As the loudspeakers went quiet after campaigning ended in Gujarat on Sunday, social media does not have the privilege, especially in rural areas.
Bipin Chandana (30), who runs a small tea shop in Aspur village of Dahod’s Fatehpura and caters to villagers from at least three nearby areas, has to check his smartphone every now and then. A BJP supporter, Chandana says his phone and internet usage has increased manifold in the last few months with the elections approaching. “In January this year, one of my friends added me to a BJP supporters’ group and then a pary member added me to a booth-level group. The discussions that people have at my tea shop have now moved here (on social media),” he says, showing the phone.
Asked if he could tell a genuine message from a fake, he says, “I do not think so.”
The BJP’s social media unit of Dahod is under 21-year-old Sunny Goyal, an IT professional. “Modi k samarthak”, “Hum sab chowkidaar”, “Ye naya India hai”, “Ghar me ghus k marenge”, are the various Whatsapp groups, which are active in Dahod.
“Our main targets through the social media groups, specifically WhatsApp, are the youth and first-time voters whose voting patterns could be heavily influenced by their parents’ preference. And our second target is booths, which we have identified as challenger booths as per an analysis of 2014 and 2017 elections,” says Goyal who is part of 546 Whatsapp groups, each having 100-150 members. “Between 2014 to now we have seen a jump of at least 60% more internet users specifically from rural areas. For all booths we have one whats app group. It has helped us increase our outreach,” he says.
Manishaben Hathi, a resident of W’s Santrampur is part of both Congress and BJP WhatsApp groups. Her village, she says, is a strong Congress bastion but everybody with a smartphone is also a part of a BJP group, which they were inducted into by a local party worker. “I have always voted for Congress but I am interested in knowing what the BJP is doing,” she says.
“We know and understand the analysis of the 2017 state elections and the social media is becoming a very important tool to connect with the rural voter base. Our narrative of the content that we share has been very positive this time. We are highlighting all the development work being done, schemes being implemented in the rural belts. Creative videos, images and also testimonies of people about how they have benefited from the various schemes that the present government has introduced,” says Pankaj Shukla, state IT convener, BJP IT cell.
Hemang Raval, state convener, Congress IT cell says that the Congress’ social media team functions in a pyramid format with around 5,000 office bearers and nearly 50,000 volunteers till the booth levels. “Rural voter base is very important for us. We are balancing between pro-Congress and anti-BJP content. For the rural population specifically, we create graphics, images and cartoons, which we have realised, has a wider reach and generates more response than text. Whatsapp is the most preferred platform for us to connect with the rural voter base than other social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter,” says Raval.
While Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are also in the fray, but they do not have many takers from the rural areas, the IT cell chiefs claim.
According to a reply tabled by the Ministry of Communications in the Lok Sabha 2018, for every 100 people in rural Gujarat, 24 persons are Internet users. As per government data of January 2016, the subscriber base of Internet users in Gujarat was 6.09 million, which was 5.4% share of all India.