News / Asia

'Cyber-Hindus' - India's New Breed of Political Activist

Reuters
Four men chatting in a Delhi bar are not, by their own admission, natural drinking buddies. The young professionals, all in their 20s and 30s, come from vastly different regions of India and varied backgrounds.
 
They first “met” on Twitter, spotting each other on the micro-blogging site where they voiced a common desire - to see Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi become the next prime minister.
 
After online introductions, they met face-to-face on their own initiative, and, finding they had plenty in common, gather monthly in the nation's capital to talk about life, work, and, most importantly, how to make a difference in India's upcoming election. The men insisted they paid for their own expenses, and only one of them was associated with Modi's party.
 
Tiny cells of friends like this one are being created up and down the country, they say - a rare instance of India's politically apathetic urban middle class getting drawn into activism. Many come together of their own volition, others with a nudge from Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
 
It's another arrow in his quiver ahead of a general election that must be held within six months, and opinion polls are already predicting he and the BJP will win more seats than the ruling Congress party.
 
The young pro-Modi activists are being dubbed “cyber-Hindus”. When online, they spread Modi's message, counter newspaper criticism of him and question reporters' integrity, or mock the Gandhi dynasty that runs the Congress party and has dominated Indian politics since independence in 1947.
 
At party rallies, where the more traditional cadres are also at hand, the tech-savvy volunteers tweet, or produce live-streaming of speeches.
 
“I think he [Modi] has proven himself,” said Nitin Kashyap, a financial services executive who took a six-month sabbatical from work to volunteer for the campaign.
 
“This guy has done something which should have been done in India a long, long time ago,” added the 34-year-old, who hails from a small town in the state of Assam, in India's far northeast.
 
The brand consultant sitting next to him, who gives only his Twitter handle zKeshart because he is concerned his political views could affect his business, calls Modi a “uniting force”.
 
“That guy has worked his way up from being a tea boy to becoming an aspiring prime minister of India,” he said of Modi, who has played on his humble roots during a grueling pre-election tour of the country that has electrified Indian politics in the last 10 weeks.
 
“That's a big deal for the country. He's relating to an IT guy, he's relating to somebody in the desert, somebody up north in the hills, everybody.”
 
While the numbers of these cyber-Hindus are a drop in the ocean of an electorate of 770 million, tech-savvy activists believe that, with the aid of social media, they can mobilize millions of like-minded Indians to vote for Modi and the BJP in the upcoming elections.
 
The BJP even appears to be making inroads into the poor rural vote and that of an emerging middle class living in small towns, even though both groups benefit from Congress handouts to farmers - underlining how Modi's pro-business credentials are striking a chord.
 
Rise of Technology
 
The rise of the cyber-Hindus marks a shift for the BJP and for Indian politics as a whole.
 
The party has long been associated with its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a voluntary right-wing group that preaches “Hindutva”, a hardline brand of Hindu nationalism.
 
Clad in baggy khaki shorts, RSS members still meet in parks across India to salute, exercise, sing patriotic songs and discuss the greatness of their nation.
 
But now, the BJP's message comes increasingly from a swell of aspirational, right-leaning Indians angry about endemic corruption they blame on Congress and eager to protect the rights of a Hindu majority.
 
Modi, who joined the RSS as a teenager, flits between both worlds. Since 2001, he has been chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, where he touts an economic success story he wants to apply to India to lift it from economic torpor.
 
In addition to strong economic growth, it was also under his watch there in 2002 that Hindu mobs killed at least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, and Modi has been accused of turning a blind eye to, or even encouraging, the riots.
 
He denies any wrongdoing, and says he has been unfairly targeted by Congress, which boasts a secular, inclusive agenda.
 
India's 1.2 billion people are mostly Hindu with Muslims a 14 percent minority. Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists make up the rest.
 
In a Reuters interview, Modi called himself “techno-savvy”. He has nearly three million Twitter followers, and addressed four rallies at a time using holographic technology last year.
 
Congress, meanwhile, has been slow to develop a cyber strategy, amid disagreement among senior figures about how much impact it will have on the election outcome.
 
Modi sees technology as a particularly good way of connecting with India's burgeoning youth - there are expected to be more than 150 million first-time voters in 2014. The percentage of the population using the internet has jumped from around 0.5 percent in 2000 to 12.5 percent in 2012, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
 
“Technology is our DNA,” said Arvind Gupta, the head of Modi's Delhi-based IT cell. He sees social media as a way both to tell and to listen, or, as he calls it, “a two-way street.”
 
At Gupta's state-of-the-art IT operation, a team of young volunteers works at computers to spread the BJP message, knock down negative articles or comments and delve into corruption scandals that could taint opponents. At huge Modi rallies across India, local IT outfits numbering up to 100 volunteers also stream speeches live and tweet and blog words and images.
 
“It's not hype - he has a proven track record,” said Anil Chalageri, 33, as he helped livestream Modi's November rally in Bangalore, where he addressed a crowd of some 300,000 people.
 
“They want to see Gujarat across the nation,” said the founder of QualiBrisk, a human resources firm.
 
Votes, Not Tweets
 
Back in the Delhi bar, Kashyap and his friends see social media as a means of empowerment - getting their message to hundreds, if not thousands of people.
 
What they want, they say, is real change.         
 
“I feel a responsibility on my shoulders,” said Ankit Jain, a 26-year-old diamond dealer with some 8,600 Twitter followers.
 
“Twitter will not change anything. Voter registration is very important. Every vote counts.”
 
Shreshtha Sharma, the fourth member of the group and founder of a software development company, shares his friends' excitement about Modi, whose popularity among young, right-wing Indians borders on a personality cult.
 
However, he is reluctant to predict outright victory for the BJP, which needs to make huge gains from 2009 to prevail in 2014.
 
“That will depend on whether this generation has obtained the critical mass,” said the 28-year-old. “But the generation after us, they will be able to shift it. If Modi isn't able to do it now, then he will definitely be able to do it later on.”

You May Like

Brutality Eroding IS Financial Support

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says IS's penchant for publicizing beheadings, other brutal forms of punishment hurts group’s bottom line More

Studies: Climate Change a Factor in Disasters in Syria, California

Studies point to possibility of clear and present dangers from a threat often considered to be far in the future More

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukrainei
X
March 03, 2015 3:11 AM
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video US, Cuba Report Progress in Latest Talks to Restore Ties

The United States and Cuba say they have made progress in the second round of talks on restoring diplomatic relations more than 50 years after breaking off ties. Delegations from both sides met in Washington on Friday to work on opening embassies in Havana and Washington and iron out key obstacles to historic change. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas reports from the State Department.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video NYC's Restaurant Week: An Economic Boom in Fine Dining

New Yorkers take pride in setting world trends — in fashion, the arts and fine dining. The city’s famous biannual Restaurant Week plays a significant role in a booming tourism industry that sustains 359,000 jobs and generates $61 billion in yearly revenue. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
Video

Video Brookhaven at Cutting Edge of US Energy Research

Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and instability in the Middle East are driving debate in the U.S. about making America energy independent. Recently, the American Energy Innovation Council urged Congress and the White House to make expanded energy research a priority. One beneficiary of increased energy spending would be the Brookhaven National Lab, where clean, renewable, efficient energy is the goal. VOA's Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More