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Decode

How Madhya Pradesh Emerged At The Heart Of BJP's Influencer Strategy

Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, CAA and more — Malay Dixit and his social media army work as an extended arm of BJP’s IT Cell across Madhya Pradesh to push the narrative of the saffron party in the assembly elections and now the ongoing Lok Sabha Polls.

By - Kashif Kakvi | 16 May 2024 9:56 AM GMT

Bhopal: A week after Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra trust announced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will unveil the Ram temple in Ayodhya on January 22, 2024, Malay Dixit, Indore BJP IT Cell’s district president, teamed up with a group of 250 social media Influencers for a “Ramotsav Yatra” to cover the 'Ram Van Gaman Path'.

The Ram Van Gaman Path is a route that is believed to have been taken by lord Ram while returning to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana from present day Sri Lanka.

With little knowledge of Ramayana, the young breed of social media influencers equipped with fancy cameras and mobiles, drowned in devotion, made dozens of reels and vlogs in a month-long 2300-km journey to Ayodhya from Rameshwaram to prove their devotion to lord Ram and pushed Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) narrative portraying Narendra Modi as builder of the Ram Temple.

“We are a group of nationalist social media workers, who support the government on nationalist issues like Ram Temple, Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Modi Ke Guarantee, Tiranga Yatra and many others,” Malay Dixit told Decode. “Each influencer, who was part of the journey, made numerous videos or vlogs and pumped it to their followers. And their videos went viral like never before.”

Studied Diploma in Electronics and Telecommunication after intermediate, Malay joined the BJP at the age of 18. But it was in 2017-18, when Madhya Pradesh was heading for assembly polls, he started working with the social media influencers as an active member of BJP IT Cell identifying block and district-wise influencers.

By the next election 2023, Malay, under the banner of All India Influencers Association, started a group of 3,000 social media influencers across the state that controls the social media narrative in the state.

Not just Ram Temple or CAA, Malay and his social media army work as an extended arm of BJP’s IT Cell across Madhya Pradesh to push the narrative of the saffron party in the assembly elections and now the ongoing Lok Sabha Polls.

When Rahul Gandhi attacked the BJP for the hype created over Ram Temple and silence over unemployment saying, “Modi Ji Chahte hai ke Aap din bhar Mobile me raho, Jai Shree Ram bolo, aur bhuke mar jao (Modi ji wants you to stay on your phones, say Jai Shree Ram and die of hunger)” Dixit and his influencer team ran counter narrative branding Gandhi as anti-Ram.

He also made a video countering Gandhi, “Ram ke Naam se Desh me Yuva Bhuka Mar Raha hai Khane wale Rahul Gandhi ko sirf itna hi kahna chahta hu ke Ram ke naam per vikas ho raha hai, logo ko swarozgar mil raha hai… Jo Ram ka nahi ko kisi kaam ka nahi. (I want to tell Rahul Gandhi who is Ram to suggest people are dying of hunger that it is on Ram’s name that development is happening, employment is being generated”)

“Whenever we see any nationalist issue, we provide content, concept, pointers and punchlines to our social media influencers who improvise it as per their target audience and make videos in local dialect,” he said, adding that they also monitor the output to avoid lawsuits and violation of social media community guidelines.

This is done through multiple WhatsApp groups where Malay has added the influencers to work on content that they want.

The BJP IT cell member explained that his team shares the content in various groups and channels on WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook, and others. Many videos or memes that suit the party's narratives are shared on the party’s surrogate pages on social media.

Malay and his social media team made numerous such videos against opposition leaders, Rahul Gandhi, YouTuber Dhruv Rathee and others, whenever they questioned the policies and governance of Narendra Modi-led NDA government. “This helps influencers grow their fan base and at the same time propel our nationalist idea to the masses,” he said.

Malay was instrumental in BJP’s social media strategy in 2023 assembly polls in the state and he successfully organised many meetings of influencers with BJP leaders and its sympathizers.

Malay claimed that when he started identifying district-wise social media influencers, many didn’t know how to use the tools of the platform, had no understanding of content, how to improve their reach and knew little of the larger upcoming social media industry. “I handholded them to become full-fledged influencers and roped them in with commercial and advertising companies to earn a living,” he claimed.

Indore's social media influencers – Veer Sharma and Parul Ahirwar – who together have over two million followers, were also part of his militia. They were not only part of the “Ramotsav Yatra” but also made many videos for the BJP and its leaders in the run up to the 2023 assembly elections.

Malay pointed out that not all 3,000 social media influencers follow BJP’s ideology or push their narrative in fear of losing followers and credibility but majority of them tow his line.

Doldrums of Social Media Influencers

When Bhopal-based marketing professional-turned-social media influencer, Aamir Khan (29) was offered to campaign for a political party in the run-up to the 2023 assembly elections, he turned down the ‘lucrative offer’ fearing it would mean disappointing his followers.

“Elections are seasonal, but the followers are permanent. I have a commitment to my organic followers, which I don’t want to liquidate for political parties or their leaders who often deceive voters or switch sides to save their defeat in the next election,” he said. Khan has 408k followers on YouTube and 128k followers on Instagram.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party spent a total of Rs 325 crore for media advertisement (print and electronic, bulk SMS, cable website, TV channel, etc) while Congress incurred an expenditure of Rs 356 crore, according to the Election Commission. Experts believe that in this election, the expenses on social media campaigns are going to be doubled in comparison to the last one.



The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) weekly magazine Organiser in a recent article noted that the meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with gamers was a ‘groundbreaking outreach programme’. “This engagement with gamers comes on the heels of another noteworthy event where Prime Minister Modi honored social media influencers at the inaugural National Creators Awards in March. Notably, many of the awardees at the event were known for their right-wing affiliations, signaling the government’s efforts to engage with diverse segments of society, including digital content creators,” the article noted. The RSS is the ideological parent of the BJP.

In an event held in Delhi on March 8, 2024, the prime minister felicitated awards to 23 content creators, introducing the National Creators Award.

In its analysis, Decode had found that 15 of the 23 winners had posted content that falls in at least one of these three categories: religious content, meeting BJP leaders, or endorsing the ruling party's politics or ideology.

“The new breed of influencers have the ability to sway over a large number of audiences. With this award, the government wants to ensure that they are on their side,” said Ankit Lal, founder of Politique Advisor and former IT Cell head of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) .

The social media industry has distinguished influencers into four categories, explained Ankit Lal to Decode. First, ‘nano’ influencers, with upto 10,000 followers, are cost-effective and ideal for small to medium-sized businesses with limited budgets. Second, micro-influencers, having 10K-100K followers, are suitable for any brand aiming to reach new audiences. Third, macro influencers, ranging from 1-10 lakh followers, are well-suited for brands seeking to reach large audiences. Fourth, mega influencers, with more than 10 lakh followers, offer the opportunity to reach large audiences and create high-quality professional content.

“In the Lok Sabha polls, the parties are luring macro and mega influencers to reach a wider audience,” he said.

"With the internet penetration of 40 percent, in an assembly constituency of an average of two lakh voters, it is possible to reach out 50,000 to 75,000 users through influencers. Even a difference of 5,000 votes is a good win-loss margin in any assembly election,” Lal said.

A Bhopal-based political social media PR expert, Sublah Singh, who founded Sociyo Communication in 2017, said that parties are deploying ‘in-house influencers’ supported by the leaders, who create content for the party and its surrogate pages and handles. Then there are party- or ideology-oriented influencers who only work for a particular group/party and promote their ideas and people. The third and the most important are neutral influencers who have a sizable following of floating voters, he said.

In Madhya Pradesh itself, the BJP, the Congress, and other regional parties have organised several meet-ups with groups of influencers from the district to national level, to either co-opt them or make them promote the party’s ideologies and narratives on their accounts.

But many influencers like Aamir refused to liquidate their hard-earned followers for what they call a “short-term gain”.

Another influencer from Rewa, Kamta Prasad Sen (33), who runs a YouTube channel named ‘TeenPanch’ in Bagheli regional language, claimed to have turned down multiple such offers. “Our team voted against the political campaigning as they fear that this will hurt our audience, who come from all the classes, religions, and parties,” he said.

Many influencers feel that promoting the policies and leaders of the ruling dispensation or a political party that is facing anti-incumbency would hurt their follower base.

Two other influencers who run YouTube channels in MP’s native Bundeli language - Himalaya Yadav, Raju Shukla - also refused to push political content as the parties wanted them to.

They were part of the cohort who were called at the CM Office between June and July last year in the run-up to the assembly polls to drum up support for the BJP.

On the other hand, many influencers, such as Indore's Veer Sharma, who was also part of the cohort, saw it as an opportunity to gain influence not only on social media but also in political circles. Like Veer, many worked for the BJP and its candidates in the 2023 assembly polls. “We have roped in over 150 micro and macro social media influencers across Madhya Pradesh to propagate the party's message to young voters,” said Abhishek Sharma, Madhya Pradesh BJP’s Social Media in charge.

“We are replicating the strategy of 2023 assembly polls in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections,” he said.

“It’s voluntary,” Sharma emphasised. “At the influencers’ meet, we show the change brought in by our government in terms of policies and development. We tried convincing them to convey our message to the masses, and many agreed to it.”

When questioned why they would work for the party for free, he said, “We help them increase their online fan base or followers and give them access to our political circles. It's a win-win situation for both.”

Although Abhishek Sharma refutes any monetary assistance to social media influencers, a 35-year-old influencer from Bundelkhand, who worked for the BJP with their group of seven-eight influencers in the assembly polls, said, “We were offered Rs 10-20K for a reel and 30-40K for a three-minute-long video.”

He also claimed that they created engaging content for local candidates but in subtle ways.

Malay Dixit meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Malay Dixit/Instagram

While the BJP is taking a digital-first approach to reach out to voters, the Madhya Pradesh Congress is still taking the old roads. “Six months before the 2023 Madhya Pradesh Assembly polls, I met with party president Kamal Nath, proposing to engage social media influencers to reach out to voters. But he didn’t show any interest, and it cost the party,” said a senior Congress leader of Madhya Pradesh.

When asked about engaging influencers ahead of the 2024 LS elections, Abhinav Baroliya, vice president of MP Congress social media in-charge, said, “Protesting students, unemployed youths, distressed farmers and women, who are feeling the pinch of inflation, are our influencers. Besides, our social media teams in districts play the role of micro influencers and raise local issues.”

Change in strategy

Over the past few years, political parties have shifted from traditional door-to-door campaigning methods, and focusing on social media influencers. Through subtle ways and casual interviews, these social media personalities act as an effective medium for the parties to percolate to the urban and rural spaces and reach the critical, persuadable vote bank.

“The BJP has already hit the saturation level in terms of ground connection. However, the millennial and floating voters are still away from the party. That’s why they are putting a lot of thrust on influencers, who come from different walks of life and have the ability to influence them," PR professional Sublah Singh explained.

“By engaging neutral influencers, it would be easy for the party to tap on floating voters. Thus, the party is devising new methods and also luring influencers,” he added.

The BJP, lately, tried to engage with the voters by sending them a personalized 'Letter from the Prime Minister' on WhatsApp - which has over 500 million active users monthly in India - highlighting the achievements of the Narendra Modi government and seeking feedback from voters. However, it stopped after the Election Commission of India vetoed it in the light of the Model Code of Conduct.

The party also launched the website 'My First Vote For Modi,' which allows visitors to pledge to vote in favor of Modi and submit a video stating the reason behind their decision. The website also hosts several short videos boasting the work and achievements of the NDA government.

Also Read:How A BJP Hired Consultancy Is Running Troll Accounts Using YouTube Stars

On the other hand, the Congress runs WhatsApp and Telegram groups in which Rahul Gandhi is said to interact with people and respond to their queries. Besides, the opposition leader is extensively using YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and influencers to reach out to the masses. The party also used influencers during the two phases of Bharat Jodo Yatras to spread its message.

When asked if influencers are replacing the space traditionally occupied by journalists, Ankit Lal said, “They (influencers) never said that they are producing news or that they are objectively questioning the politicians they are interviewing. Questions are usually prepared in a way that benefits both parties – the interviewer and the interviewee."

No law to control social media?

To ensure accountability in political messaging on social media platforms during polls, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has assured to keep a close watch on influencers.

In the detailed guidelines, the ECI has said that those who indulge in providing indirect publicity to political parties and candidates are under watch. It is mandatory for political parties as well as individuals to keep details of expenditure incurred on social media advertisements. The expenses will be accounted for in the total election expenditure incurred by the candidates.

Besides, all social networking sites have also been asked to maintain expenditures incurred by the political parties and individual candidates on social media advertisements.

Experts say that parties were leveraging the lack of regulations around social media influencer marketing. “We don’t have any specific regulations on advertising on social media. It is like you are sitting in a restaurant and you say it is great. You may not disclose it as a paid promotion, and nobody gets to know if it’s paid or not,” said Abhijeet Gautam, founder of BlueWhistle social media advertising company.

Over the paid political campaigning, Indore-based influencer Veer Sharma said, “As long as you are not promoting anything wrong, it is fine. Even though I made some promotional videos for the BJP, I never took the money. Celebrities are always approached to push the government's views and schemes.”

Abhijeet explained, “Influencers are not accountable to keep the journalistic standards during their interview. I believe in India, digital penetration has happened at a much faster pace than digital literacy; the problem lies here, and no one is talking about it. Therefore, the distinction between what is factual and what is fabricated has become blurred, and this trend is increasing.”

“While they play a significant role in engaging citizens and mobilizing voters, concerns over ethics, transparency, and misinformation must be addressed,” he said, adding that it is also essential for citizens to critically assess information, cross-verify facts, and rely on credible sources to make informed decisions that uphold democratic values.


This is a part of Decode series ‘Viral For Votes’, where we track content creators and their role in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.