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Tussle for control over PMO Twitter account

New Delhi, May 20: The Prime Minister’s Office yesterday tweaked the identity of the official Twitter account it used under Manmohan Singh, triggering a battle with the BJP that accused it of denying the incoming Narendra Modi government unfiltered access to tweets that may not have been made public.

Officers in the PMO insisted they changed the Twitter “handle” or identity — from @PMOIndia to @PMOIndiaArchive — only to allow a new team under Modi to start and manage their own profile on the micro-blogging platform.

By late evening, Modi’s information technology team — one of the behind-the-scenes architects of his victory — had contacted Twitter and retaken control of the @PMOIndia identity that had become available after the PMO relinquished it. The PMO clarified that it would transfer the password to the account it used under Singh to the new government.

But the handful of hours — days in impatient Twitter-land — that lapsed between the original tweak in identity and the eventual clarifications allowed a political debate that underscored the unprecedented challenges of government transition in today’s social media era. The debate also highlighted the growing use by political parties like the BJP of communication mechanisms like Twitter, which today has over 33 million followers in India.

“The Twitter account @PMOIndia is a national digital asset,” BJP MP and national spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi said. “It is disgraceful, unethical and illegal in the way the outgoing team handling the @PMOIndia Twitter account has conducted the transition of this national digital asset.”

The outgoing PMO team’s conduct, Lekhi said, challenged the principles of continuity in governance and in the ownership of government assets common in Indian democracy.

“We hope better sense prevails and the tweets of outgoing @PMOIndia are archived according to legal procedures and a smooth transition takes place with this national digital asset,” Lekhi said.

Though most other elements of government transition in Indian democracy are well-oiled, inculcated by generations of politicians and bureaucracy, this is the first time a government has handed over power after the prolific expansion of Twitter in politics.

Singh is the first Indian Prime Minister to have a Twitter account — much like Barack Obama is the first US President on the social networking site — so handovers of top official accounts are as novel to the land where Twitter was created, as they are to India.

But yesterday’s debate revolves around deeper suspicions within the BJP — easily more digitally suave than the outgoing Congress. These suspicions hinge on fears that Singh’s outgoing team, by renaming his office’s Twitter identity to suggest it no longer belongs to the PMO, could hide information from the new government.

Though most Tweets — posts put out by Twitter users — are publicly viewable, users can also send direct messages — known as DMs in the platform’s lingo — to close contacts that can only be seen by the recipient.

Though Singh himself is known to have never personally used the social networking site, theoretically, his office could have — apart from public tweets — sent out DMs to contacts.

Unless Singh’s office shares with Modi’s team the password of its official Twitter account, the new government would be unable to access any such DMs — the social media equivalent of an outgoing government retaining the key to a room full of official files.

But Singh’s media adviser, Pankaj Pachauri, clarified late last evening that “all our communications are being archived according to the RTI Act” — referring to the right to information law. “Copyrights and control will stay with the office,” he said, confirming that the password to the @PMOIndiaArchive account would be transferred to the new PMO under Modi.

By evening, the new @PMOIndia account had, without a single tweet yet, already logged over 7,000 followers — those who can see any public tweets from the account.