NaMo: The ‘everyday’ guy to ‘friends’ and ‘followers’

First published in The Pioneer, (July 20, 2013)

Ashok Gehlot tried to marshal Turkish hordes to combat NaMo’s Facebook popularity but failed; that’s because the BJP’s poster boy tweets non-pontificating messages about life as it touches him at every corner.

Not all of us may Tweet, but most of us are on Facebook, right? Yes, even children are Facebookers, according to a 2011 Consumer Surveys report, which said that five million children under the age of 10, and 7.5 million children under the age of 13 were happily posting pictures and comments that their uncles, moms and dads, and their grandparents were accessing. If you are not savvy enough to carefully choose who you are going to friend, and who you are going to “un-friend”, Facebook may prove disastrous to one’s social life, even children’s, but we are getting ahead of the narrative here. Social media may prove dangerous to your social life and your political standing, unless you happen to be as savvy and charismatic as Narendra Modi.

As of May 1, 2013 there were 1.11 billion Facebook users. Of them 665 million were active users each day — those who post something or log on to view their page. It seems some of them are permanent residents on the site as readers will note, posting hundreds of messages, everything from what they ate to whatever they did in their wasking hours. They will also post pictures of themselves and others, clad or unclad, and get into trouble. But they will also post messages that are a record of events as they are unfolding, as it happened to this author whose first act, after being jolted by an earthquake in the small town of Farmville in Virginia in 2011, was to post a message on Facebook. At the end of 2004 there were one million users of Facebook. When this author became a member in January 2008 there were already about 75 million users. By the end of 2013 there could well be 1.5 billion users. Not all of them have the satisfaction of getting 2.5 million “likes” as does Mr Modi, nor achieve the status of rapper Eminem with some 73 million “likes”.

And people tweet — the famous, the notorious, and the ordinary. Even the Pope tweets now, and he is going to grant “indulgences” to Catholic followers, who might spend shorter time in purgatory if they tweet about their sins. Tweets will not earn you free coffee from vending machines, the Pope’s spokesman Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli says, but who wants free coffee when what is being offered is a less scalding time in hell or a shorter wait in purgatory!

There are all kinds of records being set by those who use Twitter to send their messages crafted using 140 characters or less. The Japanese, the world’s most technophile people, sent 33,388 tweets per second to begin 2013. A friend tweets Haikus, one-upping the Japanese, who these days seem no more than a nation of electronic addicts. Twitter is two years younger than Facebook but has set its own records, and which has its own tales of horror, despair, tragedy, and silliness as people mindlessly tweet with feet in their mouths. About 58 million tweets are sent every day by its nearly 550 million users, and Twitter is expected to earn ad revenues totaling 400 million dollars this year. There are the seekers of attention, high and low, from the Shashi Tharoors who can’t seem to get enough adulation from their followers to the bored teens disconnected from the real world sending out messages of loss and despair.

On Facebook, people gauge each other’s popularity by the number of “friends” they have and how many “likes” they got on the messages they post. No doubt, for those hankering attention or seeking “friends” there are new ways to do it, as Ashok Gehlot, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan recently showed. Given that his neighboring state Gujarat has a Chief Minister who is very popular on social media, and has a very large following on Facebook — about 2.4 million — Mr Gehlot simply decided to buy Facebook “friends”. There are now businesses that will provide you “friends” and “likes” on Facebook for a price.

Gehlot’s new friends, strangely enough, seemed to be Turks, and one doesn’t know how much he paid which company to earn him this foreign following. It is reported that one can buy a thousand friends for about Rs 2,800, adding an interesting twist to the phrase “cheap friends”. Gehlot seemed to have 215,000 friends this month, up from the paltry 169,000 in May. He still has a long way to go to catch up with his BJP nemesis from the neighboring state, but given the Congress’ obsession with Modi anything might happen, including the possibility that next month Mr Gehlot has pipped Mr Modi by a few thousand followers having spent a few million rupees on earning their alien trust.

No politician in India has acquired the status and following on social media as Mr Modi has. He not only Facebooks, but he also tweets. And despite the hounding by his political opponents and a biased media Mr Modi has not only stood above the competition but in so doing acquired even more fervid fans that fight the battles for him on social media.

Rahul Gandhi, the handsome scion and anointed leader of the Congress Party, despite all the cunning and power of the party apparatchiks in moulding his image has managed to get only about 277,000 “likes” on his Facebook page. As genuine and natural as plastic he has little to say and less to boast about. The mute and dyspeptic looking Manmohan Singh somehow has managed to appear on Facebook too, and seems to be doing better than the “anointed heir”, with about 396,000 people, bought or convinced, liking his page. The handsome Shashi Tharoor, winner of the 2013 Digital Media Award, and with more than 100,000 Twitter followers, is also no match for Narendra Modi. Despite his ordinary visage the passion Modi evokes among his millions of followers across the country and the Diaspora can only be gauged if you are his Twitter or Facebook follower.

There are many reasons for Mr Modi’s popularity but the overriding one is that he has got some information to convey in almost all of his tweets and his Facebook messages. He is also a natural denizen of the social media world and truly seems to enjoy posting Facebook messages, and sending tweets. There is no grandstanding, nor does he hold forth on the state of the Indian poor, the Indian women, or the shenanigans of India’s rich and corrupt. What he usually posts are snippets about his latest visit to a college, a conversation he has had with an industrialist or a religious leader, or the newest project the state has launched to provide education to the poor or to strengthen the earning capacity of women. Modi comes across as a doer — not a pontificating and hectoring pundit or as a cunning politician. Of course, all of his social media appeal might not translate to enough votes for himself and his party in next year’s general election but that is not the point for us or, as it seems, to him. May his tribe increase, across social media and in the villages and towns of India, and there could still be hope for good governance in the country and in turn the real worth of social media.

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