While national political parties continue to strategise on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram, this Lok Sabha election has seen regional parties make digital inroads with a vernacular medium — ShareChat, where English is not even an option and Hindi doesn’t fare in the top languages for political handles.
Aggregate numbers from March 10 to date on the platform show that parties such as Pawan Kalyan’s JanaSena Party, the CPI(M) of Kerala, YSRCP of Jaganmohan Reddy, Telangana Rashtra Samithi and Biju Janata Dal overwhelmingly outshone the national BJP and Indian Youth Congress (IYC) handles. In addition, of the 14 available languages, Hindi is surpassed by Gujarati, Telugu, Malayalam and Bengali for the most viewed political handles.
The platform, much like a non-English, Indian version of Instagram, was launched in October 2015 by a Bengaluru-based start-up. It has since amassed over 100 million downloads, with 45 million monthly active users, the majority of whom are under 30, according to the company. Since last year, the start-up has made considerable effort in engaging with parties and politicians on the platform, expanding their public policy team and adding more than 400 official political handles.
Of these handles, among the ones that have been consistently attracting the most views, likes, shares, favourites and comments are those of BJP Gujarat (with 30 million views for their posts since March 10), JanaSena Party (27 million), CPI(M) Kerala (25 million), YS Jaganmohan Reddy (23 million), YSRCP (22 million), and BJP West Bengal (21 million).
A state-wise breakup of the handles shows BJP’s former Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan is the most popular with 19 million views, followed by TRS (18 million), BJD in Odisha (18 million), BJP’s Rajyavardhan Rathore (13 million) and BJP’s Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis (10 million).
“We were getting a million views per post and 4 lakh per video. That’s when we realised the potential of ShareChat to reach out to rural audience,” said Vinod Varma, who began the JanaSena party’s account in November 2018. His team began publishing 30-second videos that supporters could upload as their WhatsApp status, including one of Pawan Kalyan sitting cross-legged and eating curd rice on a dirty path — that video received 1.3 million views.
The IT cell members of most of the top handles told The Indian Express that one of the main benefits of the platform was the ease with which they could forward to WhatsApp, and that most of them had found out about the platform through the messaging app.
Brahma Nanda, a member of the on-hire political consultancy company Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC), that works with YSRCP, even created an “influencer network” of roughly 80 YSRCP-supporting accounts that agreed to distribute the party’s content. Starting June last year, he created a WhatsApp group of these influencers, who had roughly 3,000 followers each, and sent them content through WhatsApp, which was then put up on ShareChat daily.
“On ShareChat, one has to create content that is very local — pop and movie cultures, local proverbs and memes. And as there is no option of promoting content or paid advertisement, everything is organic. The only thing that matters is the quality of the content,” he said.
Brahma’s favourite content are memes referring to last year’s Kannada blockbuster KGF. One, in Telugu, reads, “Gang to vaste gangster (Gangsters come with a gang)” underneath images of PM Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Pawan Kalyan, Chandrababu Naidu, IPS officer JD Lakshminarayana, Andhra Pradesh Minister Nara Lokesh, and television channel director Vemuri Radhakrishna. Then the meme states, “Kani okkade vasthadu (But he comes alone),” underneath a photo of Jaganmohan Reddy.
With the potential for messages on the platform to go viral comes the persistent issues of hate speech, spam and misinformation. Observing the voluntary code of ethics recently laid down by the Election Commission and social media firms, ShareChat took down almost half a million posts (13,000 from the news and politics section) and 55,000 accounts.
ShareChat’s public policy head Berges Malu, however, said the platform still gives “opinion leaders the unique ability to reach audiences across tier-2 and tier-3 cities and towns”.
“Instagram is mainly for urban youth. But when I was travelling in Bishnupur and Purulia, I found that the youth were on ShareChat,” said Ujjwal Pareek of the BJP’s West Bengal IT cell, adding, “We are one of the states that is not in the Hindi belt. On ShareChat, we get the accent of our language. That flavour of Bengali.”