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Social media war

Behind the netas, the online gurus

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Some are early movers, others have come late to the game but every party is determined to win the social media war.

If the popularity of its website was a yardstick and elections were held in cyberspace, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) would have a huge advantage. According to Alexa that ranks websites according to the number and frequency of people accessing them, the AAP website attracts more web traffic than the BJP and Congress. It's ranked 1, 170 as compared to BJP at 9, 320 and Congress at an abysmal 205, 019.

The man behind AAP's cyber operations is former journalist Manish Sisodia who, along with a team of four IT professionals based in Delhi, has ensured that the country's youngest party stays a step ahead on social media. Besides, volunteers from across the country chip in with AAP's cyber operations. Sisodia says the online world can be harsh. "Here, judgement is instant which, I think, can be overwhelming for even senior political leaders of older parties to handle, " he says. His engagement with social media began in the initial days of the Lokpal movement in 2011 before AAP was born when he and others mobilised support for protests through Facebook.

Unlike traditional people's movements, the AAP's anti-corruption movement followed a reverse trajectory. Movements gather strength through people's mobilisation at the grassroots. Often a long time elapses before the media takes note. However, the movement that gave birth to AAP reached a frenzied pitch in the media - television as well as online - and this brought in more supporters on the ground.

The first-mover advantage though goes to the BJP which in 2009 made a strong poll pitch in cyberspace to catch young and first-time voters. Though it was the Congress that won more seats and went on to form a coalition government, the BJP has expanded its reach in the cyberspace. "We have an integrated and comprehensive digital strategy, " says Arvind Gupta, head of BJP's information technology cell. With a PhD and MS in computer science plus an MBA, Gupta, 49, manages the BJP's cyber cell with about a dozen fulltime volunteers.

The Congress, which has been slow to realise the potential of the web, has now woken up to the challenge. The communications and publicity committee led by Digvijay Singh is firming up a social media strategy for the elections though leaders did not elaborate on it.

The BJP is going full steam ahead with its cyber strategy for the 2014 general elections. For starters, they have done a digital profile of each constituency. Since digital pressure is akin to peer pressure and can compel otherwise reluctant voters to go out to the booths, the BJP plans to micro-target cyber users on social media, that is, analyse the profile of a user and tell him what he wants to hear.

Many of its leaders use the net to connect with users. BJP chief Rajnath Singh, for instance, is on Facebook while veteran leader L K Advani's blogs. Arun Jaitley has his own website. Sushma Swaraj, Nirmala Sitharaman and Smriti Irani are active on Twitter.

But, the political leader most active is Narendra Modi. His "cyber soldiers" are led by Hiren Joshi, an IT professional. The team also has senior executives from companies like PricewaterhouseCooper and Deloitte who quit their corporate jobs to join Modi's team. He is also supported by an army of tech-savvy fans, some of whom live abroad.
Going by Alexa's figures, Modi's website is more popular than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's. Alexa has ranked Modi's website at 18, 171 in the world and 1, 799 in India while the PM's website ranks 310, 881 in worldwide popularity while in India, the website is at 47, 478.

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