By Abheek Barman
Saturday, 7 July, I received a short video from a close friend on WhatsApp. The 2.03-minute clip opens to the piano bars of the Beatles’ 1970 classic, ‘Let It Be.’ Simultaneously, a virtual placard appears on a dark background. It reads:
“This Social Media Day women have something to say to @narendramodi.”
A young woman walks in, carrying a stand microphone. She starts singing and is joined by other women. Over the next couple of minutes a sophisticated piece of political messaging plays out. It spans gender, media and social violence. Instead of Paul McCartney’s reprise “Let It Be”, it says “Trolling Me”.
I don’t want to spoil its gut-punch impact. Watch it here before you read any further.
Meanwhile, to test how people would react, I forwarded the clip to some folks known to me, each of them very different from the other – high intellect being the only common factor.
Responses started pouring in within minutes of taking my finger off the send icon. Many actually bothered to write a few sentences about how they felt. Some spoke about the brutalisation of trolling, of violence, and the descent of narrative to the gutter of civilisation.
Somnath Mukhopadhyay, Chair of Paediatrics, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, says, “In 2014 Narendra Modi had a chance to create an alternative to Congress. Instead, now a new radicalism flourishes. The freedom of the common man is compromised.” He had made a trip to Wembley, in 2015, to hear Modi.
Mukhopadhyay is exactly the kind of demographic the BJP wants to woo – the cream of India’s intellect, globalised, successful, with strong ties home. People like him have no connect with any political establishment. They compare India with the developed societies where they have prospered, and yearn for positive change here.
Convert guys like Mukhopadhyay to the Modi cause, and Congress-mukt Bharat is near-certain. Or that’s what the Sangh believes. Today, with the administration turning on its own masses, this middle ground is tilting sharply away.
Divya Spandana was the youngest MP in the 15th Lok Sabha. Sometime after elections 2014, Congress’ then-veep (and now president) Rahul Gandhi, asked her to head the party’s social media ‘cell’ located at its Gurdwara Rakabganj Road premises.
“30 June was World Social Media day and we started planning something special for it. Our entire team, mostly women, started meeting a week ahead,” says Spandana. Consensus: the subject must be trolling, the biggest blight on Indian users of instant communication.
Spandana suggested that rather than a campaign, it should be a song about the BJP’s omnipresent trolls. “By the time the meeting got over, Richik Banerjee, a team member, had come up with the lines of the song,” she says. “We didn’t have to change a word.”
But why ‘Let It Be’ and not something else?
“Actually it’s one of my favourite songs and I was listening to it on the way to work that morning. So, while we were talking, the words just kept coming to me in sync with it,” says Banerjee, all of 23. “We wanted to keep it cool and polite and the song seemed just right,” he adds.
The Congress team had done some research and found several interesting facts. One, the most sustained and vicious trolling, targeted already high profile people – case in point, actress-activist Neha Dhupia. During a particularly nasty Mumbai monsoon, she asked leaders to govern, instead of taking selfies and making people do yoga. She was trolled mercilessly.
Two, the most uncouth and foul-mouthed trolls were regulars. Three, Modi follows most trolls on his social media platforms. Finally, trolls correctly read this as endorsement and immunity from censure – from the prime minister, no less.
“The least the PM can do is stop following these trolls. He hasn’t,” says Spandana.
All the singers are members of her team. “They were a bit nervous, it was their first time facing a camera. And this is the only way we could do it. We can’t afford hired talent,” she laughs. “But it turned out better than any hired performer could have been, because of their commitment.”
The finished product went online on 30 June. Spandana says, “Initially, it got relatively little attention. Mainstream media either ignored or played it down. But it’s become a sleeper hit.”
Indeed. A week after the launch, it’s chugging away merrily. It now has 58,000 views on Twitter with 30,000 engagements and nearly 5,400 likes. On Facebook, the clip has already reached 1.4 million users.
The BJP, long considered a party backed by business and high finance, has started repelling chunks of these communities as well. Kush Katakia, founder of Mumbai-based Beanstalk Advisory which helps clients invest across asset classes, says the “once beautiful social media platform has become monstrous.”
Like most Indians, Katakia is shocked by what he calls, “a trend where a few right wing trolls have been extremely abusive, using perverse and filthy language… their choicest abuses are reserved for women.”
What appals him is not just that Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah follow these trolls but that, “Instead of condemning and un-following these handles, they’re silent on this issue. Even after their senior party colleague and foreign minister Sushma Swaraj was targeted by these trolls.”
“Why do trolls, who are overwhelmingly men, target women, especially successful ones?” wonders Krishna Sarma, managing partner of Delhi-based Corporate Law Group.
She guesses, “Maybe increased joblessness breeds inferiority. They want to take back male authority by attacking successful women. And the BJP, conveniently, provides this platform.”
So where does all this trolling leave BJP – once India’s 800 kg gorilla of political messaging on social media?
“None of these things – trolling, abuse, trampling on individual rights, demonetisation – need have happened,” says Mukhopadhyay, “But they have, and Modi will have to pay the price.”