POLITICS
26/07/2018 10:38 AM IST | Updated 27/07/2018 3:18 PM IST

Congress Social Media Chief On The Challenges Of Countering BJP And Whether She Writes Rahul Gandhi's Tweets

"I think you have to pick your battles. It may mean that change is slow and people will probably outrun you, but not for long."

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

NEW DELHI -- In the course of the past two weeks, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has accused the Congress Party of being "pro-Muslim,' while calling its president Rahul Gandhi a "Muslim dhari," a 'merchant of hate," and "childish" for hugging Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Parliament.

Divya Spandana, the actor-turned-politician from Karnataka, who heads social media for the Congress, is often the first line of defense and offense for her party.

In a recent conversation with HuffPost India, Spandana, credited with raising the social media profile of the Congress, talked about how she counters the BJP's considerable presence on various platforms, her messaging for the 2019 general election, and whether she writes Gandhi's tweets.

Excerpts:

What do you want your messaging to be?

We want to lend our voice to those who are not heard. In Modi's government, it would be unemployed youth, it would be women, it would be Dalits, it would be minorities, it would be farmers, it would be all the other Hindus who do not resonate with their idea of Hinduism. It is a huge section of Indians that are left out. It is my responsibility as the social media head of the Congress Party to maintain a level of discourse. It's just the way we think, how we are conditioned and how we are wired.

Religious polarization could be the mainstay of the next election.

We are not going to make it a communal election. The BJP wants to make it about religion, but we should also be able to set the agenda. Why should we get dragged into their conversation? Why won't you answer me on jobs? Why won't you answer me on manufacturing? I don't want to go into an election based on caste and religion. That is not the India that I want.

The thing is that their message is obviously more resounding because they have the resources, they have the TV, they have the money to print ads and radio jingles. So, people feel that what they are saying is the conversation, but it is not.

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Why won't you answer me on jobs? Why won't you answer me on manufacturing?

Did Rahul Gandhi come up with this tweet himself or did you all brainstorm?

This comes to him naturally. It's not something he just says but also what he believes. He did it himself.

Do you identify as liberal?

If speaking my mind, if wanting to take everyone along in society, then perhaps, yes, I'm liberal.

Communal issues are likely to come up more frequently in the run up to the 2019 election. How will the Congress respond?

I think the media also needs to be responsible. We cannot go into the election without their support because it is all about communication right now, through radio, print, TV and social media.

In social media, they (BJP) are way ahead in terms of resources. They have access to a lot of data, they have money, their messages get disseminated faster.

Now, how do I counter that?

If Congress needs to set the agenda, set the narrative, we need the cooperation of everyone including the media. We need Facebook to cooperate, we need Whatsapp to cooperate, we need Twitter to cooperate with us and help us spread our message. It should not always be about the money. Otherwise communicating today, to reach out to a lay person and tell them where the Congress stands, what we believe in, is going to be very hard for 2019.

What I'm saying is that social media platforms should not have biases towards the ruling party. Whatever services or tools these platforms have must be made accessible to everyone in a transparent manner.

Whatever services or tools these platforms have must be made accessible to everyone in a transparent manner.

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But what would you say to counter religious polarization?

The BJP does not define Hinduism or get to dictate who is a real Hindu. I don't want the discourse to be about religion. I need to have the same kind of space to put my message out as the BJP does. For example, if I have a press conference, how many television channels will carry it? I want to set the agenda, I want to say that this should not be about religion, it should be about jobs. I am saying it, but who is there to hear me out? It's not that I'm not saying it loudly enough, it's just that I don't have enough platforms to communicate.

As the prime minister, for an election campaign, you said what you had to say to gain power. You wanted to grab eyeballs and attention, but when you are the prime minister of the country, you cannot be making statements like that.

I think you have to pick your battles. It may mean that change is slow and people will probably outrun you, but not for long. The vision is not short-term. It is about doing something that is good for the country. It is not just about polarizing people to grab power.

The BJP does not define Hinduism or get to dictate who is a real Hindu.

The Congress is accused of practicing soft Hindutva.

You tell me what are we supposed to do? They alienate the Hindus against us. People have to be able to think for themselves, what is a bigger issue, who do you want to listen to? I don't think the people are ready to see it yet, because today, the way they consume information is through Whatsapp, radio, print and television, and all of this is completely taken up by the BJP because of their resources and money. Even if I want to set the agenda, my voice is lost because I'm not saying anything controversial, because I'm not saying anything to polarize people. It's not something that I'm comfortable doing.

Then why Rahul Gandhi's temple run in Gujarat and the Janeu Dhaari statement.

We are not doing soft Hindutva. If he goes to a mosque, he is pro-Muslim. If he goes to a temple, he is trying to be Hindu. They are constantly going to be saying something. And you hear them because they are more amplified than us.

Every time, they drag us into a conversation about Hindu-Muslim, religion, we should talk about jobs. Don't get dragged into that conversation. But unfortunately, we sometimes fall into their trap. You can't go down that path. No matter what you say, you are losing that battle. Just go for jobs, GST, demonetization and how people have been hit by the failure of this government.

But if that is my strategy, to talk about jobs and the economy, nobody is carrying it. It's just the way we are today in the age of information and the way it is consumed. It is not masala enough. So, we are a bit stuck and there is a huge challenge in front of us.

If he goes to a mosque, he is pro-Muslim. If he goes to a temple, he is trying to be Hindu.

People believe that you write Rahul Gandhi's tweets?

He tweets himself. I have nothing to do with it.

How is it running the Congress social media campaign?

I honestly would not have been able to do anything without his (Gandhi's) help. I think he believed in me more than I believed in myself because social media was something that I did not know.

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