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Decode

Influencers Drum Up Publicity For The Government Without Disclaimers

On the pretext of promoting ‘culture’, these Instagram influencers can be credited with creating a narrative for the incumbent party.

By - Hera Rizwan | 3 April 2024 6:52 AM GMT

"Yes we are primitive, and we are proud of it," the audio fades out as Harshvardhan Patel, a young social media influencer, walks through a temple in Ayodhya. He is dressed in traditional attire. This post on his profile has garnered lakhs of views and shares, with several people hailing Lord Ram in the comments. It has no mention of collaboration with any ministry or political party.

August 5, 2020, the day when the 'bhumi pujan' of Ayodhya's Ram Mandir took place, 17 year old Patel took it upon himself to document the project each step of the way. "We have waited so long for the temple to be constructed. I wanted to play a part in helping the world witness the journey," he told Decode.

Now 21, Patel is pursuing his graduation in tourism and has simultaneously managed to garner 2.5 million followers on his Instagram handle, which goes by the name of 'Ayodhyawale'. He claims to be the first influencer from Ayodhya to document Lord Ram’s legacy in such depth.

From August 5, 2020, to January 22, 2024, Patel has diligently documented every significant phase of the Ram Temple construction, from the arrival of the initial batch of bricks to partially completed corridors. His reels showcase Patel navigating among sculpted bricks, cranes, and loaders during the ongoing construction of the temple. These reels collectively garnered over 50 million views.

He was one of the few digital creators, who secured well-paid collaborations with brands and recognition by tourism ministries of BJP-led state governments, in the run up to Ram Mandir inauguration which happened on January 22.

When questioned about how he gained access to the restricted areas despite stringent security measures, Patel explained, "The government provided me with the access to the temple premises. However, those reels have not been created in exchange for any remuneration.”

Patel was also nominated for the National Creators Awards 2024 in the Cultural Ambassador category. Although he lost the award to Maithili Thakur, Patel was elated to have secured "second highest number of votes" in the category.

Just like Patel, his fellow nominee in the category, Akash Choudhary hailing from Varanasi, also runs an Instagram account which goes by the name of ‘Banarasi Bhaukal’. While Patel claims the distinction of being the inaugural digital creator to film inside the Ram Mandir, Choudhary asserts a similar honour regarding Varanasi’s Kashi Vishwanath Mandir.

He told Decode, “After I garnered a good number of followers, I just took a punt and wrote to the Regional Commissioner seeking permission to shoot inside the temple. Having sought his assent, I got the approval from the temple head as well.”

According to the digital creator, he was the first and remains the only one to have shot inside the premises of the temple and also the sayan aarti which happens at night.

Started in June 2018, the page gained an instant spike in followers in 2020, which Choudhary owes to the TikTok ban in the country.

“With the absence of TikTok in India, the rise of reels became prominent, providing us with a fresh avenue to connect with audiences. During that period, we surpassed the 10,000 mark and achieved subsequent milestones,” he said.

Talking about his inspiration behind starting the page, Choudhary said, “I felt the need to tell people about the rich culture of the holy city, which is not known to many beyond the city. I wanted my page to be a window to the exotic temples and exuberant aartis of the ghat.”

Choudhary manages the ‘Banarasi Bhaukal’ page along with his remote engineering job in a company based out of West Bengal. His page currently has over 650K followers.

Inside look or Instagram loophole?

According to Instagram's policies, “current elected and appointed government officials, political candidates, political parties and political committees cannot use branded content”. The social media platform defines “branded content” as the content which features the creators and “is influenced by a business partner for an exchange of value, such as monetary payment or free gifts”.

Although Patel and Choudhary claim they were not paid for some of the content they posted, they did receive favour in the form of access to the heavily fortified premises of the temples. However, with no specific guidelines on this, the creators easily pass off their social media posts without mentioning any sort of collaboration. 

Ayodhyawale's reels, documenting the temple construction period, do not explicitly endorse the government nor use any related hashtags for such purposes. Similarly, the Banarasi Bhaukal page, inundated with aarti and Kashi temple reels which have over millions of views, does not mention the government or any party.

Nonetheless, the hundreds of thousands of views and shares on Patel’s reels, and comments to the likes of, “Jai Sri Ram”, “Thank you Modi ji and Yogi ji”, “All because of Modi government”, attest to the excitement they generated, both for the temple itself and for the government overseeing its construction.

While Patel and Choudhary's content arguably promotes a narrative that benefits the political party, they are not required to disclose this association, as Instagram's policies don't classify the ‘favour’ as a formal business arrangement.

Missing disclaimers

Both the digital creators have had paid stints with the state's tourism department, which included documenting Mathura's celebration of Holi and Ayodhya’s Deepotsav. The Deepotsav is marked by a grand aarti and illuminating lakhs of earthen lamps along the banks of the Saryu River, on the occasion of Diwali.

Apart from the Uttar Pradesh government, both the digital creators collaborated with the Madhya Pradesh government to promote the foundation ceremony for the construction of Ramraja Lok in Orchha, last year.

Both Patel and Choudhary acknowledged receiving remuneration from the state governments for the purpose of promotion of their “culture”, however, the creators have ditched mentioning “paid partnership” or "ad" over the reels. While some of these reel captions include phrases like "in collaboration with" and express gratitude to the respective state governments "for inviting" them to the event, few have even those missing.



It is important to note here the difference between ‘paid partnerships’ and ‘collaborations’ on Instagram. Decode spoke to an influencer marketing agency founder, who requested anonymity, to understand Instagram's regulations around using the ‘paid partnership’ tag.

According to them, in every scenario where there is a ‘material connection’, for instance, digital creators got paid, or got something at a discounted price in exchange for the post, they are obligated to use the said tag. In such cases, compensation is exchanged for promoting products or brands, typically outlined in a formal agreement.

These partnerships must adhere to Instagram's disclosure regulations, requiring creators to transparently disclose their posts as 'paid partnerships'.

On the other hand, collaborations involve mutually beneficial partnerships for content creation, account promotion, or joint projects, which may or may not include financial compensation.

Alluding to the regulations, the founder highlighted that even if such posts are paid, the digital creators ought to issue this disclaimer, making it clear if it’s paid for in kind or otherwise by adding #ad or #giftedcollab in the caption. “However, most of them don’t do it as nobody checks,” they added.

One reel that Patel shared on his profile to ‘promote’ Mathura Holi features artistic drone shots of people drenched in colours. The post tagged the handle of Uttar Pradesh tourism and Braj Teerth Vikas Parishad (a government body which caters to the development of Braj region) in the caption. While remuneration was involved here, it did not say so.


Screenshot of the Mathura Holi reel caption from Ayodhyawale

A similar post can be seen on Choudhary’s profile as well. The post tags the Uttar Pradesh tourism Instagram handle. But it does not mention it is a ‘paid partnership’.

Both digital creators have collaborated on posts with Ashish Pandey's media agency, White Pictures, and Pandey himself, who is known by the handle 'shutter down hai'. According to his bio, Pandey serves as the official photographer for Uttar Pradesh Tourism and Madhya Pradesh Tourism.

Decode found similar collaborative posts with government handles on the profile of digital creators who were felicitated at the National Creators Award 2024. These posts do not have any 'paid partnership' tag and Instagram's vague policy allows creators to tag politicians and government organisations while making it impossible to verify whether the creators received remuneration for them.

Gaurav Chaudhary, also known as, ‘technical guruji’, uploaded a collaborative post with Rajeev Chandrashekhar, Ashwini Vaishnaw and MyGovIndia hailing India’s road to ‘Viksit Bharat’, while narrating how he bought tickets to Eiffel Tower with Indian rupees by simply using the UPI.

Naman Deshmukh, who won the National Creators Award in Best Educator Category, also uploaded a similar reel on the ease of booking tickets to Paris's monument with UPI. This, too, was a collaborative post with MyGovIndia.

According to Joyojeet Pal, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan whose recent work has been on the use of social media in mainstream politics, if an influencer does not specify that they are in collaboration with a political party, that should count as deception.

However, he added that “the laws around this are tricky, because paper trails may need to be established.” Pal said, “In the run up to the election, collaboration with the government should be seen as equivalent to collaboration with a political party if the content has political implications.”

Speaking to Decode, political consultant Talha Rashid, refers to it as a contemporary tactic used by political parties to subtly further a narrative. “In this deceptive approach, agencies on the payroll of a party often create an unofficial way to build a narrative rather than officially associating an issue with the party.”

Explaining further, Rashid said, “The screen time of an average person has reduced to 10-15 seconds, and hence the best way of marketing in today’s time is short reels or interview snippets from podcasts which can go instantly viral.”

Rashid believes that this reliance on digital creators will only grow from here on. “I won’t be surprised if a panchayat level candidate hires an influencer in the near future.”

"Cultural, not political"

The Ayodhyawale profile has more than one post of Patel posing with Madhya Pradesh's former chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan. However, rejecting any allegation of 'political alignment', he stated, "I don't associate myself with any specific political party. I am open to working for any state that is dedicated to promoting culture."

Sharing his future plans to contribute to the influencer economy as a cultural creator, he said, "I plan to trace the path of Lord Ram across different countries, as narrated by Valmiki. Whether it's Lord Ram's childhood escapades, his marriage with Sita in Nepal, or his 14-year exile journey and triumph over Ravana in Sri Lanka, I aim to explore and share these stories." Patel plans to begin this journey on a bike in April.

Reinstating his commitment towards promoting culture and not any specific government, Patel said, "For the upcoming bike tour, I will be travelling through different states being served by different political parties, but I will be documenting all their cultures."

However, his social media is sprinkled with posts that hint otherwise. For the purpose of promoting the movie, Patel had announced a ticket giveaway for the Vivek Agnihotri-directed film "The Kashmir Files" (2022). Sharing the movie poster, he wrote the caption, "We will pick five random comments from this post, and the winners will receive movie tickets. This contest is exclusive to residents of Ayodhya."

The controversial movie was not only endorsed by Prime Minister Modi but also declared tax-free in several BJP-ruled states such as Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Haryana.

In one of the reels, featuring clips of Narendra Modi and Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Patel calls upon his followers to support the people who have built Lord Ram’s abode, unlike the previous government which had “argued in the court in 2007 that Lord Ram is just a myth”.

Choudhary, too, denied any explicit association with political parties. However, he added, “My aim is to document culture. But there is only one political party which aligns with my views on culture, ideology and religion. So naturally I am inclined towards the BJP.”

The Banarasi Bhaukal page has at least five reels featuring an aerial view of the contended Gyanvapi mosque. While one post celebrates the recent Varanasi court order which allowed Hindus to pray inside the premises of the mosque, others are layered with the audio “Ayodhya To Jhanki Hai, Kashi-Mathura Baaqi Hai”, the slogan coined to reclaim the “Hindu temple sites”.

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