Indian politicians understand that sense of humour, sarcasm or name-calling has a wider reach, and more likes online mean more votes. The BJP’s Rahul is ‘pappu’ campaign is the biggest example. (Jayachandran/Mint)
Indian politicians understand that sense of humour, sarcasm or name-calling has a wider reach, and more likes online mean more votes. The BJP’s Rahul is ‘pappu’ campaign is the biggest example. (Jayachandran/Mint)

Elections 2019: What tweet for tat tells you about Rahul Gandhi

  • From Rahul Gandhi being a ‘pappu’ to his ‘chowkidar chor hai’ campaign against Narendra Modi, Twitter is the battleground of wit
  • From being the subject of insults, ‘pappu’ has transformed himself into the master of insults on Twitter

On the evening of 11 April, as the first phase of India’s marathon elections wound to a close, Samajwadi Party chief and former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav took to Twitter to reflect on the significance of humanity’s first-ever snapshot of a black hole, which had been released to the public only a few hours ago. “Ab to black hole bhi dikh gaya. Bas achche din hi hain jo nazar nahi aatey (We have even seen a black hole now, but ‘acche din’ are still out of sight)," he wrote. Within minutes, that short, pithy one-liner was retweeted hundreds of times.

Whether Yadav understands the actual significance of the black hole image or not, he does have a firm grip on one aspect of Indian politics: insults work. They have power. They can be useful. And they can inform a great deal about particular moments in politics.

This poll season, the Election Commission has been sent scrambling several times due to the use of insults—targeted at individuals, communities, and even geographic regions (Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah said it was difficult to make out whether Rahul Gandhi’s Wayanad rally happened in India or Pakistan). Why do politicians rely so often on insult though? It is of course a guaranteed applause line at an election rally, garners instant media attention, and if one is lucky, perhaps some votes. But it is hard to quantify these effects—until now.

Most politicians these days are active on Twitter and often choose to bypass traditional media and speak directly via online channels. Every tweet can be tagged, analyzed and tracked on metrics of virality. And a sample of every tweet since 1 January 2017 (over 19,000 of them hand-coded for insults or confrontational language) by five top politicians—Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Akhilesh Yadav, Rahul Gandhi, and Mamata Banerjee—throws up some interesting findings.

Insults clearly increase traction and politicians instinctively know it. On average, a tweet that includes an insult is significantly more likely to be retweeted, with retweet rates ranging from 32-101% higher than a normal tweet. Congress president Rahul Gandhi has become a master of the insult genre and his political makeover is closely tied in with an ability to insult effectively, which, data shows, began in earnest in the final months of 2017. Wielding insults is also a weapon of the opposition, as Akhilesh Yadav’s transformation shows once he stopped being the Uttar Pradesh chief minister.

Politics of name calling

The Indian political landscape, of course, has a long history when it comes to insults. During her early political career, former prime minister Indira Gandhi was dismissed as a “goongi gudiya" (dumb doll). Modi once called Sonia Gandhi a “Jersey cow". And Modi himself has been called everything from a thief to a merchant of death. But perhaps no other insult campaign has been as sustained and as politically effective as the pejorative nickname for Rahul Gandhi—“Pappu" (an immature person).

During much of the 2014 general election campaign, the Congress thought that social media wasn’t worth engaging in. Meanwhile, the cult of “pappu" was built into a powerful meme. Starting in 2013, even banal criticism of Modi would invite a furious backlash online but “pappu" jokes could be freely shared. However, things began to change in 2017. First, the “Office of Rahul Gandhi" came online. Then, after a short spell of benign tweeting, around the middle of 2017, Rahul discovered a new, edgy side (see chart 1). His tweets started to get noticed and retweeted aggressively (see chart 2).

Rahul Gandhi discovered an edgy, new side in late-2017. In the months since, nearly half of his tweets have included insulting or confrontational language.
Rahul Gandhi discovered an edgy, new side in late-2017. In the months since, nearly half of his tweets have included insulting or confrontational language.
The increasing trraction Rahul Gandhi began to receive since early 2018 uncannily overlaps with the period during which he began to insult more.
The increasing trraction Rahul Gandhi began to receive since early 2018 uncannily overlaps with the period during which he began to insult more.

In India, one can never go after demigods, and Modi astutely never allowed Rahul to become one, despite the attempted political makeover. If not “pappu", he was a “shehzada" (a princeling). The insult campaign against Rahul has been BJP’s biggest branding victory.

However, in terms of online visibility at least, Rahul began to turn the conversation around by early 2018. Among a subset of 4,931 known politicians active on Twitter, belonging to both the BJP and the Congress, the Congress began to consistently talk about Rahul more than they were talking about Modi. More importantly, Rahul went from being mentioned by less than 10% of BJP politicians to consistently finding space in over half of the ruling politicians’ tweets. And yet, he never became a demigod, arguably even within his own party. Even in the first quarter of 2019, there were 16 different trending hashtags with “pappu" in them, and only 14 with “Rahul".

Modi, meanwhile, has donned the role of a statesman since becoming the Prime Minister of India, at least on Twitter. It is the second rung of the BJP which has kept its Twitter blades sharpened. Rahul’s aggressive debut in late 2017 also coincided with the opening of the floodgates into a new era of antagonistic political messaging on social media. All the major parties were by then online, and many had realized their electoral prospects and brand images were sufficiently impacted by what happened on social media. Congress leaders joined Twitter en masse; Akhilesh Yadav went from chief minister of Uttar Pradesh to opposition leader; and Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee moved to openly confronting Modi, and presenting herself as the consolidator of the regional challenge to the BJP regime.

Regional satraps’ strategy

Mamata has for nearly two years focused significantly on potential allies in other parts of the country. Mamata’s “national ambitions" were initially crafted via banal Twitter greetings and birthday wishes, much before an “anti-BJP alliance" became a publicly stated political goal. The firebrand Bengali leader exchanged online pleasantries with many politicians, from Omar Abdullah to M.K. Stalin, through 2017 and 2018.

However, being a non-Hindi speaking leader has its limitations. Mamata has been pushed to tweet far more in English than Bangla (see chart 3), denting the projection of an online persona which is closer to her aggressive, street fighter image. The Mamata on Twitter is a far cry from the Mamata in real life, although, even online, the issue of a national strongman invading Bengal is one of her favourite topics.

Unlike Mamata, Akhilesh has turned almost entirely inward, with Uttar Pradesh-centric issues dominating his attention span. Up until mid-2017, he had very little confrontational posturing, but the proportion of antagonistic tweeting increased dramatically around late 2017—uncannily mirroring Rahul Gandhi. Something clearly changed in the “political hawa" in the run-up to the Gujarat polls of December 2017. Akhilesh who also largely tweeted in English till 2016 now relies almost exclusively on Hindi (see chart 3).

Mamata Banerjee mostly tweets in English in an effort to reach a wider national audience. Amit Shah and Akhilesh Yadav, however, rely heavily on Hindi.
Mamata Banerjee mostly tweets in English in an effort to reach a wider national audience. Amit Shah and Akhilesh Yadav, however, rely heavily on Hindi.

Unlike Rahul Gandhi and Amit Shah, whose antagonistic tweeting lean much more significantly towards name-calling, Akhilesh uses a quirky “Lucknowi" style of sarcasm, humour, and rhyme in his political attacks. Of all the politicians, Akhilesh is the most adept at metaphor and turns of phrase. In short, language and style are central to the public outreach of Akhilesh Yadav. As a result, almost unnoticed, Akhilesh has emerged as a key oppositional voice in the Twittersphere.

But the biggest beneficiary of online confrontation remains Rahul Gandhi, whose reach and virality have skyrocketed since the winter of 2017. Three significant findings emerge from a temporal analysis of Gandhi’s tweets. First, Rahul consistently gets more replies to his tweets than most other politicians and most of them tend to be from detractors. In short, while his messages are more viral, there is also a much more aggressive countering of his messages through direct replies.

Second, roughly half of his tweets since late-2017 have been either insults or confrontations. This period also overlapped with the highest jump in retweet rates for Rahul, and the data clearly suggests antagonistic tweeting has more reach. Finally, Rahul’s s anti-BJP message mostly focuses on corruption. This is distinct from Mamata, for instance, whose attacks on the BJP are relatively more about state rights and federalism.

On the BJP side, interestingly, both Amit Shah and Narendra Modi are far less likely to use confrontational language than the other three leaders. In no given quarter since early 2017 has Modi’s confrontational tweets been more than 10% of all tweets. The BJP’s online army of volunteers takes up a significant burden of the insult campaign, freeing up key leaders of the responsibility and offering plausible deniability.

But when Amit Shah does launch an online attack, it offers important insights into broader party strategy. In the run-up to the 2019 elections, the state leaders Shah has repeatedly attacked are Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee, not Akhilesh Yadav or Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati.

In conclusion

Insult and antagonistic exchanges have unfortunately become central to the electoral process. It does seem like Rahul Gandhi has picked up at least two important lessons from 2014: insults like “pappu" have immense power and corruption is a saleable political issue. The “chowkidar chor hai" campaign is an obvious byproduct of these lessons.

A pool of 8.4 million tweets since January 2019 from the accounts of 4,931 known politicians shows Congress attacks have heavily relied on the theme of corruption. The BJP, on the other hand, has made a decisive shift toward national security and cultural issues, a far cry from the “vikas" discourse of 2014. On 23 May, we will know which approach worked.

Ultimately, social media will not dictate the outcome of the election. That said, the online narrative war is here to stay. The new government post 23 May will have a short honeymoon and many vocal critics.

Andre Gonawela, Anmol Panda, Ramarvind K.M. and Ajai Sreevatsan contributed to this story.

The analysis in the charts is based on a samplof 19,954 tweets from the accounts of the top five politicians—Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Akhilesh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee. It includes every tweet since 1 January 2017.

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