Rahul Gandhi vs BJP: Decoding the political dogfight on Twitter

Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi | Photo: Twitter (@INCIndia)
After years of being apathetic towards social media, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi has of late done a star turn on Twitter.

His tweets now pack humour and wallow in sarcasm. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) social media team is visibly rattled that Gandhi’s tweets have on several occasions in recent months got more retweets and likes than those of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

 
Senior Union ministers such as Nirmala Sitharaman, Smriti Irani and Prakash Javadekar have gone on record trying to run down Gandhi’s success on Twitter, unwittingly conceding that he indeed is getting traction. For long mocked and called names on social media, the 47-year-old Congress leader has surprised many who can hardly believe that he is capable of the wit he has shown of late.

Some of his recent one-liners have been quite a hit. For example, when he described the GST (goods and services tax) as ‘Gabbar Singh tax’, or the economic slowdown as an ‘MMD’ or ‘Modi-made disaster’. People have also wondered whether it is at all Gandhi who thinks up these tweets, or he has finally discovered good scriptwriters.

On Sunday, Gandhi employed self-deprecating humour to reply to cynics. He posted a short video clip of his pet dog, Pidi. “People have been asking who tweets for this guy (Rahul Gandhi)…I am coming clean… it’s me.. Pidi. I am way cooler than him. Look what I can do with a tweet… oops!… treat!” In the video, the dog performs a trick after Gandhi beckons him to do ‘Namaste’.

The response from the BJP camp was swift. Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted: “Sir, Rahul Gandhi, who knows him better than me. Still remember you busy feeding biscuits to him while we wanted to discuss urgent Assam issues.” Sarma, a former Congress leader, referred to his meeting with Gandhi some months before the Assam assembly polls of May 2016. He has maintained that he felt insulted at Gandhi ignoring him and feeding biscuits to his dog that made him quit the Congress and join the BJP.

The increase in Congress vice-president’s Twitter popularity has been remarkable. There have been blips on the road. In mid-September, Gandhi tweeted his condolences on the demise of Marshal of the Indian Air Force, Arjan Singh, but goofed on his military rank. The BJP social media team lost little time to lampoon him.

That misstep aside, Gandhi has risen from the ashes like a phoenix, if not in changing his party’s electoral fortunes, at least on social media networks. The turnaround is no flash in the pan. It is a result of months of planning and putting together dedicated teams, in Delhi and party’s state units. Some have credited former Congress Lok Sabha member and film actor Divya Spandana. She took over as the party’s social media and digital communications head in May and has lit up the Congress presence on social media.

Gandhi also has a separate dedicated team which handles his Twitter account. According to sources, two of his closest advisors are responsible for his Twitter account. They get feedback from Congress workers and fellow travellers from across the country. Gandhi also discusses ideas with them. Once he comes up with a suggestion or finds an idea from someone else interesting, he waits for a couple of hours to think about it before tweeting it or asking his team to tweet.

The number of his followers on the microblogging site has increased from 2.49 million in July to nearly 4.01 million followers on Sunday — a surge of over 1.5 million followers. Gandhi had debuted on Twitter as ‘@OfficeOfRG’ in April 2015, but has gained a third of his followers in the past three months. His Facebook page, @rahulgandhi, although not as vibrant as his Twitter handle, has nearly 1.41 million followers.

These numbers pale in comparison with that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The PM’s personal twitter handle, @narendramodi, has nearly 36 million followers. HisFacebookl handle — @PMOIndia — has 22.1 million followers. Modi’s facebook page has 42.56 million followers. But, Gandhi’s increasing popularity in recent months’ lies not merely in the growth in the number of his followers, but in the increase in the engagement rate of his tweets.

It took the Congress social media team much convincing to get Gandhi to become more proactive on Twitter. A Congress social media member recounted an interaction to Business Standard that the team had with Gandhi months before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The BJP had by then mounted a sustained social media campaign. But, Gandhi was dismissive about the potential of social media to reach out to voters. “He told us the BJP was a party of the middle classes, while the Congress is that of the poor. He said the BJP needs social media to reach out to its support base, while our voter doesn’t have access to smartphones,” the mid-rung volunteer, who didn’t want to be named, said.

The team felt devastated. In 2016, the team had another equally morale-busting meeting with Gandhi. In that, Gandhi said social media was about abusing people and he didn’t engage on social media as he didn’t want to sully his hands in ‘mud’.

 "But, the change is also as much to do with declining credibility of the Modi government, and people willing to listen to us," another Congress social media leader said.

According to sources, Gandhi's Twitter handle might even be renamed from @OfficeOfRG, which suggests that other people handle the account, to @rahulgandhi when he takes over as the party president.