The battle for votes in Karnataka is being fought at many levels. On the ground it is an epic clash between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. In cyberspace a proxy war is waging between the two national parties led by two lesser-known warriors—Amit Malviya and Divya Spandana, the brains behind the social media attack forces of the BJP and the Congress.
The sheer ferocity of the online combat is almost incredible. It is almost a non-stop carnage in the sky with unrestrained verbal allegations aimed at influencing the voters. Unlike campaign rallies on the ground by candidates and leaders, the cyber war may be silent and invisible, but the impact is tangible and undeniable.
The novelty factor of virtual world warfare makes it difficult to measure by conventional yardsticks. But the general impression is that the Congress is winning the Twitter war, whereas the BJP is still ahead in the WhatsApp platform. On Facebook the latest indications are that the Spandana army has gained the upper hand over the Malviya brigade.
What is really new about the high-tech warfare is that back in 2014 it was one-sided, with the Congress presence on social media virtually non-existent. But this time is so different that that BJP party bosses are said to be sorely disappointed with Malviya and his team and are even thinking of a major re-staffing after the Karnataka elections to put up a better performance on the road to 2019.
Within 12 months of being put in charge of the Congress social media wing and being made head of Congress national digital team, Divya Spandana has clearly succeeded in helping to turn around Rahul Gandhi’s image as a dynamic national leader. Now in her home state of Karnataka, she has been able to boost the social media public perception that CM Siddaramaiah is marching towards victory
As head of the BJP’s IT Cell, Amit Malviya oversees party’s social media campaigns and is responsible for voter-level and booth-level outreach. As many media watchers have reported, he has created thousands of Twitter handles to publicise government policies and statements. Initially, he was seen as more effective than his predecessor Arvind Gupta.
But Malviya seems to have been unprepared for the spectacular entry into the online battlefield of former South Indian film actress Ramya, which was Divya Spandana’s screen name. Under pressure, his team is facing increasing flak not only from his opponents but also from non-partisan third parties like big media houses and individual liberal-minded netizens for his tendency to tread on too many toes.
His mentor is Piyush Goyal and till now he could always be sure of protection from the high-flying minister, even when he committed any mistakes, which is unavoidable in the high-pressure 24x7 online battlefield. But when a crisis arises with Piyush Goyal himself being hit by the Congress with allegations of corporate fraud, Malviya finds himself in a bind. Should he remain focused on Karnataka or should he rush to defend his mentor?
Malviya himself had become the subject of controversy and Election Commission scrutiny when he tweeted the date of Karnataka Assembly Election even before the formal announcement. This led to a storm with BJP being accused of having secret links to the Election Commission.
Malviya was able to get off the hook only after he admitted that he had picked up the information from a TV channel flash. The storm quickly blew over but left its impact on Malviya and his team members, who felt quite peeved by the fact that a local Congressman who had also tweeted the dates almost at same time received far less attention.
In the hectic world of propaganda and disinformation, these are the hazards one has to face. The instant, zero-delay requirements of social media warfare add to the tensions and the blunders. What makes it even more harrowing is when you are dealing with an equally sharp and equally ruthless opponent.
Divya Spandana is proving to be such a gutsy and innovative cyber warrior that some BJP leaders are beginning to wonder whether Amit Malviya has met his match. When the former actress was first named as head of social media and digital communications of the Congress party, it aroused derisive laughter in the BJP party hierarchy and the IT Cell alike.
Today, nobody is laughing, least of all Amit Malviya. Spandana alias Ramya was never a political novice—she has been a Congress Member of Parliament from Mandya. She was not some small-time actress—she is the recipient of two Filmfare Awards South, an Udaya Award and a Karnataka State Film Award.
Within 12 months of being put in charge of the Congress social media wing and being made head of the Congress national digital team, she has clearly succeeded in helping to turn around Rahul Gandhi's image as a dynamic national leader. Now in her home state of Karnataka, she has been able to boost the social media public perception that CM Siddaramaiah is marching towards victory.