The Bengaluru-based Spandana, who as “Ramya” was one of the top actors of Kannada cinema for 12 years, has rejigged and revitalised the team by bringing in data-crunchers and graphic designers. She has also included more women on the team. Today, women form two-thirds of the team.
The bigger challenge that she and her team have accomplished is convincing Gandhi to use social media. Former members of the Congress social media team say it used to be demoralising to interact with their leader.
In 2013, as Bharatiya Janata Party’s social media team monopolised the space in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, Gandhi told his social media squad he didn’t care much for Facebook, Twitter and the like. A former team member recalls that he once said BJP was a middle-class party that needed social media to reach out to its supporters, while the Congress was the party of the poor who didn’t possess fancy smartphones. “It was a morale buster for the team,” its ex-member says.
If they thought Gandhi had altered his opinion of social media when he met them again in early-2016, they were disappointed. While he applauded the team for its good work, he said he didn’t see himself increasing his engagement on social media as he felt the platform engendered “negativity”.
A year later, Gandhi is quite a star on Twitter. He is serious, witty, self-deprecating and even willing to pepper his tweets with poetry from Mirza Ghalib and Avtar Singh Sandhu, better known as “Pash”. Those who have known the Congress leader long enough say he is all of this and more, but it’s only now that he’s beginning to shed his reserve. “Gabbar Singh Tax” and “Modi Made Disaster” are slogans that have already become part of Congress folklore.
So, when in mid-October, BJP leaders, including information and broadcasting minister Smriti Irani, alleged that the spike in Gandhi’s Twitter following was because of “bots”, or when law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad wondered whether Gandhi has ever read Ghalib or “Pash”, Spandana and her team took it as a left-handed compliment.
Spandana quickly rebutted Irani’s claim, while other Congress sympathisers pointed out on social media that it was a case of the pot calling the kettle black. A matching percentage of “bots”, or fake followers, comprised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 36.6 million followers on Twitter. Gandhi had 2.49 million followers in July; it increased to 3.4 million by mid-September and stood at 4.26 million this Friday.
With Spandana leading it, the Congress social media approach has been more combative. “The mask is off, not that we did not raise these issues earlier,” she told News18.com last month. While her success has won her legions of admirers and gushing media coverage, the number of her rivals too is growing within the party.
After taking over in May, Spandana had surprised most with the sarcasm she displayed on Twitter. But now, with signs of rivalry evident, the former actor prefers to stay away from the media and restricts herself to retweeting press conferences, statements and articles of other party leaders. Spandana told Business Standard she was too caught up with her work to be able to find time for an interview for this article.
Also helping Congress’s vibrant social media presence is a synergy among the social media teams of other opposition parties. Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha leader Derek O’Brien has played a key role in bringing the opposition parties on the same page, and has been helped behind the scenes by Aam Aadmi Party’s Ankit Lal. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s M K Kanimozhi, Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav and a group within the Communist Party of India (Marxist) exchange notes several times a week on common topics that they would collectively raise on social media. Spandana is an important cog in this wheel.
Spandana grew up in Ooty and Bengaluru, raised by a single mother, which is something she has spoken about often. Known as the “golden girl” of Kannada cinema, Spandana did her first film in 2003. She has also acted in Telugu and Tamil films. In 2012, she quit films to join politics
and won a Lok Sabha bypoll from Mandya in August 2013, only to lose the seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Combativeness has been her leitmotif. During her acting career, Spandana raised her voice against the pay disparity in the film industry. In 2016, she refused to apologise after a sedition case was slapped on her when she said Pakistanis were good people. When her fans tweeted to wish her on her “27th birthday” in 2014, she said she was 31. In 2016, when a woman police officer was transferred, ostensibly because she disconnected a phone call from a minister, Spandana criticised the minister. It mattered little that the minister belonged to the ruling Congress party in Karnataka of which she was a leader.
Now, the vigour she has added to Gandhi’s social media persona has brought him back in the reckoning. But then, her name itself means “vibrant”.