It is a truth universally acknowledged that a politician of some standing in today’s world will have a social network account. The number of followers a politician has on that account are in direct proportion to their popularity and acceptance among the general public. No wonder then that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was among the first Indian politicians to realize the power of social media and harness it, is the second most followed world leader on Twitter. The first is US President Donald Trump, in case you are wondering.
After President Ram Nath Kovind was sworn in on 25 July, news started doing the rounds that the new President had acquired more than 3 million followers on Twitter within hours of taking office. Screenshots of the Twitter account of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official Twitter handle, were shared by mainstream TV news organizations which showed clearly that the account had 3.32 million followers, even though it itself followed only one other account; that of POI13, the archive of former President Pranab Mukherjee’s official account.
Twitter has been a phenomenon in India since 2012 but it really exhibited its power, at least politically and as a space where public mood could be gauged, only in the run-up to the 2014 election. By now, social networking platforms’ influence over public debate, policies and even elections is quite well established internationally. Hence the news that the new President had garnered such a big following within a few hours was meant to convey the extent of his popularity. Since Kovind has largely been a backstage figure in Indian politics, this enormous stamp of approval could also be interpreted as the approval of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s presidential choice.
Except that there was one tiny hitch; and Alt News, an anti propaganda and fact-checking website, was quick to point it out. As it turns out, the new President had not garnered all these new followers, he had simply inherited them along with the handle. “Official twitter accounts of the President, VP, various ministries are considered digital assets that belong to the government," Alt News reported. While the tweets of the former presidency were archived, the new account, once a new occupant is in place, begins with zero tweets. It is a process that is followed by Twitter in the case of all its official accounts. Interestingly, the NDA and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) were left a little red-faced in 2014 when the latter archived the tweets of @pmoIndia and left the account open to public. A teenager from Lucknow was quick to grab the handle but Twitter got it back from him.
“The more interesting story in all of this was the archiving of the 13th President’s Twitter account. It is next to impossible to get so many followers in the matter of a few hours," says B.G. Mahesh, one of the members of PM Modi’s digital campaign in the run-up to the 2014 general elections. “In India it is important for a politician to have a social media presence but a sizable chunk of the population still consumes news through traditional sources and as such vigilance on their part is also equally important," he said, referring to news reports about the followers. A social networking account in this day and age serves to make the politician and the office he/she holds more open to the public, leading to some direct intervention and changes. However, it can also lead to some embarrassing moments, or several, almost every week as US President Donald Trump demonstrates.
The office of the President may largely be a symbolic one in India but interaction with the public is still important, which is why the 13th Presidency of India started an account. “President Mukherjee leveraged Twitter extensively to make it easier for citizens to stay connected with Rashtrapati Bhavan…his handle is being archived now. This tradition ensures that…the people of India will benefit from continued real time engagement with his successor," said Omita Paul, secretary to the president, in a statement released by Twitter India. If only the enthusiastic news managers at TV stations would take time to understand the process.