How Congress found its voice on social media

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is known to maintain a distance from the media. Over the last few months, however, the political warhorse with socialist roots has taken to social media like a duck to water. He has an active official and personal Twitter handle, a dedicated app to interact with voters, and his speeches are broadcast on Facebook.

The online visibility of the Congress in the Gujarat polls has had a ripple effect in Karnataka.

And one woman can be credited for this new-found aggression on social media: actor-turned-politician from the State, Divya Spandana — popularly known by her screen name Ramya.

An avid Twitter user and a staunch critic of the BJP, Divya Spandana, 35, who contested and lost the 2014 polls from Mandya, was chosen to lead the social media cell of the party in May 2017. She is credited with giving the battle-scarred Congress a toe-hold in the social media universe.

The party’s first challenge is to get all Congress leaders, especially those at the State level, active on social media, a task that is still underway, conceded Ms. Spandana. But the effort is paying off with veterans like Mr. Siddaramahiah now reaching out to citizens online.

With Karnataka going to the polls in a few months and three BJP-ruled States — Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan — by the year- end, Ms. Spandana and her team have a lot on their plates. “We are definitely looking to expand, but not in Delhi. We want to put in place vibrant teams at the State level to engage with the voters in their languages,” she said. “It’s a 24X7 job, strategising by the minute, trying to keep us on top of the conversation and news cycle,” she said.

Despite being a late entrant, the Congress is finding its voice on social media, one that is clearly distinct from the BJP. Though Ms. Spandana claims that it is the differing ideologies of the two parties that determines the tone, she also hints at other factors — resisting fake news and a team largely consisting of women being important reasons.

Women in charge

Does a social media team where a majority of the members are women have an impact on the party’s tone and language? The campaign, #Aint’ No Cindrella, which Ms. Spandana counts as one of the early successes, is a reflection of this. The Congress campaign was in response to a BJP politician who said Chandigarh disc jockey Varnika Kundu’s decision to be out late at night was to blame for her being stalked.

“Though I can’t reveal the size of the team, it is mostly young women,” said Ms. Spandana. But she is quick to add that it is the Congress’ ideals and not gender that matters.

Beyond a catchphrase

Vikas Gaando Thayyo Che”, the Congress social media campaign which went viral during the recent Gujarat polls, was not the brainchild of a marketing think tank or an advertising company. The vital catchphrase had humble roots.

“The comment came from a worker in Gujarat on an internal WhatsApp group in response to a media report on the bullet train. We got it translated — ‘Development has gone crazy’ — and were quick to see its potential and picked it up. It then acquired a life of its own and went viral,” Ms. Spandana said.

“The effectiveness of the campaign was evident when BJP national president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were asking the youth not to believe what the Congress sends on WhatsApp,” she remarked.

In a way, it marked the arrival of the Grand Old Party on social media, giving the BJP competition for the first time. While Ms. Spandana stresses that messaging and viral campaigns are organic, there is no denying the careful behind-the-scenes planning that is essential. The social media team has several copy writers from the advertisement industry, graphic designers and content writers.

A case in point is the campaign based on the Vikas Gaando Thayyo Che slogan, which the Congress social media team turned into a creative template to “expose the Gujarat development model”, with numbers drawn from government figures and statistics.

A cursory look at the party’s official twitter handle (@INCindia) reveals that a majority of tweets are of a similar nature trying to provide a counter-narrative to that of BJP at the Centre. Fact checkers and data miners are an integral part of the team. “The one-line brief Mr. Gandhi gave me when I was picked to lead the social media cell was to stick to the truth and nothing but the truth,” she said.

But the use of sarcasm and wit to drive home a point, attributed to Mr. Rahul Gandhi, was well-received. With his recent quips — the ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’ for GST, ‘Jaitlie’ for Union Minister Arun Jaitley and the BJP film franchise Lie Hard— Mr. Gandhi is trying to beat the BJP at its own game.

“Mr. Gandhi came up with Gabbar Singh Tax for GST. I hadn’t heard of Gabbar Singh and I haven’t watched Sholay. And it was he who sent me a few links of scenes from the film. He used Gabbar Singh in his speech in Gujarat; it was an instant hit,” recalled Ms. Spandana.

“Social media only adds to the narrative. Rahul Gandhi is the same man he was before; nothing has changed. He is one of the most intuitive leaders I know, ahead of his peers. But the larger socio-political factors… three years of the Modi government have paved the way for a change of perception of him in the people,” she said.

Rural focus

Taking note of the “bias in television media”, she underscores the importance of social media in reaching out to rural voters. “Today is the time of individual targeted messaging, possible best through social media. It’s not just Twitter and Facebook; instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp or even SMS in rural areas seem to be the best platform to reach people,” she said.

Ms. Spandana’s commitment to the Congress despite her mentor S.M. Krishna having switched over to the BJP and her work at the social media cell appears to have earned her the respect of State Congress leaders, once sceptical of her influence.

Despite the recent euphoria, Congress’ Twitter handle lags behind the Aam Aadmi Party, let alone the BJP. The @INCindia handle has 3.82 million followers, way behind the @AamAadmiParty (4.49 million), and the @BJP4India’s 8.59 million followers.