How disruptive is social media becomes evident in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral campaign. The BJP’s Digital Campaign unleashed by Dr Arvind Gupta, Head of BJP’s IT (per se he is BJP Convener and National Head, Information and Technology). Gupta, along with his team, was the key driver who seamlessly drove home the thoughts of Modi. In many ways the 2014 general elections heralded a new premise in Indian election campaign, with leaders like Modi with a huge fan following on social platforms like Twitter leveraged it effectively and capitalized on the power of social media.
And no wonder then that the Dataquest Pathbreaker of the Year Award 2014 goes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s digital and social media campaign for the 2014 general elections.
As we look at BJP’s digital campaign, it’s a clearly planned and well paved out strategy. The party was also an early mover as well, while other political parties hardly had any presence on social media few years back, BJP quietly garnered the support of the Indians across the world since 2010 in an aggressive fashion. Today Modi has 8.48 mn followers on Twitter and 6,500 plus tweets since he joined Twitter in 2009.
It was a multi-pronged strategy and a dedicated team at the party’s IT Cell that as per news reports even poured on ancient texts like Kautilya’s Arthashastra—the treatise on statecraft and strategy for inspiration. The inspiration from varied sources gave BJP IT team to leverage and to understand the pulse of people and effectively communicate messages.
The BJP’s IT team was able to secure such spectacular success till now was due to the fact that it did an elaborate study on how social media works globally and specifically looked at social media campaign of the US president Barack Obama and got key insights. At the end of the day, its more of a blended strategy BJP adopted—it on the one hand embraced digital media and at the same time did not ignore the traditional print and juxtaposed both together and created a winning strategy.
Dataquest spoke to Dr Arvind Gupta, Head of BJP’s IT cell and a key member of Narendra Modi’s 2014 general elections social media campaign that helped achieve the party’s target to bag 272+ seats in the Parliament.
Not just India, but the world has been talking about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s social media and digital campaign for the 2014 general elections held in May. Can you give us some idea of when and how this was conceived?
We have been active on the social media just after the 2009 general elections. So the seeds were sown in 2009, and in 2010 we launched it with full force.
Why do you think the social media could not have the same impact for BJP in 2009 that it had in 2014 ?
In 2009, the reach of social media as well as its understanding were very less. Also the engagement potential of this technology was very elitist. But by 2013 and 2014 the mobile penetration had become very pervasive, social media on mobile was becoming very pervasive. We saw those trends and figured out that 2014 will be fairly digital lead. It will be a good platform to reach out to the people and connect with them.
Did you also look at and were inspired by use of social platforms for elections in other places? The US president Obama’s social media campaign is often quoted as pioneering political campaign.
Yes, we have always said that we did study the best practices in other parts of the world as part of our learning exercise. But we had to adapt it locally. That is the model we followed, learn from the best and adapt it locally. And not just from one campaign, but many.
Which were some of the political campaigns in other parts of the world which really impressed you?
I must mention here President Obama’s US campaign was outstanding, even the Australian campaign was very good.
When you were making the strategy for BJP’s digital and social media campaign, were there any measurable goals which were set?
The goal was to make sure that we have a connect into every household, every family of India through digital media of which social media was one part.
And you were also trying to use technology to reach every Indian family overseas?
We had some connections overseas, but finally the voters are here in India. While our followers and supporters overseas were giving contributions and ideas and other offer for help because we were constantly connected to them via social media, the prime goal was to be connected to each and every household in the country.
In the course of the campaign where there any changes in the goal post?
We were very bullish about this campaign from day one, and knew the kind of impact it can make. So yes, there was a change in the goal, in the sense that in 2012 and 2013 it was being said that BJP will be a party that will get 200+ seats. But we set ourselves a goal of 272+, so the goal changed automatically. The goal was to win absolute majority, which we achieved.
As you were moving with your campaign, were there some mid-course corrections, fine tunings that you did on the way?
There is no strategy which is correct from Day one. We experimented with lots of strategies, as we say we played lots of league matches, which were actually the small elections, then quarter finals in some state elections, then semi finals in the 2013 state elections. So it was only in 2014, when it was time for the finals we knew what would work the best and what would not. There were many tweaks, and we had to evolve, we had to innovate, and this was a continuous process. There were quite a few things that did not work and we withdrew that.
Can you share with us some examples of things that did not work out?
While I cannot divulge specific details, but let me tell you about the prime minister’s 3D sessions, which were started on small and local scale in Gujarat very successfully, and we scaled it up at a national scale in the 2014 elections. All I can say is that there was a lot of learnings that went into building the national campaign.
What was the size of the core team that was driving and running this campaign?
The digital team was all of 40 people, which was distributed between Gujarat (10 people), Mumbai (5), and almost 25 in Delhi. If you are using good, state of art technology, you do not need large teams.
How closely was Narendra Modi himself involved in the campaign?
Well let me tell you that he was monitoring the full campaign, the digital as well as the off-line media on a daily basis. He is a great CEO, who manages by exception, and he is proving it now. He likes to see the daily dashboard, he likes to see the top-line numbers. Where he finds any concerns, he likes to go into the depth of it. And if he thinks he requires to intervene, he intervenes. He gives a task to someone he trusts, and then he empowers them to perform. But he keeps monitoring and giving inputs as and when required.
We saw that during the run up to the elections, there was a virtual war on twitter with various hashtags like #Pappu, #Feku, etc. What was the idea behind such hashtags? Was it to promote oneself as much as to discredit the opposition?
Lets not get into these specific hashtags, but let me tell you that hashtags around Mr Modi trended almost every second day. The idea behind hashtags is to gain more visibility and reach, and that is how it works. But all our trends were organic in nature, and it was heartening to see that. Our supporters were building the trends bottoms up, people were contributing to it, and lots of ideas were coming about. That was more important. To us trending was more important and that showed that the campaign was being built from ground up. That was the hallmark of the campaign. This campaign was built by the workers and volunteers, helped by the volunteers, funded by the volunteers, and executed by the volunteers. The big achievement was how we used technology to organize online and success was offline. Basically we organized a lot of volunteers online but the execution happened offline.
During the campaign phase, you would have generated and gathered a lot of data about voters, what they were saying, what their concerns were, etc. At the same time, the data would have been quite noisy. How did you go about filtering the data to extract and analyze the relevant bits while ignoring the irrelevant and junk data?
Based on lots of big data and analytics, which we used, we knew which are the pockets which are internet dark or digital dark, and that is where deployed more volunteers. The big data and analytics tools that we used, and I can talk only at a very top level, were one of the most sophisticated. We used social, mobile, and analytics, all on the cloud. We used all of that.
BJP’s big digital war room was also in the news during the elections ? Can you give as a feel of what it was all about?
It was the National Digital Operations Center at our headquarter in Delhi, and was the nerve center of all our digital and online activities. It was coordinating all our volunteers’ activities, all donation activities, the social media activities, and the Internet campaign.
Would you believe that the 2014 campaign was a defining moment in Indian electoral politics in terms of how elections would be contested in the future and how technology will increasingly play a major role in it?
I have three responses to that. It is a hallmark election in many ways. For the first time in 30 years there is a clear majority for the government; for the first time ever a clear majority for our party; and technology was used in a very effective manner. I personally believe that this will be the trend going forward, and digital campaigns are here to stay. This is a good trend because it offers better RoI in campaigning, better accountability, more transparency, and most importantly it will help in a big way in bringing down election costs. That is a very big advantage.
Since you talked about election costs, can you share with us the total budget of Narendra Modi’s election campaign?
Sorry, we cannot divulge our budgets, but I would like to tell you two things. This campaign was completely funded by the people, and run by the people.
Now that BJP has set the trend in terms of leveraging technology to reach and influence voters, the next time opposition parties will also use technology. What will BJP’s differentiator then?
I would not like to comment on what other parties would do, but let me tell you that no amount of good marketing can sell a bad product. We have only used technology to amplify our good message and good product. And we will continue to do that.
Now that BJP has used technology and social media at the national level and tasted success, do you see it being deployed in local elections such as state elections, municipal elections, local bodies, etc?
We are already doing it at the local levels.
But I have not seen it, for instance, did not see technology being used much in the recent Haryana assembly elections.
That is good, because that means our campaign is working. You see, we do not want people in big cities to see it. We want relevant people in Hisar, Panipat, and Jind to be touched by that.