Rise of the Cyber Hindu
Kunal Pradhan and Jayant Sriram November 1, 2013 | UPDATED 00:47 IST
The sun has risen in Mumbai's Juhu area. Its rays, shimmering off the Arabian Sea at India's most eulogised beach, have woken up Priti Gandhi, a 35-year-old housewife who lives barely a stone's throw away. It's a regular morning at the Gandhi home. She sends her eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son to school. She has a cup of chai with her investment banker husband before he rushes off to work. Then, her second life begins.
Over in Delhi, 32-year-old Vikas Pandey is leaving for office, looking every bit a member of India's bright, new workforce-close-shave, crisp shirt, black trousers, dark socks and leather loafers. Later, sitting with his friends for an after-work coffee in Bengali Market, he disappears periodically into the depths of his phone. Pandey is meticulously juggling his real world, where he is just another computer geek, and his parallel universe, in which he is a mini-celebrity.
Better known as @MrsGandhi and @iSupportNaMo on Twitter, with 30,000 and 18,000 followers respectively at last count, Gandhi and Pandey are among the most noticeable members of a fervent pro-Hindu, pro-BJP, pro-Narendra Modi, right-wing Internet community that dominates every social media discussion and every online forum.
This community may be guided loosely by BJP's information technology cellâ"a 100-strong team of techies and social media managers run from the party's head office at 11, Ashoka Roadâ"and by prime ministerial candidate Modi's own unit in Ahmedabad, but it is an organic, uncontrollable, multi-faceted entity made up of people all around us. They could be in the next cubicle in your workplace or on the next desk in your classroom. Always scouring the Internet on their smartphones, they are connected with each other through an intangible network that is pulling people from different backgrounds. They feel their voices are finally being heard, and amplified, by like-minded political activists who operate on social media.
A mark of their overwhelming online supremacy can be found in the India Today Group's e-lection poll, a mock online General Election in which users were asked to vote in Lok Sabha constituencies across India. The ballot worked through one-time passwords sent to mobile phones, ensuring only one vote for every cell number to prevent rigging. Of the unprecedented 556,460 votes that were cast over a 40-day period till October 30, 338,401 users chose BJP (see box). Even in Uttar Pradesh, which witnesses a four-cornered contest every election, 87.1 per cent of the voters went with the BJP. The results from this self-selected sample may not reflect the ground reality but they prove one thing beyond a shadow of doubt: The Internet is saffron.
Internet penetration in India is only 10 per cent, with nearly 116.18 million users, according to Estatsindia.com. But a Google survey in October said four out of every 10 urban Indian voters, or 37 per cent, are now online.
The right-leaning online collective-sometimes abusive, often rabidly anti-minority and always anti-government-is disparagingly referred to as Internet Hindus, a term it has now embraced. "I love it when someone calls me Sanghi or right-wing or Internet Hindu," says Gandhi. "I'm like, 'oh wow, thank you for saying that'." Their language, as Gandhi's American-teenager misuse of 'like' reveals, is young and colloquial. But their agenda is a mix of post-modern and traditional. They oppose dynasty politics, particularly the Nehru-Gandhi clan, but offer no opinion on the father-and-son politics within BJP and its allies such as Shiv Sena. They call minority appeasement 'pseudo-secularism' with such fervour that their sentiment could easily be interpreted as Hindu supremacist or anti-Muslim. They are against lower-caste reservation, particularly because it is poorly implemented. They are concerned about internal security. But above all, they are against corruption.
Gravitating towards Modi
While the combative nature of their tweets doesn't always show it, a number of them became active on social media only a couple of years ago, not to support bjp or its policies. Pandey opened his Twitter account the day he heard that Sachin Tendulkar had signed up. "There was a history of rss support in my family but it was @sachin_rt that drew me out," he says. "Once I was here, one thing led to another."
Shilpi Tewari, 35, an architect by education, now runs a consultancy firm with her husband. She says she has been involved with the Government in projects in the past, and it was the voice of Anna Hazare and his Jan Lokpal Bill movement that first attracted her. "I was at Ramlila Maidan with thousands of others, demanding an end to corruption," she says. It was only later, when the anti-Congress and anti-Government sentiment became overpowering, that she gravitated towards BJP and particularly towards Modi. Tewari now believes, as do several others like her, that their efforts were responsible in helping Modi win the prime ministerial candidature within BJP. "We have not just supported his elevation, we have made it happen," she beams.
According to Anja Kovacs, director of the Internet Democracy Project in Delhi, the young middle-class BJP supporter is intrinsically tied with the rise of the Internet. "A lot of the leadership of this Internet movement was provided by techies who had moved abroad and were looking to connect with India. BJP naturally connects with the middle-class, upwardly mobile Indian who is more likely to be on the Internet than, say, someone who supports CPI," she points out.