Supporters throw flower petals as Narendra Modi rides in a jeep in Vadodra, India, on April 9, 2014.
Narendra Modi’s first declaration of victory didn’t come in the capital New Delhi, or his home state of Gujarat or even Hinduism’s holiest city of Varanasi, where he ran for parliament. It came in the form of a message on his Twitter Inc. account.
“India has won. Good days are ahead,” Modi wrote to his more than four million followers on the microblogging platform, after official results released May 16 showed his Bharatiya Janata Party winning a landslide victory over the Congress party led by the Gandhi dynasty.
That his victory message was retweeted over 69,000 times was as much evidence of Modi’s popularity among an electorate of about 800 million as it was of his campaign’s use of social media to reach voters, 150 million of whom were casting a ballot for the first time. The Congress party, by contrast, didn’t embrace such platforms, with the campaign chief Rahul Gandhi, who doesn’t have a Twitter account, making his concession in a 30-second speech at party headquarters in New Delhi.
“Mr. Modi has a massive apparatus in Gandhinagar,” said Ajay Singh, a member of the BJP’s central publicity committee, referring to the capital of Gujarat state, which Modi has run as chief minister since 2001. “We wanted to communicate with people, specially the young audience in a language that they would understand and not stick to traditional campaign language,” he said, refusing to divulge specific details of the party’s digital strategy.
Modi tapped into an increasingly connected electorate. About 70 percent of people in the world’s largest democracy own mobile phones and India is the third-largest smartphone market, according to data from consultant Paul Budde Communication.
India has an estimated 205 million Internet users, according to Arnab Mitra, managing director of LIQVD Asia, a digital advertising company. He forecasts the number will rise to as many as 370 million by 2015, in a country of 1.2 billion people.
While Congress President and Rahul’s mother Sonia Gandhi joined her son in conceding defeat, Modi’s digital team rolled out an online “victory wall” where his supporters could post messages and pictures.
Use of new media was “the biggest differentiator between Modi and rest of the leaders in the country,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the Centre for Media Studies in New Delhi.
In July, the BJP began its digital campaign called Mission 272+, referring to the number of seats it needed for a majority in parliament. This included an initiative called NaMo Number, which enabled potential voters to use their mobile phones to enroll themselves in a BJP database and to enlist others, helping to construct a network of voters.
“Tired of pundits who predict a hung parliament? Sick of surveys that are cynical of the BJP’s prospects?” said a message on the 272+ website. “While the odds may be steep and the hurdles formidable, there is a path to 272+ for the BJP and it is for real.”
The party ended up winning 282 seats in the 543-seat parliament, while the outgoing Congress party won 44.
Modi’s victory message is now the most tweeted ever in India, Rishi Jaitly, who heads Twitter’s India operations, said in an e-mail. During voting Modi posted a selfie on his Twitter account showing his inked finger just after casting his ballot. After his victory became clear on May 16, he shared a picture showing him receiving his mother’s blessings.
The incoming prime minister is the most-followed Indian politician on Facebook Inc., Carson Dalton, the networking site’s communications head for India, said by phone from New Delhi.
The Congress party had only one website, which features a picture of Mahatma Gandhi. Congress spokesman Manish Tiwari didn’t answer two calls to his mobile phone.
There were about 80 million users of social media in urban India at the time of the election, according to Internet and Mobile Association of India estimates. A third live in towns with populations of less than 500,000 and a quarter in areas populated by under 200,000.
Modi is counting on social networking to keep his party in power, in a country where 372 million people are below the age of 15, more than the population of the U.S.
“Go to YouTube and check, even kids who have just started to speak are saying ‘abki baar Modi sarkaar,’” he said in a victory speech in Vadodara, referring to his ‘This Time a Modi Government’ campaign slogan. “That means votes for an election 15 to 16 years down the line are already ensured.”