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India's Prime Minister is Social-Media Superstar- The Wall Street journal

India's Prime Minister is Social-Media Superstar

The Wall Street Journal

By Niharika Mandhana

7 May 2015

New Delhi-When India's premier wanted to signal a thaw in relations with rival Pakistan recently, he didn't call a press conference or make a televised speech. He tweeted.

First, Prime Minister Narendra Modi conveyed his "best wishes" to Pakistan's cricket team. Another tweet said he was dispatching his foreign secretary to neighboring capitals, including Islamabad, "to further strengthen our ties."

Since Mr. Modi took office last year as leader of the world's largest democracy, policy pronouncements have come in 140-character snippets,he has used twitter and other social-media services to engage in diplomacy and build his image in a way few other global leaders have.

On Monday, ahead of a visit next week to Beijing, Mr. Modi-who is also on Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube- joined the Chinese microblogging service,Weibo. “ Hello China! Looking forward to interacting with Chinese friends, his inaugural post said. By late Tuesday Mr. Modi had 33,000 followers on Weibo. Some of them asserted Chinese claims to territory in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. “Return it to us” one person wrote.

On Twitter, the 64 year old politician’s posts range from serious to playful. In February,a tweet exhorted fellow citizens: “World’s interest in India is rising. We have to rise to occasion & establish global benchmarks in governance,transparency & taxation.” Sometimes he quotes Bollywood  ballads. To promote a campaign for better sanitation,he tweeted an animated video of himself, broom in hand, sweeping a street. “Enjoy:),” the tweet said. He tweeted aerial pictures of Seychelles after visiting the island nation. Over the past year, Mr. Modi has rapidly acquired a fan base on the social- media network., becoming the second most followed world political leader on Twitter after U.S. President Barack Obama, according to San Francisco-based Twitter inc. Mr. Modi’s personal account @narendramodi, has over 12 million followers. That is more than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has 6.3 million followers Pope Francis has 6 million followers in English and nearly 9 million for his Spanish account.

Of course, being a popular leader in the world’s second most populous nation,after China does help with numbers. Twitter is blocked in mainland China, so President Xi Jinping can’t really compete there. Mr. Xi doesn’t have an official Weibo account. Mr. Modi’s aides are instructed to regularly send tweet-worthy bits to a team that manages his official twitter account, @PMOIndia. The government’s official digital strategy is managed by a network of party officials, volunteers and technology experts. In a four-room “digital operations center” inside the headquarters of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, 20 young men and women tap away at keyboards on desks cluttered with backpacks and bicycle helmets. Hashtags are scrawled on a giant whiteboard. This group converts old- school press releases into online posts, live tweets Mr. Modi’s speeches, coordinates,WhatsApp campaigns and runs a web-television channel.

It also works to keep Mr. Modi trending online. As India’s premier landed in Paris for a summit in early April, it begins work on promoting the trip’s hashtag-#ModiinFrance- in an effort to get traction on Twitter. Two senior members of the team said they rely on a massive database of online volunteers- are tweeting and commenting army- to make Mr. Modi’s messages go viral. Another important job: studying online sentiment. Indu Shekhar, 35 years  old, spends his day tracking how netizens are reacting to Mr. Modi’s initiatives and speeches.

“We’re very data driven,” said Arvind Gupta, who heads the BJP’s digital operations and works closely with Mr. Modi. “We use data to decide if our messages needsto change, if a sound bite needs to be given to shape the ecosystem”

Mr.Gupta’s team is currently working “very hard” he said to change the narrative about Mr. Modi’s land acquisition policy. Mr. Modi is seeking to make it easier for the government to acquire land for industry and infrastructure projects.His political opponents have critized the policy as “anti farmer”

“The data showed that our messaging on the land issue wasn’t right, so we starting working to correct it,” Mr.Gupta said.

In many countries, leaders are scrambling to adapt their message to a generation hooked on Twitter and Facebook, not the morning paper or nightly news. But Mr.Modi is, in some ways, leading a social-media movement in a country where the political rewards aren’t so obvious.

India has more than 280 million Internet users. That is a lot of people- roughly the same as the number of online users in the U.S. – but it only accounts for roughly a fourth of India’s population. Market – research companies estimate that Twitter has 20 million to 30 million Indian users. Twitter said its policy is not the disclose country – by –country data.

Mr.Modi often turns to Twitter for foreign relations. Word that he had invited Mr.Obama to visit Delhi in January, a major milestone in relations between the two countries, first came from Mr.Modi’s twitter account.

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won re- election in December, Mr.Modi tweeted:” Congratulations @AbeShinzo on your victory in the elections. Japan will scale newer heights of progress under your able leadership.”

Mr.Abe who follows only six people including his wife and Mr. Modi, tweeted in response:“Thank you so much for your warm message! Abenomics will never stop advancing.Excited to continue working with you & India!”

Twitter says Mr.Modi is also first political leader to use a Twitter Mirror, an exclusive app , usually the provinces of pop stars and red-carpet types, that produces autographed selfies and posts them to Twitter on his tours.

Mr.Modi’s social media approach is driving the India capital’s press corps, used to cozy relations with previous leaders’s aides to distraction. With no press briefings and few interviews reporters pore over stream of government press releases and tweets.

“We don’t really know or understand the prime minister’s thinking on this policy or that issue until he announces it himself,” said on political editor with a major Indian television news channel, who declined to be named.

Jagdish Thakkar, the prime minister’s public relations officer, didn’t respond to requests for comments. An aide to Mr. Modi, who declined to be named, said social media is “close to the Pm’s heart.” Mr. Modi likes the “frankness and honesty of the medium,” the official said. 

Prime Minister Modi takes a selfie with a mobile phone in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad in this April 2014 file photo.

Prime Minister Modi takes a selfie with a mobile phone in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad in this April 2014 file photo.