HomeTop StoriesModi's party volunteers target 100,000 people a day

Modi’s party volunteers target 100,000 people a day

Ankur Rana furiously types on his phone and sends messages to the hundreds of WhatsApp groups he manages.

“I have 400-450 WhatsApp groups, each with around 200-300 members. I also have around 5,000 direct contacts. This way I personally reach 10-15,000 people every day,” says the social media coordinator of the Bharatiya . Janata Party (BJP) in western Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut parliamentary constituency explained this ahead of last month’s voting.

He was part of a crack team set up to ensure that the BJP gets its message across to millions of voters – groups that are then replicated in dozens of constituencies in Uttar Pradesh alone.

The scale of the operation is eye-watering, but the BJP has identified WhatsApp – along with other messaging and social media apps – as a key route to achieving their ambitious target of 370 seats in this year’s Lok Sabha elections.

And for good reason: India is WhatsApp’s largest market globally, with more than half a billion users spending several hours a day on the messaging platform.

They transmit everything from ‘good morning’ to memes – and, crucially, political commentary in different languages.

And volunteers like Ankur are an important cog in the election machine, trying to ensure that the BJP’s messaging is part of it.

The BBC spoke to ten other BJP volunteers who also work as social media coordinators in Uttar Pradesh and all said they run hundreds of WhatsApp groups, with members ranging from 200 to 2,000 each.

Volunteers from the BJP office in Meerut sent thousands of messages to people every day

Volunteers from the BJP office in Meerut sent thousands of messages to people every day [BBC]

It’s a tightly controlled operation: BJP volunteers in Meerut say the party’s headquarters in Delhi sends out political messages and hashtags every day – these range from praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP to criticizing the opposition – sent to the state must evolve. -level headquarters.

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From there, the messages reach 180 volunteers from the Meerut constituency, including Ankur. These volunteers spread messages further down the chain, ultimately reaching those managing the campaign for each voting booth.

WhatsApp is especially useful for reaching young people, says Ankur, who runs a digital marketing company in Mumbai while not doing unpaid volunteer work for the BJP.

People over forty, he reveals, are more active on Facebook.

“On average, our goal is to reach 100,000-150,000 new people every day,” he says.

Experts note that when it comes to social media, the BJP’s seemingly unprecedented social media campaign appears to be pulling away from its rivals.

But none of this works without the personal touch, party activists say – especially since they need people’s numbers in the first place.

Vipin manages the messaging for one polling booth in Meerut constituencyVipin manages the messaging for one polling booth in Meerut constituency

Vipin showed us a single page with the photos, names and details of 30 voters on each side, which is given to each party worker [BBC]

“Every member of the party, from the lowest to the highest, including the party president, is responsible for 60 voters,” said Vipin Vipala, campaign manager for the BJP, near a polling booth in Meerut.

“We have to constantly interact face-to-face with the 60 people assigned to us and encourage them to vote for the BJP. It is also our responsibility to use their mobile numbers and include them in our messaging groups.”

Vipin’s WhatsApp group for his assigned voters is called ‘Humanity is Life’. In this case, it seems part of the call to not make the group overtly political.

But as everyone knows, it is virtually impossible to maintain complete control over the narrative on the Internet.

And when that story is shared on private WhatsApp accounts and groups, it is also extremely difficult to know exactly what is being shared – and where it came from in the first place.

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A viral message forwarded many times to various groups seen by the BBC contained claims accusing the Congress Party of appeasement of the Muslim minority.

In Hindi, it said: “Congress had already turned India into an Islamic country, they just never announced it officially.” The message went on to list eighteen ways in which Congress was alleged to be favoring the Muslim community.

Its origins are impossible to determine, but the fact is that it does reflect comments made by the BJP leadership during election rallies in recent weeks.

In April, Modi himself was accused of Islamophobia after claiming at rallies that the opposition would distribute the people’s wealth to “infiltrators” if they won power, in comments referring to Muslims.

The BJP’s own social media handles have shared animated videos reiterating this point, and its leaders have falsely claimed that this is in the Congress manifesto. The document makes no mention of wealth redistribution or the word Muslims.

Kiran Garimella, an assistant professor at Rutgers University who researches WhatsApp use in India, says that the official narrative of political parties is often mirrored in private groups – but then it becomes difficult to distinguish what is official, and which is unofficial. .

“There is a push from the top, there is an IT cell (the BJP’s social media team) and content is generated around what is being supported and coordinated. But the key innovation lies in the fact that there is buy-in from normal people in spreading these kinds of stories,” he says, adding that given the nature of WhatsApp, it is difficult to understand “what is IT cell content and what supporter content”.

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And while messages may originate from one platform, they can ultimately circulate through other media, convincing people that what they see is the truth.

In a recent campaign ad, the BJP suggested that Modi had paused Russia’s war in Ukraine to evacuate Indian students trapped there in the middle of the fighting.

It was a claim first made in March 2022, shortly after the start of the war, by several accounts on X and amplified by some news outlets.

The Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the claim at the time. “To say that anyone is stopping bombings, or that, you know, this is something that we’re coordinating, I think that’s absolutely false,” a spokesperson had said.

Two years later, top BJP leaders mentioned it during the election campaign and the ad was widely viewed on social media. The BJP did not respond to a query as to why it repeated the claim.

Outside the University of Meerut, we met students in their early twenties who were voting for the first time. We asked them if they had heard the claim and what they believed.

Most students said they believe Modi stopped the war between Russia and Ukraine for a few hoursMost students said they believe Modi stopped the war between Russia and Ukraine for a few hours

Most students said they believe Modi stopped the war between Russia and Ukraine for a few hours [BBC]

Most said they would encounter it at X.

“Yes, we absolutely believe that the war was stopped because of India’s request,” Vishal Verma said to the approval of his friends. Others gathered around us nodded in agreement. Only a few students disagreed. Kabir said, “It is not true. I have seen videos made by the students themselves saying that the government has not helped them.”

We asked the same question to people in a nearby village, many of whom had seen the claim on TV news.

“Yes, the war was stopped because Modi is respected worldwide,” said Sanjeev Kashyap, a 41-year-old farmer.

“Look, we heard that the war has stopped. We didn’t go and see for ourselves. But I think there is some truth in it,” said 75-year-old Jagdish Chaudhury. Four other villagers agreed with him.

It is a crucial power: being able to influence what people believe. Ultimately, it could affect the way they vote.

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