The battle for the Karnataka Assembly is being fought as much in the cities and villages of the state as on social media. While online slugfests between politicians of opposing camps are not new, what this election down south has introduced us to are point-by-point real time political crusades.
Leading this social media battle from the front is Congress leader and Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah. So when Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his much-hyped and greatly anticipated campaign in Karnataka by addressing a rally in Santhemarahalli town of Chamarajanagar district, Siddaramaiah was not just listening to Modi intently but also offering a point-by-point rebuttal, pointing to the many gaps in his speech, posing questions where necessary.
When PM Modi told the gathering at Santhemarahalli, where the party hasn't done well politically, that around 3.5 crore farmers across the country had been covered under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana — of which 14 lakh farmers belong to Karnataka — Siddaramaiah was quick to point out that the state government under him had paid 50 per cent of the cost to implement the scheme.
Around 3.5 crore farmers have been covered under 'PM Fasal Bima Yojana', out of which 14 lakh farmers belong to Karnataka: PM @narendramodiLive updates https://t.co/jjLuBBVJeI #KarnatakaElections2018— Times of India (@timesofindia) May 2, 2018
Sir, Govt of Karnataka paid 50% of the cost of the PM Fasal Beema Yojana. Ours is the only Govt in the country that has deployed IT to directly pay the insurance amount into farmers’ account. Also crop insurance is old UPA scheme.So, have a heart & share credit where it is due. https://t.co/6Uq8Rs2tDI— Siddaramaiah (@siddaramaiah) May 2, 2018
The chief minister also jumped to the rescue of Congress national president Rahul Gandhi when Modi challenged the former to speak for 15 minutes on the achievements of the state government "without reading from a paper". He wondered if PM Modi could similarly speak about the achievements of BS Yeddyurrapa's regime.
I challenge you (Rahul Gandhi) to speak for 15 minutes on the achievements of your government in #Karnataka without reading from any piece of paper. You can speak in Hindi, English or your mother tongue: PM Modi in Mysuru pic.twitter.com/BqVx9XThya— ANI (@ANI) May 1, 2018
Dear PM @narendramodi ji, I challenge you to speak about the achievements of BS Yeddyurappa’s Govt in Karnataka for 15 minutes by looking at a paper.Sincerely Siddaramaiah https://t.co/zSkja6eURO— Siddaramaiah (@siddaramaiah) May 2, 2018
Tweet after tweet, Siddaramaiah took the Karnataka battle straight to prime minister Modi's doors, whom he has also referred to as a "north Indian import" in the context of Karnataka.
. @BJP4Karnataka by waiting for North Indian imports like PM Modi, UPCM Adityanath is admiting they have no leaders in the state. They have reduced their CM face @BSYBJP to a dummy. PM may come & go. Here it is Siddaramaiah vs BSY & you know who is winning.#CongressMathomme https://t.co/IatRRstyAe— Siddaramaiah (@siddaramaiah) April 25, 2018
He also brought into focus issues that the prime minister's speech either glossed over or did not touch upon.
PM @narendramodi is in Karnataka & has nothing substantial to offer. Instead, he dwells eloquently on non-issues:1 Rahul Gandhi’s Kannada pronouciation while mauling Mante Swamy & Male Madeshwara out of shape.2 Rahul Gandhi’s dress vs his dresses3 My contest from 2 places. 1/4 pic.twitter.com/sZwU0NYjqe— Siddaramaiah (@siddaramaiah) May 1, 2018
4 Something about Namdar & Kaamdar5 Electrification of 39 villages in 3 years whereas we had already electrified 27,000 villages6 My sleep apnea that used to induce occasional day time sleepiness. (Now I have treated it but like a common troll he makes fun of my condition.) 2/4— Siddaramaiah (@siddaramaiah) May 1, 2018
What he did not say:1 Why is he supporting the mining mafia led by Jandhan Reddy?2 Why is he not helping us resolve Mahadayi issue?3 Why is not giving a debt relief package to farmers when Banks can waive 2.71 lakh Cr. of corporate loans?4 Why are petrol prices rising?3/4— Siddaramaiah (@siddaramaiah) May 1, 2018
5 Why did he cheat HAL of the Rafael deal that would have created thousands of jobs in Bengaluru.6 When will he restore confidence in our Banking system by catching Nirav Modi?The list of what PM could have spoken is endless. But Shri Modi has to dwell on the trivial. 4/4— Siddaramaiah (@siddaramaiah) May 1, 2018
The chief minister, it seems, had decided to use Twitter as a weapon early on in this high-stakes battle.
In January this year, when Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath visited the state to attend BJP's Parivartan Yatra rally, which was also a clarion call to the big electoral fight, Siddaramaiah initiated an exchange of barbs on Twitter.
I welcome UP CM Shri @myogiadityanath to our state. There is a lot you can learn from us Sir. When you are here please visit a Indira Canteen & a ration shop. It will help you address the starvation deaths sometimes reported from your state. #YogiInBengaluru https://t.co/lj0m4fMphC— Siddaramaiah (@siddaramaiah) January 7, 2018
The tweet more or less set the tone for the political bickering that followed electioneering in the months ahead.
Thank you for the welcome @siddaramaiah ji. I heard number of farmers committing suicide in Karnataka was highest in your regime, not to mention the numerous deaths and transfer of honest officers. As UP CM I am working to undo the misery and lawlessness unleashed by your allies.— Yogi Adityanath (@myogiadityanath) January 7, 2018
While the Congress is finding it hard to match the BJP in terms of the resources at its disposal to contest elections, Twitter has proved a convenient option for Siddaramaiah to reach out to a whole gamut of people.
India is one of Twitter's fastest-growing markets. Market research firms tag the user base in India between 20 and 25 million. That, by no estimate, is a small number for any political party. Also, Twitter in India is a politically charged space unlike Facebook which is more personal in nature.
Siddaramaiah, on his part, is not just using the platform to puncture holes in the Opposition's charge, but also to try to talk about the achievements of his own government.
In the past 5 years, we have delivered on all our promises & made Karnataka a national leader across sectors. In the next 5 years, we will extend the benefits of our flagship programs and further the Karnataka Model of Development. #NavaKarnatakaManifesto #CongressMathomme pic.twitter.com/parJBxlXuT— Siddaramaiah (@siddaramaiah) April 27, 2018
Both the BJP and the Congress are aware of the potential Twitter holds and are invested in harnessing it as best as they can.
The BJP and the Congress' social media chiefs, Amit Malviya and Divya Spandana, are currently stationed in Bangalore. Both are trying to build a narrative in favour of their respective parties.
Though Modi has so far refrained from getting into a direct tweet war with Siddaramaiah, the two national parties backed their leaders with full force on the micro-blogging website.
While the Congress trended the hashtag Answermadimodi (Modi must answer), the BJP shot back using #NammaModi (Our man Modi) on May 1.
I urge people of Karnataka to fulfill Mahatama Gandhi ji's wish of disbanding the Congress party. Now, its Karnataka's turn and you should grab this opportunity : PM Modi in Karnataka #NammaModi pic.twitter.com/GREy9tROlD— BJP (@BJP4India) May 1, 2018
Congress President has challenged me, if he speaks for 15 minutes in Parliament Modi will not be able to sit. He is correct, there is no way ordinary people like me, who do not even dress well, can sit with such high and mighty people like the Congress President : PM #NammaModi— BJP (@BJP4India) May 1, 2018
In 2005, Dr Manmohan Singh said they will electrify every village in the country by 2009, Smt Sonia Gandhi went a step ahead and said they will provide electricity to every house by 2009. Nothing had happened till 2014: PM @NarendraModi #NammaModi pic.twitter.com/0y2wKfc8Vs— Piyush Goyal (@PiyushGoyal) May 1, 2018
#ModiGovt clears construction of 1,86,777 affordable housesMinistry of housing and urban affairs approved construction of 1,86,777 more affordable houses under flagship Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban) with investment of Rs 11,169 crore#NammaModi https://t.co/0NwoXp3AXq— Amrita Bhinder (@amritabhinder) May 1, 2018
While politicians are increasingly waking up to the potential of Twitter, Siddaramaiah may have well shown the direction in which poll campaigning will be moving to ensure political messages are not missed out in the electoral din. This could be the closest we have come to a presidential system debate and nobody seems to mind.