'The many facets of Rahul Gandhi' fiasco shows Congress' lack of grasp of social media

What the Congress seems to need, more than anything, at this point is to have people with political acumen working for them in the social media cell.

 |  7-minute read |   27-08-2018
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They say a picture is worth a thousand words. The idiom is all the more true in the new media age where pictures and memes go viral, often for all the wrong reasons.

The Congress party’s official Twitter handle put out images of Rahul Gandhi, on a visit to the German Parliament, looking dazed and confused.

To make it worse, the pictures were captioned “The many facets of Rahul Gandhi”.

While Congress supporters initially wondered if their party’s Twitter account had been hacked, it was followed by another tweet that had pictures of Gandhi walking through the archive of German members of Parliament. Rival BJP’s official Twitter handle wasted no time re-tweeting it captioning —“even we couldn’t resist retweeting this”.

What the BJP IT cell had been trying hard to establish all these years was being handed on a silver platter by their opposite number — that Rahul Gandhi is clueless and confused (the “Pappu” narrative).

The social media team of the Congress, after years of playing catch-up to the BJP (and even newbie Aam Aadmi Party) had seemingly begun to up their game in the last year or so. Divya Spandana, the actress-turned-politician and the new social media in-charge of the party, had been credited with the turnaround.

With a newfound aggressive approach, the Congress social media (SM) cell was often seen paying the BJP’s cyber warriors back in their own coin — even trolling the Prime Minister to good effect.

But it often seems the party still has a problem with communicating and figuring out the pulse of the netizens. On too many occasions, the party’s official handle has been seen to come up with bloopers to provide fodder for the trolls.

Sample this: A Twitter poll with KnowYourLegacy hashtag asked: "In the absence of motorable roads in Bhutan in 1958, PM Nehru rode on an animal to visit the country. What animal was it?

And one of the options happened to be donkey. Now, for anyone who knows how the social media works, the fate of the poll was already sealed. Over 67% picked the donkey, and Congress deleted the original poll and started the poll again; there was a problem though—the donkey option was still there!

To quote Ian Fleming’s 007, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

rahul_082618083202.jpgLooking like a Greek God? The person tweeting this out from the official Twitter handle must have thought something like that.

The latest blooper has left many on Twitter wondering if there is a BJP mole in the Congress SM cell. But a former employee who worked under Ms Spandana for the SM cell says: “When I was there, only three seniors (including Ms Spandana) had access to the Congress’ official handle. It is impossible that the tweet was not authorised by Divya. In any case, the tweet is still very much on the TL. It certainly has her stamp of approval”.

Another former employee defends Ms Spandana: “I think the idea is to get more visibility and mentions for the party. When I worked there, Divya used to make a big deal out of follower count, page views and mentions. It certainly has to be part of a strategy”.

Except, nobody has a clue what that strategy could be. “Congress has only reinforced the Pappu image of Gandhi; no wonder BJP latched on to it immediately”, was how an advertising professional reacted.

rahul-1_082618083215.jpgStraight out of a fashion magazine

That single tweet might have probably undone the whole effort that went into the image makeover of Rahul Gandhi. Since last September, Rahul Gandhi has been trying to connect with Non-resident Indians, students and foreign politicians in his trips abroad. In between, Gandhi made a fiery speech in Parliament, signing it off by walking across the aisle and hugging the Prime Minister during the vote of no-confidence. It was assumed that ‘Brand Rahul’ had turned a corner.

Coming back to the issue, the pictures of Gandhi in the now infamous tweet seemed straight out of a fashion magazine. It was as if he were striking poses for a photo shoot like a print model would. The propriety of posting such pictures through the official handle of the party didn’t seem to have occurred to the people handling the account, including Ms Spandana.

What could have gone wrong?

So, what must have gone wrong there?

My assessment is that, in their blind deification of Gandhi, the handlers probably lost their sense of judgement and thought the pictures would convey a thoughtful, pensive image of Gandhi, against the backdrop of the graffiti of World War II in the German Parliament. Instead, it turned out to be the butt of jokes and a viral meme. Even the caption—“many facets of Rahul Gandhi” — reeked of boy band level drooling and adulation.

There is the story of “The King and the foolish monkey” in the Panchatantra.

A pet monkey was treated like royalty and had access to the personal chamber of a king forbidden to even the loyal servants. While the King was having a siesta on the monkey’s watch one day, a fly came and sat on the King’s chest. Despite trying to shoo it off, the fly would find its way back again. In a fit of rage, the monkey took a sword and aimed at the fly—and instead split open the chest of the King. The moral of the story being, a foolish friend can cause more harm than an enemy.

In their blind admiration for the Gandhi scion, the cheerleaders at 15, Gurudwara Rakab ganj (where the Congress SM cell operates out of) might have thought Gandhi looked like a Greek God in these pictures to lose their bearings. Now, they can’t complain about people making hilarious memes of the mugshots. That’s the nature of social media.

Congress’ social media strategy

For the longest time, Congress has taken the higher moral ground when they came under vicious attack from trolls, who mostly identify with the BJP. But, with the official Congress handle often exuding troll-like behaviour themselves in their effort to ramp up aggression of late, that leverage may not hold anymore.

Recently, following the arrest of former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan, the Congress handle tweeted a picture of Sharif holding hands with Prime Minister Modi, captioned—“Nawaz Sharif has been arrested on corruption charges. We’d like to know what his dear friend PM Modi has to say about this”. These kinds of tweets take away from everything the grand old party supposedly stands for.

bachchan_082618083127.jpgFanboy moment? Why would India’s oldest party make a big deal of a celebrity following its Twitter account in any case?

There have also been many other tweets originating from the official handle of Congress that people struggle to make sense of. Some of them were later deleted.

One such deleted tweet said, “Thank you @amitabhBachchan ji for the follow. We wish you all the best for ‘102 not out’. We have another reason to celebrate. We have 4 million followers today”.

With the relations between the Gandhis and the Bachchans going south, it triggered speculations and was deleted later. Why would India’s oldest party make a big deal of a celebrity following its Twitter account in any case?

sridevi_082618083144.jpgYes, but why? Facing backlash, the tweet was deleted later.

Another strange tweet goes —“We regret to hear about the passing away of Sridevi. An actor par excellence. A legend who will continue to live in our hearts through her stellar body of work. Our deepest condolences to her loved ones. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013 by the UPA government”. The tweet was found deleted later after a backlash.

On Women’s day, the party tweeted a poll asking, “How will you be celebrating this women’s day? The options were— A) drinking what you love; B) Laughing out loudly; C) Late night loitering; D) All of the above. The options reeked of an elitist mindset more than anything. I remember a friend of mine quoting the tweet saying — “We work our a**** off at work and wouldn’t be bothered do all these on a working day”.

What the Congress seems to need, more than anything, at this point is to have people with political acumen working for them in the SM cell. And having folks with some grassroots connect wouldn’t harm either.

Rather than appointing people on the basis of their unflinching devotion to Gandhi (Ms Spandana apparently owes her position on account of her loyalty), they might consider having people who can analyse things more dispassionately— if they are to avoid such gaffes and save Gandhi from being the butt of jokes in the future.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi compares lynching in India with the rise of ISIS. So what?

Writer

Anand Kochukudy Anand Kochukudy @anandkochukudy

The writer is a political journalist and lapsed academic.

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