“Yeh saval mere nahin hain. Yeh saval public ke saval hain jo public ne social media ke through mujh tak pahunchaye hain (These are not my questions. These are questions from the public which they have conveyed to me through social media),” says Wali Rahmani, sitting opposite Aam Aadmi Party leader Atishi, as he begins the half-hour interview titled ‘Is Atishi Scared of Questions?’ for his YouTube channel.
Dressed in a crisp shirt and trousers, a notepad on his lap, he conducts himself like a TV news anchor. But, he makes it clear, he isn’t from the media. “Thank us for showing this,” he says, talking about how the price of electricity has come down during AAP’s tenure in Delhi.
In a week’s time, the video has received 1,13,000 views — with the numbers only rising. In his two years on YouTube, Rahmani has gained a quarter of a million subscribers, with his most popular talking head video — ‘Is Taj Mahal a part of Indian culture?’ — notching up 1.8 million views.
Of his 55 mostly political videos, one of the most watched has him sitting in front of a bookshelf in his bedroom and explaining for 10 minutes why “demonetisation was the biggest failure of this century”. It has over two lakh views.
Rahmani, 20, started his YouTube journey in April 2017. The channel’s ‘About’ section calls him “a student of Law”, and “a motivational speaker”. “This channel has been made to motivate Indians to unite and to make India secular and a developed nation,” it adds.
“The day when Yogi Adityanath became Uttar Pradesh CM I could not hold on to my anger,” he recalls. That day, he made his first Facebook Live video. “I woke up to a million views… My principal asked me to delete the video. But what he didn’t realise was that it had already been shared many times over.”
Rahmani is part of a small but growing group of online political enthusiasts who are finding a stage on platforms such as YouTube and, sometimes, even a source of earning. Mostly urban youth, they pride themselves in having no boss or editor to censor their content, and with headlines such as ‘EXPOSED’ and ‘FAKE NEWS BUSTING’, target everyone from fellow political vloggers to traditional news organisations.
As for their political leanings, they come in all shades.
While Rahmani’s videos take on the BJP, ‘Aaj Ki Taza Khabar (AKTK)’ has been releasing videos with titles such as ‘Gautam Gambhir ne Mehbooba Mufti ko sareaam dho dala (Gautam Gambhir slammed Mehbooba Mufti openly)’.
Run by two brothers who do not wish to be identified, the channel that began posting political videos last year has half-a-million subscribers now.
A video titled ‘Congress Manifesto or Pakistan Manifesto?’, promises “cheerharan (ripping apart)” of the Congress document and has one of the AKTK brothers, 32, saying, “You can understand which section of society this manifesto is for.” Since polling dates were announced nearly a month ago, AKTK has posted 27 such videos, which have collectively received five-and-a-half million views.
Far away from the glitzy television studios, the brothers shoot these videos in the barsati above their parents’ home in the National Capital Region. A green board forms the backdrop, a Samsung phone plonked on a tripod is their equipment, and they use the Power Director software to edit their videos.
From this sparse set-up, they have posted 463 videos.
YouTube now reaches 265 million viewers per month in India, with 60 per cent of its growth coming from non-metros. Ten years after its launch in India, executives say 95 per cent of its consumers watch content in non-English languages, and 90 per cent of them do so on their phones. India’s online video market, now valued at over $700 million, is estimated to touch $2.4 billion by 2023, according to research company Media Partners Asia.
Undoubtedly, the platform remains dominated by Bollywood music and movies, but political content creators have begun to etch their mark.
“Earlier, people would write on Facebook or Twitter. With YouTube you can sit in front of people and say anything,” says one of the AKTK brothers.
The brothers claim to be making so much money as ‘full-time YouTubers’ — from advertising and donations on the crowd-funding platform Patreon — that they quit their job at a software company. Their page on Patreon states its mission as: “To create awareness in today’s ‘Post Truth’ environment.”
Recently, after users began to criticise their amateur set-up in the feedback section, the brothers say they have become “more serious”. The wooden background has been replaced with a green screen and they have also bought stage lights. There is a channel logo too — a fist raising a rolled newspaper in the air.
So how do they research for their content? “We research the past statements of famous people or organisations making certain claims and focus on their contradictions. Counter-narratives and counter-points can be easily found online,” says one of the brothers, describing the research they did for a video which explained why India’s strike on Balakot in Pakistan caused significant damage.
As for keeping their identities hidden, they say, “We are not journalists, we are just YouTubers voicing our opinion.”
But the political vlogging space on YouTube is a mix of news and views, and the lines between them are often blurred. Take Dhruv Rathee, a 24-year-old who started out much like AKTK and Rahmani, and whose channel now has 1.8 million subscribers. In February, he also landed a gig with BBC, making videos for them from Varanasi.
“It’s a bit uncomfortable to call myself a journalist because I’m also activism-related. As a journalist, you’re supposed to be objective 100 per cent of the times,” he says.
Thirty-four-year-old Atul Mishra chooses to call his social media and blog persona a “new age media portal”. Launched in 2012, his company now has 15 staff members and an office in Noida. The team churns out content for his right-leaning news site ‘Right Log’ and his social media portfolio ‘The Frustrated Indian’. An investment of less than Rs 70,000 and a few video editors was all he needed for the video set-up.
Mishra claims to now make more money from his Facebook and YouTube videos than all of his other content. Claiming “news doesn’t sell anymore, only analysis does,” Mishra, a former engineer, adds, “Anybody can be a celebrity… When you have the freedom to say anything, it’s very empowering.”
Rahmani, who says he is now working on a video to explain to non-BJP supporters how not to divide their vote, quips, “It is so easy to pick up a picture from Google and show it on YouTube… But it’s not necessary that every word you write has to be true.”