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Mahabharata 2.0: The BJP And The Art Of Social Media Warfare

08/08/2016 3:50 PM IST | Updated 10/08/2016 9:29 AM IST
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Roy Scott

India's Defence Minister made some comments recently on how those who speak against India should be taught a lesson. This set into motion a familiar sequence of events. People were flabbergasted that he had confirmed common knowledge. The otherwise raucous BJP supporters on social media maintained a studied silence. BJP detractors on the other hand, smiled smugly at the seemingly Freudian slip. The media and opposition insisted that the government had been embarrassed. The government took another confident step in adopting incremental brazenness as an approach to spiritual wellbeing. The minister himself came out with a half-hearted attempt at mitigation subsequently, insisting that what everyone had understood perfectly well, he hadn't really said at all. A few days later he changed tack again and suggested that he was right to say what he did, and that he was a victim of a grand conspiracy. The affair was forgotten soon enough. What went relatively unnoticed was that just a few days earlier, another minister had made an equally interesting statement.

Twitter is the stage for gritty ground fighting where the ideological infantries battle each other.

Rajyavardhan Rathore, Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, was speaking at the Constitution Club of India and used this opportunity to warn the country that a paradigm shift was taking place in the art of warfare. India now finds itself in the midst of "psychological war", in his view. This new threat, he thinks, is perhaps most dangerous of all, for the battlefields are our homes, and he urges that we all arm ourselves. He pointed out that even as the horror in Kashmir unfolded in the aftermath of the killing of Burhan Wani, we all missed thousands of unguided tweets being exchanged between India and Pakistan. These 140-character missiles must have been terrifying, for he felt the need to say, "... our soldiers are there on the front, but it's not adequate. We need thousands of people who can play the role of a sainik on social media and also become soldiers". He's right. A "psychological war" has been going on for several years now.

It began many years ago, before Facebook and Twitter invaded the public imagination, in the long lost, unappealing pages of Orkut. In those primitive days of slow connectivity and SD videos, this struggle first began around religion. Forums such as "Atheist vs. Theist", which continue an understated existence on Facebook, were chosen battlegrounds. Brutal taunts about insufficient intelligence laid many a warrior low, in what came to be known as flame wars. What initially started as "Islam vs. Atheists" slowly began to see reinforcements of guerrilla Hindutva trolls, against Islam. Today, as the virtual world has invaded the real, this limited online war too has spilled outwards into "civilian" territory to claim casualties. Aamir Khan was merely the most prominent of them.

Presently, this ideological war is being fought in two theatres. Twitter is the stage for gritty ground fighting where the ideological infantries battle each other. Foot soldiers simply wade into the thick of it and try to hold position against all odds, even as less-than-witty shrapnel flies around. "Sainiks" (trolls is how they are commonly known) consolidate around the banner of one commander or another on either side, and seek to bring down the enemy or isolate him by cutting off support. The fighting is unscrupulous and feverish. There is no time or character space for fancy martial rhetoric, and short, quick bursts of abuse are often what it boils down to.

Facebook offers the opportunity to display more verbal skills and to live the romance of individual heroism.

Facebook offers the opportunity to display more verbal skills and to live the romance of individual heroism. One can enter dramatic dogfights of long drawn comments till one of the fighters is brought down, but there is also the opportunity for fly-past bombing when the target is unprotected by privacy settings. Perhaps Instagram will one day provide for a naval warfare metaphor, but humanity hasn't quite figured out how pictures of lunches and holidays can be used to promote ideologies yet. I like to imagine a brutal exchange of paneer and beef shashlik photos with appropriate hashtags.

The comments of at least one of the ministers would suggest that if this is a war, it is a civil war. It seems reasonable to assume that few governments will determine policy based on outraged Facebook posts coming from across the border. So it holds to reason that influencing your own government or people is the strategic goal in this "psychological warfare". The BJP recognizes this. They retain the single-largest army among several, although the AAP has been recruiting fast. In this Mahabharata though, the AAP seems to be appropriating the mantle of the Pandavas only for their numerical disadvantage, because accusations of foul play seem fairly universal.

Politicians might see benefit in online outrage but whatever they would have us believe, this appears less a war and more a riot to the common citizen in the virtual streets. It is asymmetric in nature, controlled by unseen and secretive forces, with unclear, even incoherent objectives at times. Most revealing of all is complete lack of concern about whether the target is even in the fight, for the abuse continues regardless. These "sainiks" that both ministers congratulated are not so much trained soldiers as they are unfettered mobs. They are happy to issue death and rape threats to individuals, and attack commercial establishments for carrying the wrong name on their advertisement banners. Snapdeal was a victim not of virtuous warfare but of virtual vandalism. Such incidents of manufactured mass outrage may be cloaked in patriotic terms but they are no different in essence from riots and bus burnings. And now the Defence Minister looks to have confessed that they are orchestrated by the BJP.

Perhaps Instagram will one day provide for a naval warfare metaphor... I like to imagine a brutal exchange of paneer and beef shashlik photos with appropriate hashtags.

Mr. Rathore is correct, however, in saying that the psychological impact of this violence is visible. Many an apolitical Aam Aadmi has become a champion in his own mind, ready to barricade his kitchen for a glorious last stand to uphold the honour of his beloved leader, whoever that might be. And with two important ministers issuing clarion calls to arms, perhaps we better start barricading our kitchens as well. In the virtual world, of course.

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