Pradyut Bora, the founder convenor of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) notorious Information Technology (IT) Cell, left the outfit in 2015, a year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. Bora had back then blamed the “highly centralised style” of leadership of PM Modi and BJP President Amit Shah as a major grievance. Three years have passed since, and Bora says that the IT Cell at present is just a mere reflection of what he had envisaged of it at the time of setting it up in 2008. But the alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) says the trolls of the BJP are just saying what the leadership wants them to say, pointing a direct finger at PM Modi and Amit Shah. He recounts trolling wasn’t the mandate given by former BJP president Rajnath Singh in 2009. Bora, who now runs his own outfit, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), says that the reputational loss due to trolling by BJP’s cyber army and the autocratic way of functioning of Modi and Shah will leave BJP “completely destroyed” by 2024. Bora sat down for a freewheeling chat with National Herald’s Dhairya Maheshwari
You left the BJP in 2014 blaming the authoritative style of functioning of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah? Do you believe that they have modified their working styles now?
First of all, I don’t see any reason why it should change. A tiger doesn’t change its stripes. The grievances I had raised in 2015 are as valid now. I feel vindicated and many people say that I was right to leave the BJP. It is a good feeling to know that I have been proven right
You say you feel vindicated for leaving the BJP due to flaws in their leadership. Why has the party, then been so, successful in electoral politics?
Well, Mrs Indira Gandhi was as authoritarian as Mr Modi. But Mrs Gandhi got elected time and again. To cite a contemporary example, an autocrat like Vladimir Putin is getting elected again and again in Russia. So is the case in Turkey. So, I don’t think there is any direct link between your style of leadership and the electoral dividends you end up reaping. Elections are won on populism. They are not a mandate on your leadership style.
You were the founder convenor of the BJP IT Cell. How is the current mission of the cell different from what you had in mind? What is Amit Malviya and the current BJP leadership doing that you would never have done?
Well, we need to understand that the IT Cell doesn’t operate in isolation. It operates on the mandate given to it by the party president, pretty much like any other cell of the party. It should be seen as the mouthpiece of the party’s leadership.
When I had started the IT Cell, I was given a specific mandate by the party president. The mandate comprised automating the party, attracting IT professionals into the party, reaching out to voters and advising the party on IT policies.
Coming to the present, I assume that if the current IT Cell is behaving the way it is, it is because of the mandate they have been given by the party president. I refuse to believe that the IT Cell is operating alone or Amit Malviya is determining the direction in which the IT Cell would move. The leadership of the BJP, if it wants, could clearly warn the trolls that one more nasty tweet, or spread of misinformation, and there would be consequences. It is as simple as that. It is all about the intent of the leadership. We must also remember that when I had set out to establish the IT Cell, social media around the world, not just in India, was seen as the great democratiser. Social media back then was thought of as a benign force and it reflected in our work. Today, people the world over have realised that social media has been a wolf in sheep’s clothing. There is another side to social media and it could be as dangerous as one could think of. So, the public’s understanding of social media has changed.
Pradyut Bora: “I refuse to believe that the IT Cell is operating alone or Amit Malviya is determining the direction in which the IT Cell would move. The leadership of the BJP, if it wants, could clearly warn the trolls that one more nasty tweet, or spread of misinformation, and there would be consequences. It is as simple as that. It is all about the intent of the leadership”
Why has the BJP been seen more successful in utilising social media to reach out to voters than the Congress? What would you say does the Congress need to do to ace the BJP on social media?
As I have said, your social media presence is the reflection of one’s leadership. I would argue that if it was Atal Behari Vajpayee or LK Advani leading the BJP today, the BJP IT Cell wouldn’t be behaving the way it is. And if there is a certain amount of restraint in Congress’ IT Cell, it reflects Congress leadership and the attitude of Rahul Gandhi. The civility and restraint in Congress’ social media strategy is reflective of Rahul Gandhi’s temperament.
I would say that mischief and misinformation always has a larger audience than sanity. If you try to be sane, you would obviously have a lesser audience than somebody trying to cause mischief. And that, in a way, explains the popularity of the BJP IT Cell. When you start abusing and trolling people, that really brings out the worst in humans.
How big was the role of social media in Narendra Modi’s election win in 2014?
It played a huge role. While at the time of the 2009 elections, social media was a niche media, it became mass media in 2014. 2014 elections were the first in Indian history when social media had a leverage. In fact, one of the reasons why the Congress lost in 2014, besides various corruption cases, was that they didn’t manage their social media well.
And will social media play a bigger role in 2019 than what it did in 2014?
I believe that there is a certain degree of maturity that has come to the users of social media. In 2014, social media had the same sanctity as print. Back then, it commanded a fair bit of credibility. But now, many people have woken up to the fact that it is not as kosher as it had looked. A lot of people have become aware of the insidious side of social media, the fake news, misinformation and trolling. So, social media at the time of 2019 elections will have some credibility challenges.
While the reach of social media will be much wider, many more are not going to take all the information on social media prima facie.
Pradyut Bora: “I would argue that if it was Atal Behari Vajpayee or LK Advani leading the BJP today, the BJP IT Cell wouldn’t be behaving the way it is. And if there is a certain amount of restraint in Congress’ IT Cell, it reflects Congress leadership and the attitude of Rahul Gandhi. The civility and restraint in Congress’ social media strategy is reflective of Rahul Gandhi’s temperament”
But what we are seeing these days is people, especially in small towns and villages, are believing almost anything or everything being circulated on social media. Would you still say that social media faces a credibility challenge in 2019?
Well, the disillusionment with social media, at least in the urban areas, has already started. So, the sense of balance in the media consumption, at least among urban voters, is already gaining ground. Back in 2009 at the time of elections, we had employed social media to reach out to voters of a select list of 20 cities. But in 2019, the voters in these 20 cities will not believe information on social media the same way they did in 2009.
I strongly believe that by the time of 2024 elections, the users of social media, both in urban and rural areas, will become far more discerning. Not to forget, that a large chunk of BJP’s voter base is urban, which would make it comparatively tough for the party to convince them just using social media. That will put the BJP at a comparative disadvantage in 2019.
We are seeing that fake news and misinformation social media platforms are having deadly consequences for certain sections of the people. How does one combat such misinformation in a country like India? Do we have examples of other countries to look upto?
Well, any attempt by the authorities to control the flow of information is not going to work. Social media is like a hydra-headed monster. If you try to control the flow of information on one platform, the internet users are going to find another one. I believe that the judiciary has to step in in a very assertive manner, in terms of defining the limits of free speech. It must be emphasised that free speech is not absolute.
And I don’t think any country has been successful in combatting fake news till now, including the United States. Just look at the way Hillary Clinton continues to be trolled on social media, even after losing the presidential vote. Donald Trump still refers to her as crooked Hillary, to the delight of his support base, even though she has completely withdrawn from public life.
However, that doesn’t mean that India cannot take the lead. We can come up with our own solution. The solution, I believe, lies in defining the limits of free speech. There must be a legal definition of what is permissible and what is not.
What role do social media platforms have in combating fake news?
Well, the platforms are neutral in nature. They can’t really be blamed for the spread of fake news and misinformation. The government must not pressure any social media platform to behave in one way or another. Today, if the government asks the social media platform to block someone for mischief, it is very much likely that government may well ask the platform to block somebody for saying the right thing. The onus should be on the user than on social media platforms.
Pradyut Bora: “I strongly believe that by the time of 2024 elections, the users of social media, both in urban and rural areas, will become far more discerning. Not to forget, that a large chunk of BJP’s voter base is urban, which would make it comparatively tough for the party to convince them just using social media. That will put the BJP at a comparative disadvantage in 2019”
Do you see the current government dictating terms to social media platforms?
Why should they? The BJP has the biggest social media troll army in the country. Whatever is happening on social media is mostly in the government’s interest.
Is setting up an IT cell expensive? Does it increase the operational budget of a political party in a significant manner?
Absolutely. I believe not all the mischief on social media is organic or spontaneous. I refuse to believe it. As a pioneer of the use of social media in politics, I would say that barely 10 to 20 per cent of the responses on social media is organic and spontaneous Eighty per cent is funded mischief.
How big is the role of data and analytics in politics?
Huge. Today, all the digital platforms know everything about you. They know your daily routine, from the time of waking up to the time you go to bed. They know what content you consume in the day and at night. Profiling of voters, therefore, becomes very easy. Half of politics is communication and the art of communication lies in how precise and how pointed you could make it.
What social media allows you to do is that it helps you achieve the highest level of personalisation. That’s what makes data so much insidious and dangerous. I am sure that there are many more Cambridge Analyticas waiting in the wings. It is rather an extremely worrying development for a democracy, if you consider how political parties could manipulate their messages taking cues from this data.
With the coming of age of artificial intelligence, the personalisation of messages is going to get ever more precise. For instance, based on personal prejudices, political parties and other online media players may even present the same piece of information in different ways to different people in order to get more traction.
Pradyut Bora: “I have always been a liberal. I joined the BJP looking at AB Vajpayee, and not the RSS. I joined the party after Atalji lost power, not when he was in power, because I believed his was the kind of leadership that the country needed. There was opposition to Atalji but nobody hated him. Even the Congress didn’t hate him. He was known to take everyone along, having led a coalition of 23 parties”
How is the new party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), that you floated after quitting the BJP different?
I have always been a liberal. I joined the BJP looking at AB Vajpayee, and not the RSS. I joined the party after Atalji lost power, not when he was in power, because I believed his was the kind of leadership that the country needed. There was opposition to Atalji but nobody hated him. Even the Congress didn’t hate him. He was known to take everyone along, having led a coalition of 23 parties.
So, my party more or less is following in the footsteps of Atalji’s philosophy. We are socially and economically liberal.
What are the prospects of the BJP under its current leadership? How do you see the Opposition faring in 2019 elections?
There can be a change in store, if, and it is a big if, the opposition parties can come together on one platform. At the moment, the opposition hasn’t got its act together. So, if in 2019, the BJP were to return to power, it’s not that the BJP would have won, but the opposition would have lost.
2019 is an election for the Opposition to win. But, the people of India will have to see a united opposition for that to happen. Indians don’t want to see a fragmented politics, because this is exactly what the BJP is going to tell the people of the country now. They are going to invoke the Janata coalition days. The narrative of the BJP may well shape up to be that voting for opposition is voting for instability.
The opposition must counter this by saying that they are a stable political force. They must highlight it that even the BJP brought 23 parties on a single platform during Atalji’s tenure.
A major drawback of BJP’s current leadership structure is that they are centred around just two personalities. Not enough emphasis is being place on grooming leaders. I had said it after the BJP came to power in 2014, that it would be destroyed by the end of 2024, once the current leadership runs out of steam, since there is nobody else within the party who is being encouraged to take up leadership positions.
The party’s reputation has already taken a major hit on social media and in other media outlets due to the behaviour of its volunteers and leaders. Modi and Shah will completely destroy the Bharatiya Janata Party