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Instead of Jobs and Economy, Congress Chose Facebook as Ammo Against BJP. Now It's Way Off Target

In this photo taken on February 4, 2020, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi speaks at a public meeting in New Delhi. (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP)

In this photo taken on February 4, 2020, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi speaks at a public meeting in New Delhi. (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP)

Many Congress leaders feel the party is missing the mark by focusing all its energy on the alleged BJP-Facebook nexus, instead of cornering the Modi government on unemployment and economy.

Is the Congress missing the forest for the trees? Over the last three weeks, the party has focused only on two issues: noisy TV debates and Facebook. The party ran aggressive hashtags on both. The purpose was to double down on its allegation that the Narendra Modi government and the BJP are “sold out, anti-people and divisive”.

Many leaders in both the Congress and BJP, however, feel that the biggest issues on which the Modi government can be cornered are unemployment and the state of the economy.

A ruling party MP, in fact, conceded in private that the “economy is in a bad shape and almost unrecoverable, and the pandemic has made things worse for the government. This state can make things really bad for us, but then the opposition helps us by not making this the real issue.”

Many in Congress agree. They say it’s fine to attack the government on issues like the alleged influence of the BJP in social media giant Facebook, but that cannot be the main focus. “The aggression has to be on issues that affect the common man, like jobs and food. On this, we have not done enough,” says a former Congress MP from Uttar Pradesh.

A sitting MP and many like him are even talking about a future away from the Congress. “I cannot join the BJP, but can’t even think of a bright future here four years down the line,” the MP said.

This Sunday a campaign called “roti do, rozgar do” was run by the Youth Congress. It wasn’t even tweeted, let alone pushed to trend, by the Congress’ national-level social media team. It clearly wasn’t the top priority of the party.

Another campaign that began well but ended with no bang was the Speak Up India campaign run by the party May 28 onwards. The lead was taken by Rahul Gandhi himself. The number of tweets on the hashtag #SpeakUpIndia after 24 hours was around 2.45 lakh, including both positive and negative tweets.

Not even 50% of the tweets were found to have videos with them. The screenshots circulated claiming the number 1 spot on worldwide trends were from a third-party vendor’s site rather than Twitter’s own trends list.

Some Congress leaders had filed an FIR against BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra, holding him responsible for the death of Congress spokesperson Rajiv Tyagi. The two were last seen together engaged in a noisy debate on a TV channel. The Congress blamed Patra and the BJP for unleashing hate that killed Tyagi. But within three days, Congress spokespersons were seen on a debate with Patra on another TV channel. This flip-flop exposes the glaring inconsistencies in Congress campaigns.

“Now how does this matter to us? How does this help us reach out to people,” a Congress MP asked.

Take the other campaign by the Congress on Facebook. The point the Congress and Rahul Gandhi are trying to make -- that the BJP manipulates and uses these social media platforms to push its electoral agenda and encourage vicious speech -- is one many consider valid. But should this be the sole focus of the party?

In the last 48 hours, the Congress has held two press conferences and pushed out many tweets as part of the campaign, but not many in the party are enthused about it.

“Most of young India is on Facebook, even in rural India. They don’t care who Ankhi Das (Facebook’s director of public policy for India, South Asia and Central Asia) is. They are also the ones who want jobs and better opportunities. If this campaign was somehow linked to the economy, it would have helped,” says a leader.

But Congress’ social media head Rohan Gupta disagrees. “It’s not about it not being an aam Aadmi issue. Facebook is popular among youth and they are our vote bank. We don’t want our youth to fall for fake news,” he says.

So if Facebook is the devil, what stops the Congress from getting off it to prove a point? That may not be so easy for the Congress. Despite the controversies, Facebook and social media platforms remain powerful and influential in terms of engagement.

At the receiving end of bad press, the Congress, or for that matter, no party would want to lose out on this traction. But even as the latest campaign by the Congress, #FBsackankhidas tops Twitter trends, is it an indication of what people vote on?

In the end roti, paani, kapda, makan remains the main issues for the country. The Congress focus on it has neither been consistent nor persistent.

first published:August 19, 2020, 19:23 IST