Embracing digital democracy: From Modi, Kejriwal to Rahul

A significant catalyst behind this paradigm shift was smartphone revolution in India

Narendra Modi (File) India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses attendees during a community event at Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney, Australia | Reuters

In the annals of history, the year 2016 stood as a clear testament to the influential role of social media in shaping the fate of nations. As an insidious military coup threatened to engulf Turkey, President Erdoğan resorted to unconventional methods of mobilization, leveraging FaceTime and Twitter. The remarkable display of solidarity that ensued demonstrated the potential of technology to alter the course of political history. This pivotal moment marked the dawning of a new era, wherein social media became a double-edged sword, capable of both oppressing and empowering, where a single post could change a nation's destiny.

In the 21st century, political communication and branding underwent a profound transformation globally, fuelled by the rise of social media and digital platforms. India, with its vast diversity and numerous citizens, experienced a seismic shift in political communication over the last decade. Gone were the days when traditional mega rallies and public speeches were the primary means of reaching out to the masses. Embracing the power of social media, particularly among the youth, political parties embarked on digital campaigns, forging direct connections with citizens through online ad spending and creative content creation. 

Smartphone revolution in Indian politics

A significant catalyst behind this paradigm shift was the smartphone revolution in India which revolutionised internet accessibility for millions, particularly in rural regions. This widespread connectivity empowered citizens from diverse backgrounds to actively engage with political content on social media, bridging the digital divide between urban and rural areas and transforming the dynamics of political communication.

Furthermore, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic expedited this digital transformation. With physical gatherings restricted, politicians turned to virtual rallies, town halls, and live sessions on social media platforms to maintain meaningful connections with their constituents. The pandemic highlighted the importance of establishing a strong online presence, rendering social media an indispensable tool for political leaders to engage with the masses even during challenging circumstances.

Rise of the political startups

The emergence of social media also gave rise to a new breed of political players and political startups. Parties like AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) and YSRCP (Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party), among others, harnessed innovative strategies and social media platforms to challenge the dominance of established political forces. They utilised various tactics, such as organising extensive digital campaigns and embracing the burgeoning meme culture, to leverage social media and engage with netizens like never before. 

Through direct interactions with various cohorts, sharing engaging short videos, and promoting positive campaigns, these startups effectively resonated with their target audiences. This marked a significant departure from traditional political outreach and demonstrated how social media had become a powerful tool for new-age political movements.

IT-Cells and the future of Indian politics

Social media's profound impact extended to its ability to influence voter perception as a result of its personalised approach. Through targeted messaging on platforms like WhatsApp, political parties could tailor messages to specific groups, capitalising on pre-existing biases to win supporters. This personalised approach granted parties a significant advantage in the realm of digital politics. 

At the brink of the political transformation, the BJP, led by the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi, who had till then faced isolation from the media in the aftermath of the 2002 incident, astounded everyone by becoming one of the pioneers to successfully extend their influence to a nationwide level using social media. This remarkable shift demonstrated a direct transition from conventional media, which had marginalized him as a state CM, to social media, where the masses embraced him wholeheartedly from the very beginning. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) thereon has emerged as a prime example of the IT 'cell'isation of politics, adeptly utilising WhatsApp (among other social media platforms) for targeted messaging. Presenting different pieces of information to different voter groups, the party tailored messages to align with their beliefs and aspirations, securing an edge in political communication and thereby paving a model for other parties to follow. 

As social media gained ascendancy, traditional media outlets faced stiff competition from platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook in disseminating political information. This shift reflected changing audience preferences, with social media becoming a primary source of news and information for many. 

Concerns in the digital age

Nonetheless, the rise of social media also raised ethical concerns regarding data privacy, manipulation, and responsible use of targeted messaging. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, in particular, exposed the darker side of digital politics, necessitating discussions on accountability and responsible practices. 

Rahul gets the smart point 

The case of Rahul Gandhi serves as a prime illustration of social media's capacity to shape public perception and pave the way for the next generation of political leadership. Recently, his interactions with citizens through platforms like YouTube and Instagram shorts signify a departure from his previous communication approach. Opting for direct cohort engagements over traditional public speeches enabled him to exercise greater control over the content and presented him as a charismatic and charming leader to the public. This shift in communication style demonstrates how social media can be harnessed strategically to enhance the image and appeal of political leaders, fostering a new paradigm for future political communication and engagement.

In conclusion, the cases of Turkey and India serve as powerful examples of how social media has revolutionised political communication and branding in the 21st century. From leveraging social media during crises to democratising political engagement, the digital revolution has reshaped the way politicians interact with citizens. The IGNITE approach, characterised by Innovation, Grassroots engagement, Nurturing Inclusivity, Tailored Messaging and Embracing media pluralism, holds the potential for responsible and inclusive political communication in the digital age. By embracing this approach, political leaders can ignite the collective power of the people, leading nations towards a brighter and more united future. As technology continues to shape political dynamics, it is imperative that we navigate this transformation ethically, prioritising transparency and accountability, and ensuring that technology remains a tool for empowerment and positive change.

In the boundless realm of digital discourse, social media wields the quill of change, inscribing a new chapter in the tapestry of political communication. With innovation as our compass and authenticity as our ink, let us script a symphony of unity and understanding, where technology's embrace nurtures democracy's bloom, and our collective voice resonates with the harmonies of progress.

The authors are Public Policy and social impact consultants