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Phone screen is rally ground in Bengal: PM clip to Didi foot

Over two days last week, in the run-up to voting in Cooch Behar for the fourth phase, The Indian Express tracked the smartphones of several BJP and TMC workers to know what’s streaming.

Written by Ravik Bhattacharya , Amitava Chakraborty | Cooch Behar |
Updated: April 12, 2021 8:00:53 am
Phone screen is rally ground in Bengal: PM clip to Didi footBJP supporters hold up their smartphones at a public meeting in South 24 parganas. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

ONCE UPON a time, Dipak Das was the admin of 1,124 WhatsApp groups. That was during the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. Today, in the middle of Assembly polls in West Bengal, the BJP’s social media convenor in Cooch Behar is the admin of 2,209 groups and a member of 3,500 in all.

On Saturday, Das pushed a video of the CISF firing at an angry mob outside a polling booth in Sitalkuchi that led to the deaths of four people identified as TMC supporters. That was just a nugget from the data deluge that has made the smartphone the rally ground, the home visit, the campaign booth, all rolled into one — much larger in size and scale than ever before; generating and fuelling its own content, not reliant on traditional media.

Over two days last week, in the run-up to voting in Cooch Behar for the fourth phase, The Indian Express tracked the smartphones of several BJP and TMC workers to know what’s streaming. It found a surge of videos, messages and “news items” — some spin, some splice and a lot of slant to suit the narrative.

First, the BJP, which is in the middle of a no-holds-barred bid to capture power in the state.

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Narendra Modi, Mamata Banerjee PM Narendra Modi and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee (PTI photo)

Their online campaign in Cooch Behar scaled up as the votes were being cast when news broke of the CISF firing. Within minutes, Dipak Das and his colleagues started sharing video clips of TMC head and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asking people at public meetings to gherao central forces, and others in which she is seen targeting the forces for “bias”.

Soon, the next wave started. These were videos of Jalpaiguri IG Annappa E and Cooch Behar SP Debasish Dhar recounting the event and stating that the jawans had fired in self-defence after the mob tried to snatch their weapons. “Our messages highlighted that the central forces, who protect our nation, were forced to fire after their lives came under threat from miscreants. Our aim was to show how the TMC’s instigation led to the incident,” says Das.

The speed and scale of this operation illustrate the online campaign in play — from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches to Banerjee’s injured foot. The Indian Express was given access to smartphones of a dozen BJP workers intermittently across April 6 and 7, and accessed 126 WhatsApp messages. They included:

* Two videos and five memes targeting Banerjee, two images slamming TMC for violence, and four video messages showing BJP workers appealing for votes.

* 30 videos and images of Modi’s rally in Cooch Behar, and 39 images and videos of state party chief Dilip Ghosh’s rallies and the attack on his convoy in the district.

* 14 messages on BJP workers being allegedly attacked; 10 pictures and videos of Modi’s message in Bengali; one image of a vehicle carrying members of the ethnic Rajbongshi community to Modi’s rally with its windscreen shattered; six images and messages of a BJP worker who was allegedly beaten; four images and three videos of BJP candidates.

* Two videos of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s speeches, and four images on the BJP’s manifesto.

One of the messages sent at 4.13 pm on April 7 told BJP supporters: “Sitalkuchi te tmc ready hochche. Sobai ready thakben. (In Sitalkuchi, TMC is getting ready. Everyone be ready).”

Says Das, 38, who runs a pharmacy in Cooch Behar’s Gopalpur: “We have instructions from the leadership that as much as 50-60 per cent of campaigning, including propagation of the party’s ideology, has to be done on social media.”

Party strategists attribute this push to two factors. “The party is relatively new in the state and lacks a strong presence at the grassroots…plus, the media’s bias. This has compelled the party to go digital,” says a leader, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Online coordinators say there has been a massive ramping-up of operations since 2019. “There is an established hierarchy, which was absent during 2019. Orders and directions flow from the top — Central cell to state and on to zone, district, vidhan sabha, mandal, shakti kendra and finally booth level,” says Kanak Ghosh, 26, the BJP’s social media convenor for Cooch Behar Uttar Vidhan Sabha.

Ghosh, a college student from Gopalpur who doubles up as an English tutor, and Das say content and information flow in both directions, and that they no longer rely on traditional media. “Videos or audio clips are sent to us by the people themselves. By making them go viral, we compel journalists to cover what they might overlook. Now journalists approach us for video or audio clips,” says Das, pointing to a recent audio of a daily wager pleading with his employer for a job, saying TMC workers had punctured his cycle tyres and forced him to attend their rally.

The social media cell has its own evaluation system. “In 2019, we got a hint that Left votes would swing our way. Many Left supporters in our groups had started replying to our WhatsApp messages and forwarding them. Similarly this time, we have an inkling that the Rajbongshi votes will come our way,” says Ghosh.

The party workers are also under watch, too.

Says Gautam Debnath, 46, a party member since 1987 and the co-convenor of Cooch Behar Uttar Vidhan Sabha: “If I post on Twitter, I know the minimum number of times the tweet will be retweeted. If the number of retweets don’t cross that number, then workers are not doing their job diligently. We keep a watch over a week to identify the members who are not retweeting, after which action is taken.”

Says Sandip Sen, a mandal convener: “On any given day, a member receives around 60 to 70 messages. The number doubles on important days, such as when a prominent leader joins the party or there is an incident of rape or murder or there is a public meeting. There is no escaping us.”

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