BENGALURU: Ever wondered who came up with Congress’ famous online campaign #ShahOfLies or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s #GoonsOfCongress? While leaders of all political parties are fighting it out on the ground to win in the May 12 Assembly Elections, teams of professional, passionate and tech-savvy youngsters are quietly waging a digital war in Karnataka.
While the digital world sees, reads, watches and gets influenced by the social media campaigns run by parties such as the BJP, Congress and JD(S), the people who run the cells had remained behind the scenes, until now. Political parties have come to realise the power of social media post the 2014 parliamentary elections when the BJP it as a tool for public outreach, perception creation and management.
All three major political parties have a social media cell and a cyber war-room. Meet the people behind the high-intensity social media face-off in the state.
JD(S)’ team of top MNC execs, ex-IAS officers
The notion of JD(S) being a rural mass-oriented party is passe. Today, H D Devegowda’s party has a full-fledged digital war room headed by the Vice President of a multinational investment bank and financial services company- Naveen C, a 45-year-old. 40 core volunteers divided into groups of 4 or 5 handle different aspects of social media including fan pages, video uploads, tweets, Facebook posts and website management. JD(S) has a think tank comprising techies, bankers and even former IAS officers.
The JD(S) claims to have access to 15,000 Whatsapp groups, hundreds of fan pages with 70,000 to 1 lakh followers each, 40 lakh mail ids and 1.4 crore phone numbers acquired through various means in the last five years. “We have put together data from visitor registers at the party office, residences and guest houses of H D Kumaraswamy and H D Devegowda. We also have phone number and details of people who called at our 24/7 call centres, set up to help farmers in distress,” says a JD(S) leader who oversees operations at the war room.
Jitendra T L an Executive Director in an Indian IT services giant and K Jayanth, network analyst in one of the biggest corporations in banking services, both 45 years old, work with Naveen. The trio have been friends for 30 years and they bond over a liking for H D Kumaraswamy. “We studied together in Bengaluru and worked in US and Singapore. Now we work for the JD(S) together,” says Naveen. While Twitter may not be the forte of JD(S), the party rules the roost on YouTube and Facebook.
Social media warriors of the BJP
Pradeep Kadabi, a 37-year-old businessman has dedicated his time to the BJP’s social media campaign as its Bengaluru District in-charge. An entrepreneur, Kadabi earlier worked with General Electric for eight years. Siddhu Pundikal and Prashant Makanur, both 29 years old, work as co-convenors. The team is led by 27-year-old Balaji Srinivas.
“I quit my job in 2017 to dedicate my time to BJP social media cell. I am a big fan of Vajpayee,” says Siddhu Pundikal who worked as an HR manager for 9 years, and who followed B S Yeddyurappa to Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) and then returned to BJP with the leader.
Prashant Makanur from Haveri holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering and worked with CIPLA before turning an entrepreneur. “Since I spend a lot of time in the war room, my business is seeing a dip in profits of about 60 percent for last three months, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is a phone with good battery backup,” he says.
Many BJP leaders are tech-savvy and that makes the job more challenging. “There are campaign costs and then there are operational costs. We have teams of 15 members each at the state level, district level and constituency level. 23,000 WhatsApp groups with 100-150 people are handled by the team. We will begin YouTube campaign soon,” says Srinivas.
Congress’ cyber ninjas
Congress’ social media campaign has been a hit since the formation of a new team in September last year. Srivatsa Y B heads this team of youngsters, largely volunteers. Kashyap Nandan works as a product manager in an IT firm in Bengaluru but, after office he is brainstorming at the Congress’ social media war room on Cunningham Road.
Bhushan Nag has been a salaried professional for 14 years. With work experience in the US, Nag now manages the party team and internal team of the Congress social-media cell along with Srivatsa and Nandan.
“We have 20 paid professionals who help with content writing, video editing, professional writing but everybody else is a volunteer,” says Srivatsa, In-charge, Karnataka Congress Social Media. The Congress’ social media outreach has been designed systematically to reach a specific audience, picking the right language, issues, humour and content for this.
Much like the BJP, the Congress too has conveners at every district and constituency – a phenomenon absent in the JD(S).
He quit an MNC job for BJP’s social media cell
At 27, Balaji Srinivas is the youngest among the 15-member team that handles BJP’s social media cell in Karnataka. Balaji quit his job at an MNC two years ago to lead the BJP’s social media campaign as its convenor ahead of the Assembly elections. Balaji holds a degree in life sciences from Jain College. “My association with the BJP goes back to college days when I was a member of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).
When B S Yeddyurappa took charge as BJP state president in 2016, he appointed me along with the team,” Balaji said. Balaji attends at least four meetings and a hundred phone calls in a day. In his social media war room, where close to 30 volunteers and at least 40 paid professionals work round the clock, Balaji keeps a close track on not just his party’s campaign but also the gaffes by leaders of other parties. “I don’t take a salary from the BJP. It is the party that matters. I worked in an MNC for three-and-a-half-years and have savings that I can bank upon,” Balaji said.
From coding for cars to campaigning for Cong
Srivatsa Y B is a prominent face on Twitter in poll-bound Karnataka. The 34-year-old chief of Karnataka Congress’ social media cell, who leads online campaigns for the party, has a considerable number of followers. A computer science engineer by qualification, Srivatsa worked as a technical architect for Bosch and Wipro before he quit his job to work for Congress.
“I wrote codes for cars for the larger part of my 11 years of work life. While I have been a member of Congress since 2004, I started working for the party’s digital space only three years ago and the party asked me to head the social media cell last year,” Srivatsa told The New Indian Express. With a keen interest in politics, Srivatsa, who has worked in Germany, chose Congress over his father’s business in Bengaluru. He refused to take over the reigns of a small scale factory in Peenya previously owned by his father. Srivatsa claims that his experience as a team manager makes his job as state in-charge easier. Srivatsa leads a team that includes volunteers who have taken sabbaticals to work for Congress.
VP of an MNC, JD(S) IT cell chief by passion
If you thought JD(S) was a strictly rural party with mass support base only from rural localities, meet Naveen C who is breaking the stereotype. Naveen (45) heads a 40-member team that runs the JD(S) social media war room from Sadashivanagar in Bengaluru. When not strategising for the party’s social media campaign, Naveen works as vice president in a multinational investment bank and financial services company. “We admire H D Kumaraswamy and his efforts.
I continue to work for an MNC eight hours a day but use all my free time monitoring the social media campaign,” Naveen told The New Indian Express. Naveen helped set up the party website in 2012. Since then, he has been in the forefront giving JD(S) a digital push. “We sometimes fund the campaigns ourselves,” Naveen said. Naveen has worked in Singapore and the US. His friends of 30 years help him manage the IT cell. He has known Kumaraswamy for eight years and wishes to see him as the CM.