Punjab polls: Digital soldiers driving Congress agenda, countering propaganda | #socialmedia

On January 5, as all hell broke loose with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launching a full-on attack on the Congress government in Punjab, demanding action for the “serious security lapse” during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden visit to the poll-bound state in two years, the virtual world was flooded by a counteroffensive targeting the saffron party on the poor turnout at the Ferozepur rally that the PM was forced to skip.

Short video clips, photos and posts with stinging captions using hashtags such as #70000Kursi700Bande, #Modi_Ka_Jhoot_Sabse_Mazboot and Punjab_Virodhi_Modi started circulating in the social media, and soon #Punjab_Maaf_Nahin_Karega campaign to “bring out the truth” about the incident became trending.

The counteroffensive was piloted by a 35-strong team of the Congress, working out of a nondescript office spread over two floors in Sector 70, Mohali. The social media war room has been buzzing with digital soldiers — a mix of young techies, graphic designers, audio and video experts, volunteers and election strategists, who are closely tracking social media, creating crisp posts, putting out video clips and creating graphics to give the party a leg up in the high-stakes battle to retain power in Punjab.

They have been putting out positive posts on WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter day after day for the past three-and-a-half months through campaigns such as #LokaanDiSarkar and #PunjabDiChangiSarkar to highlight power rate cut, loan waiver, farmer benefits, pro-women steps, employment generation initiatives, Scheduled Caste benefits and other achievements of the state government. In addition, they keep scrolling social media posts of rival parties to counter their online propaganda, particularly targeting the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on its Delhi model and chief ministerial face, and the BJP on farmers’ issues, inflation, communal disharmony and fuel prices.

Talking numbers

The digital media team has created “pipelines” for digital outreach on messaging and social media platforms. Gaurav Pandhi, the Congress’ national coordinator, digital communications and social media, said that there are 13,000-odd WhatsApp groups having more than 9.1 lakh members to reach out to party supporters and voters through three messages a day, besides a WhatsApp channel with another 10,000 subscribers who are sent messages daily.

The plan is to double the number of WhatsApp groups in the next 10 days. “We have a huge network of party leaders, workers and volunteers on the ground. Once we decide an issue, create digital content and share it with everyone, they all talk about it and take the party’s message to the grassroots,” Pandhi said, juggling the 10-odd mobile phones — his weapons in this digital battle — lying in front of him.

On Facebook, the response has grown significantly with the Punjab Congress’ official page having an outreach of 1.9 crore in the past one week and post-engagement of 77 lakh in the form of likes and shares for posts put out in Punjabi, Hindi and English. Punjab Congress’ state social media coordinator Samraat Dhingra said the digital agenda and messaging is decided in the meeting of the strategy group with inputs from senior state leaders, including Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi and campaign committee chairman Sunil Jakhar. “Weekly agendas are set up and content is generated accordingly,” he said. Both Sidhu and Channi also have their own separate teams for their own promotion on social media.

The numbers have given a big fillip to the ruling Congress in Punjab in view of the “campaign curfew” imposed by the Election Commission to check Omricon-driven Covid-19 surge. The poll panel has banned super-spreader events, such as rallies, road shows and street corners, making social media the key driver for parties to maximise their voter outreach. Punjab has the highest mobile teledensity of 122.19 mobile phone connections per 100 persons, according to the Niti Aayog Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) India Index 2020-21. The Internet penetration is also the best among the major states with 84.32 subscribers per 100 persons.

The Punjab Congress’ social media team was operating from the chief minister’s residence till September 2021 with a staff of five, and being overseen by Nirvan Singh, the grandson of then chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh. In October, it moved to Mohali, and has grown in leaps and bounds in both its size and outreach, but its impact will be known on March 10, the day the poll results are slated to be announced.

Interview with Gaurav Pandhi, Congress national coordinator, digital communications and social media.

What role do you see for social media in this election?

It’s very important. Campaigning is shifting to digital medium. Right now, it’s being pushed by the Election Commission, but this has to happen eventually. Everything, including governance, is going digital, so why not the path to elect the government? We were already preparing, but it is going to be challenging as the entire focus has suddenly shifted to social media.

How do you engage with party leaders and voters?

We are totally in sync with the thinking of the party leadership. We are fortunate to have leaders who understand social media. As for voters, we reach out to them over WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram. We also do campaigns on Twitter. We are making the best use of social media. Earlier, the AAP was leading, but we are ahead for the past couple of weeks.

Are you using influencers?

Fortunately, we have not so far, because we already have a huge network and influence on social media. We would need them if our presence is not there and we are just trying to pretend.

Can you name your three most successful campaigns?

#LokanDiSarkar, campaigns against the BJP’s propaganda on PM’s security, and #Pegwant that was done by our volunteers. Also, #111CongressDubara and #Congress_Hi_Aaugi are doing well.

How do you maintain balance between leaders like Sidhu, Channi and Jakhar?

I work for the Congress, for the hand symbol, and my leader is Rahul Gandhi. We are very clear on protocols. If you see any of our official campaigns, you will find their photos on it. All the leaders have been cooperative.

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