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

Unpaid Kurdish Fighters Sign of Economic Woes

Sharp cuts in Kurdistan's budget by Baghdad, falling oil revenue, coping with refugees, inflated public sector have hit regional economy hard More

Koreas Exchange List of Envoys for Family Reunion Talks

Officials will discuss date, venue and number of participants for reunion; Seoul hopes to hold event late this month More

China Targets 197 in Online Speech Crackdown

Nearly 200 punished for 'spreading rumors' online in ongoing crackdown on free speech More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisisi
X
Lisa Bryant
September 02, 2015 6:19 PM
Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.

VOA Blogs