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

US Gives Malaysia Questionable Upgrade in Human Trafficking Ranks

Malaysia’s upgrade seen as removing barrier to country’s participation in the US-led 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership More

Turkey, US Try to Establish Buffer Despite Differences

Coalition airstrikes in proposed zone would aim to drive out Islamic extremists, allowing targeted area to come under sway of anti-Assad rebels More

Video US: Millions Exploited by Vast Fortunes of Human Trafficking

State Department's annual report calls exploitation 'modern slavery,' brutalizing girls, women into prostitution and forcing men, women and children into low-wage jobs across the globe More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Wini
X
July 28, 2015 12:21 AM
The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Obama Encourages Kenya to Fix Cultures of Corruption, Discrimination

President Barack Obama bid farewell to Kenya Sunday with a major speech at as stadium outside the capital Nairobi where he called on Kenyans to change the cultures of corruption and discrimination that can hold society back. VOA East Africa Correspondent Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video California Towns Welcome Special Olympics Athletes

Cities and towns in Southern California are greeting thousands of athletes who are arriving for Special Olympics, a competition for people with intellectual disabilities. The games will run from July 25th through August 2nd. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, where athletes from Namibia, Singapore and Tanzania got a rousing welcome from local residents.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.
Video

Video Hoverbike Flying Toward Reality

Another long-standing dream of many technological inventors is quickly approaching reality: U.S.- and British-based firms are cooperating in the development of an individual flying platform they call a hoverbike. They say it may revolutionize the concept of flying, including in the U.S. military. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video As Japan Expands Defense Role, Protests Follow

The Japanese government is moving forward with a controversial security bill that would authorize the military to fight abroad for the first time since World War II. Leaders say it is critical to defend against rising threats from China and North Korea. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Japan on the big changes ahead, and the opposition they are drawing.
Video

Video Replacing Poppies with Coffee in Myanmar

The remote mountains of Myanmar’s Shan state are home to the second-largest opium-producing region in the world. After a drop during the 2000s, production surged in the past eight years to feed an increasing demand for heroin in China. But farmers are now making less on the crop, and the U.N. is hoping many will make the switch to growing coffee. Daniel de Carteret reports for VOA from Taunggyi.

VOA Blogs