Last week, millions of followers of India’s rhetorically ambitious and gifted Prime Minister Narendra Modi, were perplexed when Modi’s Twitter account posted a message that looked like nothing they’d ever seen before. A click-to-translate button revealed that it was a message in Korean, thanking Korean leaders in politics and business for their support during the prime minister’s visit to Korea.
Perhaps Modi’s social media team was pushing the envelope of “twiplomacy” – itself the fastest-growing concept in political communications – a bit too far. (The tweet in Korean was retweeted only 438 times, when the average retweet for Modi is more like 2,000.) But it’d be hard to think of a better example of the social media ambition and nous that has made Modi the second-most followed politician in the world on Twitter, second only to US President Barack Obama.
Whatever one might say about the actual achievements of his government in the year since he took office, Modi’s social media year has been an unqualified success.
Looking at what Modi’s social media cell has managed to achieve, one feels the person in his cabinet that the prime minister trusts the most may be his secret Twitter minister.
‘India has won’
Last May, Modi had about 4 million Twitter followers; today, that number has more than tripled, creating an online Republic of Modi. The tweet he posted on May 16, 2014, shortly after the election results were announced, declaring “India has won” and that good times lay ahead, is now the most-retweeted tweet ever by an Indian (about 75,000 and still counting).
The prime minister’s team posts on average of nine tweets a day, drawing in on average 23,000 new followers a day into the debates and ideological wars of a public sphere that is ever more virtual and sometimes can’t devise or imagine an argument longer than 140 characters.
@Narendramodi is backed by an enormous tech team for whom the virtual world is the real world, and is the product of inputs from a not inconsiderable number of advertising, branding and PR gurus. Between them, they have masterminded the shift in Modi’s image from a bellowing and bigoted reactionary – the general opinion of him 10 years ago – to someone who seems both confident and cool, warm and tough. Perhaps no man in history has ever achieved such a repositioning of the self via selfies.
His posts allow him to project power in ways that seem more casual than deliberate: selfies with world leaders, messages commemorating anniversaries and occasions of national interest, news of what he has seen and experienced on his travels.
Interestingly, Modi’s Twitter handle has more than twice the number of followers of his official one at @PMOIndia (where he sometimes cross-posts his tweets), about eight times the numbers of followers of that of his party, the BJP. It’s the persona that draws in most of his followers, not the office nor the party.
Power of technology
Of course, there is a continuum between political messaging outside social media and within it. Success in elections before social media became all-pervasive and involved not just real achievements and principles but an ability to project the right image and to cynically manipulate the message.
But Modi’s inherent interest in the power of technology, his need for a more cuddly image, his love of communication, and his interest in the feedback loop generated by his messages make him the first real social media star of Indian democracy. @Narendramodi has laid down virtual benchmarks that may not be equalled for decades.
What are the different ways that Modi has made Twitter and Facebook (where his page has 28 million “likes”) work for him?
One, his posts allow him to project power in ways that seem more casual than deliberate: selfies with world leaders, messages commemorating anniversaries and occasions of national interest, news of what he has seen and experienced on his travels.
Two, the posts his team puts out are non-controversial, but rarely bland. They don’t resemble the safety-first boilerplate that politicians often pass off as thought. Even his choices of subject are enough to provoke discussion and help expand his persona. Particularly in the last year, his tweets have projected a consistent voice: calm, decisive, sagacious, gracious, with just a touch of mischief and laughter.
Smiling in photos
He is often seen smiling in the photographs he posts, and the large image on the masthead shows Modi striding out of parliament surrounded by black-suited security men, activating powerful subliminal currents from the world of film as much as life.
Three, the combination of medium and message project the powerful impression, reinforced every single day, that although the prime minister is one or two generations older than most Indians, and two or three generations older than most internet users, he’s in the same mind- and culture-space as them. On Twitter, Modi is clearly seen to be – to borrow from his method of dipping into many languages – au fait with the zeitgeist.
Four – and this is the darker side of the phenomenon – Twitter allows Modi to do something that he has pretty much done all his life: bypass traditional media, which he has never trusted and never will. (Modi rarely gives a journalist an interview, which is a form of dialogue that would allow the other side to partly set the agenda.)
@Narendramodi allows Modi’s team to convey the impression that the prime minister is talking directly to the citizenry, and the illusion is so powerful many Indians feel as if they are being addressed by India’s most powerful man and that they’re saying something back in turn. The risks and dangers of real conversation, real dialogue, real confrontation, are eliminated. Twitter is the perfect vehicle for a personality such as Modi’s, someone who craves communion but not conversation.
Through social media, Modi has been able to establish a continuously expanding Modisphere that has elements of both of a personal cult and of internet-age democracy.
Modi’s social media self thrills to the modern world’s need for continuous connection with celebrity and the needs, desires and projections of our own virtual selves. If nothing is going well with your day, why not just retweet the Indian prime minister?
In the last year, many new Indias have come into being, and one of them lives almost exclusively in the virtual republic of @narendramodi.
Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and columnist based in New Delhi. His work on Indian politics appears regularly on Bloomberg View and in The Caravan.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.