Around 11 AM on April 10, barely half an hour after CISF personnel had opened fire at a mob that attacked them outside a voting booth at Sitalkuchi, killing four men who were identified as TMC workers, Sayandeep Goswami got to work on his smartphone.
The 29-year-old Trinamool student leader and his colleagues in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar started posting and circulating messages about the incident on WhatsApp. It was a cascade, from one group to another, one day to the next: messages of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee urging supporters to observe a black day; images of her talking to the victims’ families; photographs of the bodies; a video of the incident.
It’s not just the BJP that’s turned the smartphone into an election rally ground. As the fifth phase of Assembly elections nears in West Bengal, the ruling TMC has ramped up its online operations, too.
During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Goswami was a member of 45 WhatsApp groups. In 2021, he is part of 150 groups and admin in 12 of them. “In 2019, we could not match the BJP’s social media push. The party has learnt its lessons. Now, social media campaigning is as important as public meetings and road shows,” he says.
Like many in the BJP camp, several TMC workers in Cooch Behar shared the contents of these WhatsApp groups with The Indian Express over two days in the run-up to the fourth phase of polls that were held Saturday.
The 60 messages shared included 22 videos and images of Banerjee’s speeches and state government schemes — one meme depicted the Chief Minister as Goddess Durga — and 10 images of TMC’s Mathabhaga candidate Girindranath Burman being allegedly attacked.
Several messages targeted the BJP and its leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They included eight memes targeting BJP state chief Dilip Ghosh and one message alleging that BJP and the newly formed Indian Secular Front’s Abbas Siddiqui are hand in glove to divide Muslim votes.
There were also 12 photos purportedly of a near-empty rally of the BJP, memes targeting Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee who switched from TMC to BJP, and a news item from a Bengali newspaper claiming that the BJP is under pressure because of the Rafale deal.
Besides, there was a message on communal harmony, and two containing poll directions for booth agents.
Apart from party groups, the TMC social media cell has formed groups for local clubs, neighbourhoods and NGOs in Cooch Behar town. “The BJP has a social media war room where they employ professional people. But we have caught up now. In Cooch Behar, the BJP’s social media cell spreads communal messages to polarise people, we counter it with messages of communal harmony,” says Goswami, 29, who is a vice president of Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parishad (TMCP) in Cooch Behar.
“During the lockdown, we did a lot of online town hall meetings. We were also exposed to various apps that can be used to edit videos. A group of party workers from Cooch Behar was guided by Prashant Kishor’s IPAC team (which is advising the TMC) in Kolkata,” he says.
One of the biggest successes of the TMC campaign this time are viral videos of the poll jingle ‘Khela Hobe’ (The game is on). The video was shot on January 7 at Acharya Brojendra Nath Seal College in Cooch Behar with the help of local workers like Goswami, who lent their voices too. “We even used a drone for the shoot. I was among the chorus. We never expected it to go viral,” says Mohammed Ruksat (28), a TMCP member.
The TMC workers, however, accuse the BJP social media cell of adopting “dubious methods” to limit their outreach. In fact, both parties have accused each other of playing dirty and pushing “false” narratives.
“They use fake accounts on Facebook to report against our profiles and groups. But now, we have enough accounts to report against them, too, and limit their reach,” says Abhishek Chanda, 26, a student of the Cooch Behar college who is preparing for the state civil service exams.
“They circulated pictures of an empty venue where (TMC MP and leader) Abhishek Banerjee had held a public meeting. But the video was shot after Banerjee had left in his helicopter. In 10 minutes, we collected videos of the rally from our workers and circulated them in all our groups,” says Rabiul Ali, 29, who is also a vice president of the Cooch Behar TMCP.
Like members of the BJP’s social media cell, TMC workers say that they have become less dependent on mainstream media. “Earlier, we used to go to media houses to get our news published. Now, we can reach out to thousands through social media and WhatsApp,” says Chanda.
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