections. As Nair puts it, “The sad part with Congress was that they really didn't have any story to tell or any message to give. This impacted the decision of the first time voter a lot.”

Unlike traditional campaigning, which is mandatorily required to come to a close 48 hours before the polls, the election commissions cannot put a ban on discourse on social networking websites. This not only holds true for India but for most functioning democracies. With such a large percentage of voters using social media, a development even in the last hours of polling can potentially influence voter behaviour. Modi’s team took advantage of this, campaigning as if it was guerrilla warfare.

This year it was more of the urban educated youth that got involved, but in the coming years the circle will grow. The 2014 elections only saw a hint of social media being used. The next elections will have even a bigger online presence.


Saadia Gardezi is a Political Scientist from Pakistan