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In Uttar Pradesh, BJP supporters welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi with party flags in July 2023 (India Prime Minister's Office via Wikimedia Commons)

Influencer Nation: How Modi’s BJP is Reshaping Indian Politics

The right-wing ruling party has harnessed the reach of social media influencers.

Words: Gafira Qadir
Pictures: Prime Minister's Office (India)
Date:

Twenty-eight-year-old Ram Kumar Sadhu has been a staunch supporter of the right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) all his life. He grew up in a family that revered the party’s ideology, a fact that helped solidify his political beliefs. Recently, however, Kumar’s steadfast views faced an unexpected challenge.

It all started when his friend began sending him videos of interviews with figures from opposition parties that don’t align with Kumar, conducted by social media influencers. At first, Kumar became annoyed and angry, dismissing the content as biased and untrustworthy. But then he stumbled upon a reel by the famous influencer Beer Biceps, also known as Ranveer Allahbadia.

“My family introduced me to Beer Bicep’s political content, calling him a genuine interviewer,” he said. “I agree with them.”

Kumar had come across Allahbadia’s content earlier as he watched his content with Bollywood celebrities; however, he said, he became the influencer’s fan after watching his interviews with the ministers. The opposition had questioned the ministers so much that even a diehard BJP supporter like Kumar began to question his political allegiances, he said. “But then I came across these neutral people interviewing our PM and answering all the accusations. That is when I was stunned and in love with Ranveer.”

“Mouthpiece”

In the final weeks leading up to this year’s Indian election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the National Creators Award in Delhi, honoring the country’s leading social media influencers, which included Allahbadia as well. The event highlighted the significant rise in influencer power and how these influencers had become primed to play a critical role in reaching out to the youth, the indifferent, and the disenchanted.

In the event, Allahbadia was presented with the Disruptor of the Year award by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The duo was seen engaging in a funny conversation, talking about fitness and the importance of sleep. Allahbadia began his influencer career as a fitness guru, posting gym videos under the name BeerBiceps. Initially, he posted content that some saw as disrespectful to Hindu gods. However, as the Modi government gained strength, Allahbadia shifted to sharing videos expressing pride in his Hindu roots.

The influencer posted the video on his social media accounts and expressed his joy over the recognition. Some of his supporters congratulated him, but others claimed he had turned into a government mouthpiece. “Of course, you will get the award for being the number one peddler of fake news, lies, and propaganda of the BJP (sic),” one user commented.

He wasn’t the only influencer who weathered accusations of being a “mouthpiece.” Kamiya Jani, famously known as Curly Tales on social media, who also received an award in the Best Travel Creator category at the event, faced similar criticism for shifting her content in recent times. However, she denies these claims. “It is not like I have switched to political content. I have always interviewed known faces, including politicians,” she said, annoyed. Kamiya declined to speak further about it.

Party-Sponsored Junkets 

Many viewed this event as the official announcement of the party’s strategy to use influencers in the election campaign. However, the BJP’s highly active media department had already begun engaging social media influencers long before the election announcement in March, notably with the Ram Mandir movement. Influencers were hired to shape the narrative around Ayodhya, allegedly for electoral gains. They highlighted the consecration ceremony and promoted Ayodhya as a trending tourism destination.

In December 2023, the Uttar Pradesh government allocated Rs 25 lakh (around $29,984) to hire influencers to promote Ayodhya’s development and the construction of the Ram temple. Initiated by the All India Influencers Association, around 500 influencers traveled from Rameshwaram to Ayodhya in mid-January, a journey promoted by a BJP-affiliated leader. This showcased the government’s recognition of influencers as powerful communicators.

After the social media influencers, the prime minister met India’s top seven gamers to discuss the future of gaming in the country. Two of them posted on Instagram, “We recently had an insightful discussion with the Honourable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi about the esports industry,” they wrote in their caption. “His vision is set to revolutionize gaming in India.”

In the video posted on the gamers’ Instagram profiles on April 10, an influencer called Animesh said: “Who is the biggest influencer in India? It is our prime minister.”

The “State of India Gaming Report” by Google and Lumikai states that India has 568 million gamers, with the majority (50%) aged 18 to 30. According to DataReportal, which aggregates online studies, the median age of social media users is 28.4 years, with the largest group being 20-24 years old (128 million). According to the Election Commission, there are 211 million voters between ages 18 and 29 this year, with 20 million new young electors since 2019.

“Leveraging These Tools” 

Additionally, the ruling party recently launched the “My First Vote for Modi” campaign with a website to engage first-time voters in India and garner their support. Such engagements, per analysts, show the consistency of Prime Minister Modi’s strategy to engage young voters.

Apoorva Anand, a Delhi-based political analyst, explained that social media has now become one of the most important ways for parties to communicate with their electorate, along with public meetings, roadshows, and other traditional methods. “Traditional posters have been replaced by WhatsApp messages, Instagram posts, and other social media platforms. All political parties have realized this and are leveraging these tools effectively,” he said.

Who is the biggest influencer in India? It is our prime minister.

– Animesh

India has an estimated 760 million active internet users, with 400 million on WhatsApp, one of the platforms that has become essential for electoral communications in India. Before the elections, many WhatsApp users received bulk messages under the “Viksit Bharat Sampark” initiative, which sought public feedback and highlighted government achievements, accompanied by a letter from Modi. 

However, the Election Commission ordered the government to stop sending these bulk messages following complaints from the BJP’s opponents. The Congress labeled the messages as ‘political propaganda,’ while the Trinamool Congress called them a “blatant violation” of the Model Code of Conduct.

Anand said that while the exact proportion of voters influenced cannot be quantified, it is clear that social media plays a critical role in shaping opinions and voting patterns. “Videos created interactively are playing a major role in this election. They are spreading like wildfire among young voters, who are sharing them widely in their communities.”

“Influence People Significantly”

He believes that young people, who are less likely to read newspapers or watch television, rely heavily on social media platforms for their information. “It is evident that social media can influence people significantly,” Anand said. 

“To influence voters through these platforms, a person or party needs to create engaging and relevant content. This includes understanding the audience’s preferences and utilizing various forms of media, such as videos, memes, and interactive posts.”

Anand claimed that anecdotal evidence and studies suggest that social media influences voters’ views and behavior. 

In a recent paper, University of Michigan professors, Sarah Khan, Rudransh Mukherjee, and Joyojeet Pal wrote, “An influencer who boasts a following with a range of persuasions can bring more to the table of a politician seeking minds to convert than those in echo chambers of partisan media.” The paper added: “Collaborating with these influencers in the form of interviews or appearances allows politicians to access an untapped audience.”

“Not Just Voters” 

Rahul Verma, an assistant professor at Ashoka University who researches voting behavior and media, said that more youngsters are on social media, but a large number of middle-aged and older people also watch YouTube and other platforms. “It’s everyone,” he said.

He added that social media influences everyone to varying degrees. “Young voters might be more influenced due to less experience and more exposure to social media,” Verma said. “However, older voters are also on these platforms and can be influenced, too. Verifying the information social media influencers share is important for all age groups.”

Gafira Qadir

Gafira Qadir is a freelance journalist who mostly covers human rights, gender issues, education, and culture. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Rest of World, The Daily Beast, Maktoob, The Kashmir Walla, and others. She is a recipient of a Pulitzer Center Grant.

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