The Telegraph
Monday , March 31 , 2014
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Narendra blitz melts Nitish’s digital allergy

Screenshots of Facebook pages of Nitish and Modi

New Delhi, March 29: Narendra Modi’s overheated digital presence has goaded Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar out of denial and set him on a belated scramble to embrace social media platforms.

Nitish has in the past been disdainful of the social media and called it a “corporate propaganda” effort with little bearing on the public mood or electoral preference.

His attack has been centred on the near-imperial expansion of Modi’s social media network since before he was formally named the NDA’s prime ministerial nominee.

The Bihar chief minister has often called it “a big-money conspiracy” and said those “imagining a wave would be blown away”.

Not too long ago, Nitish also chided his other adversary, Lalu Prasad of the RJD, for acquiring a Twitter handle — “Aajkal puraane log bhi titiyane lage hain,” he quipped, only half in jest, of Lalu at a public event both were attending (These days even old-world people have begun twittering).

In recent weeks, though, Nitish’s office has found itself tasked to revving the social media engines overtime.

Daily activity has returned to his static Facebook account; a two-way call centre with multiple dedicated lines has been set up as instrument of electronic outreach; audio-visual spots to amplify achievements of the government and the JD(U)’s programme and promises are in the works.

When the JD(U) manifesto is ready for release in the first week of April, plans are to ramp it simultaneously on digital platforms.

“We live in modern times and many new tools of communication have now become available. The social media is a fresh and vibrant space to use for disseminating news of the great work done in Bihar and the chief minister’s vision for the future,” Pavan Varma, culture adviser to Nitish Kumar, told The Telegraph.

Asked if this did not mean a radical revision of Nitish’s often derisive indifference to the social media, Varma retorted: “That’s a misrepresentation of the chief minister’s position. He has only been critical of the excessive manipulation of social media by certain sections for political ends and over-emphasising its importance to a degree that it trivialises ground reality.

“Social media figures are being hugely extrapolated by spin doctors to project levels of popularity for certain individuals that we believe do not exist. That is what the chief minister rightly has strong reservations about.”

The Nitish camp hasn’t much room to deny, though, that it has been late to recognise the political potential of the social media and lags far behind the field.

For whatever it’s worth, the Bihar chief minister can only hope to play catch-up with the competition. Nitish’s Facebook numbers have registered rapid growth in recent weeks but they remain but a fraction of the soaring registrations on Modi’s site.

He has begun to acquire between 2,000 and 4,000 “likes” each day; Modi logs a daily average of 25,000 to a lakh. Nitish’s tally has grown exponentially recently to more than 212,000; Modi has 3.53 million.

Despite polite pushing by close aides, the Bihar chief minister has, thus far, remained true to his barb at Lalu over Twitter.

He quickly bagged 25,000 followers upon opening an account two years ago, but nobody has worked his handle since July 2012. Lalu, who made his Twitter debut only a few months ago, has massed a constituency of 17,300-odd on the back of multiple daily postings.

One reason for Nitish’s Twitter-abstinence could well be his deep “old school” scepticism of the political worth of social media numbers, an ideological stumbling block. He has been pushed by advisers lately to nod at upgraded investment of means and manpower in digital campaign tools, but it is a grudging nod.

Instinctively, Nitish invests greater faith in traditional means and yardsticks of judging and moulding the public mood; his many yatras and weekly durbars would indicate he prefers direct mass contact over all else.

He has also questioned, like other political adversaries of Narendra Modi, the authenticity of digital numbers.

“How are we to believe this is real data representing real people?” he has often asked. “Huge money and vested corporate interests are driving these number machines; they have little co-relation to the ground. What is the Internet penetration in a country like ours?”

The operators of Nitish’s fledgling effort explain, though, that the huge chasm between numbers also lies in the vision and scale of investment.

“Modi launched himself with a skilled technical team four years ago, when he was only chief minister and a prime ministerial race was nowhere in sight,” one of them said.

“He now has a humming machine of 250 or more expert hands that coordinate his digital campaign from Bangalore, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, even the odd centre in the US. Of course, his resources are huge; we are pygmies. And for a long time, we did not find the encouragement to get on with the job.”

That “encouragement” probably emanated from provocation at the hands of Modi who has made a campaign point of targeting Nitish by returning time and time again to Bihar to take sharp jibes at the chief minister.

It is not entirely incidental that one of the first new posts on Nitish’s Facebook page after long was a “black page” riposte to Modi’s “apologise” dare from a Purnea rally to Nitish.

Bihar kaa apmaan karne waalon se jisne haath milaya hai, unke virodh mein hamne yeh kaala prateek lagaya hai,” the black page proclaimed. “Ek dahaad, Jai Bihar (This black page we post as a protest against those that shake hands with ones who insult Bihar most; One cry, Jai Bihar)!”

That tickle to Bihari pride fetched a spurt in following, but it remained a trickle to Modi’s digital torrent.