Rise in Twitter followers for Rahul Gandhi is real or just a technical technique?


People at large and even the peer group often judge, or misjudge, political leaders by their communication competence. For the sake of analysis, it may be worthwhile to place a political leader’s communication skill in three broad categories: oratorical prowess, organizational communication, and expertise in dealing with the media. All three require special skills and do not follow set patterns. Let’s examine each of these.

The most popular leaders of any generation, more often than not, have been remarkable orators. Public speaking is a craft which requires language skills, flair and substance. Most importantly, it requires the power to convince the audience about a line of argument. People often use oratory as a key metric to judge a leader’s honesty of purpose. History is replete with examples where oratory has galvanized political parties to great successes. India has been blessed with leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, who have swayed the masses with their oratory.

The second—organizational communication—has many things in common with the corporate and business world. Political organisations, like any other, are living entities. For a political leader, internal communication is as much a priority as connecting with the outside world. The role of organisational communication is absolutely critical in keeping the flock together in a country like India where sensitivities run deep along caste, sub-caste and religious lines. Organisational communication—intra-party as well as intra-alliance—is essential to dovetail the ambitions and aspirations of leaders, while ensuring that their personal animosities and conflicting voices do not come in the way of smooth functioning of the organisation.

This brings us to the third aspect of political communication: expertise in dealing with the media. The world of media is witnessing seismic changes. Internet and the advent of social media are, by far, the most defining innovations in the media space in the modern era. In many ways, social media, greatly supported by internet penetration have democratized the world of news and information. Twitter and Facebook are platforms that now allow political leaders to directly connect with people to disseminate information, engage with a larger audience. It has also considerably shrunk the distance between the leadership and the people.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s remarks on Twitter and the professed rise in his social media popularity needs to be analysed. News reports about his soaring popularity has forced many within his party, and some analysts, to see it as a sign of revival of the Congress political fortunes.

There have been media analyses on how Gandhi’s follower base on Twitter has jumped by a million in just a week. This has been credited to a social media strategy by a new team. Instant punditry informed us that the aggressive social media outreach by the Congress has the BJP on the back foot.

Really? There are now reports that suggest the jump in Gandhi’s Twitter following, as well as the growing volume of retweets of his comments, are primarily carried out by ‘bots’ — an inanimate software-driven effort, located abroad — and not connected to any human. While the jury is still out on this, the chain of events hold out lessons in political communication. There is no dispute over the fact that media is a critical tool in building, or rebuilding, a political leader’s image and profile. That said, one should be careful about the risks of getting lulled into an illusory comfort zone. Politics is a distinctively human activity. Its practice cannot be divorced from human interactions.

Besides bots, Gandhi’s social media presence experienced some natural growth too. But the question is why have suddenly some people started admiring Rahul Gandhi? I see three reasons behind this.

Firstly, any one seems to be close to challenging Modi during Gujarat assembly elections becomes a darling of left liberals, whose only dream is to see Modi perish. Secondly, the same set of people who once saw Nitish Kumar as Modi’s challenger are now, after Kumar’s cross over to NDA, finding hope in Rahul Gandhi. Thirdly, the economic slowdown and perverted campaign around it has given them a small window to challenge Modi. However, none of these are natural Congress supporters or see a great leader in Gandhi, instead they are largely driven by their anti-Modi sentiments.

Thus Congress forgets that such campaign, built around false perception, alone cannot make Rahul Gandhi a leader. Instead of drawing legitimacy through social media he has to prove his credentials to masses and common people of India who have repeatedly rejected him despite him enjoying undisputed support of his party for a long time.

Gandhi’s decline as a politician emanates from his Lok Sabha constituency, Amethi, where his victory win margin was reduced to 1,07,903 in 2014 from 3,70,198 in 2009. Even ‘UP ke ladake’ campaign and alliance with the Samajwadi Party did not help his party in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections as Congress registered its worst performance in the state. In recent years, Gandhi has miserably failed in state elections too. Sample this, since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, India has witnessed state elections in 16 states. Congress was in power in 7 of the 16 states; Gandhi couldn’t retain even a single state except wrest Punjab, Bihar and Puducherry. However, most of the political analysts credited the Punjab victory to Capt Amrinder Singh , Bihar to the Mahagathbandhan, and Puducherry is too tiny a state to give legitimacy to Gandhi.

The grammar of social media conversations is a rapidly evolving chapter. Overplayed rhetoric blared out using outsourced artificial intelligence (AI) tools can be an extremely misleading metric. AI, after all, are not rooted to social realities. There is the apocryphal story of Sherlock Holmes waking up Dr Watson in the middle of a night and asking him to describe what he saw above. An excited Dr Watson exclaimed that he was awestruck at the sight of the sky with hundreds of shining stars. An enraged Mr Holmes shouted: “Watson…someone stole our tent”.

Establishing a correlation between Gandhi’s soaring bot driven Twitter following and his political revival could well be symptomatic of a similar syndrome. After all, in such a post-truth world, it can be tempting to ignore the obvious signals emanating from the ground, which can be contrary to what AI tools suggest. As far as Rahul Gandhi’s skills in public oratory and organisational communication are concerned, I leave it to the readers’ experience and discretion.

(This has not been edited by gmedia.news and is from Economic Times.)

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