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BJP’s Troll Army Haunts Sushma Swaraj

BJP’s Troll Army Haunts Sushma Swaraj

Prodyut Bora’s enthusiasm knew no bounds when he was asked to set up the Information technology cell of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2007. His heart swelled with pride and mind sizzled with a thousand dreams of seeing his favourite party march on to the digital world much before the other parties had set their eyes there. Back then, BJP leader L K Advani lost the elections yet the party, for which Bora had chucked a well-paying job and a good life, didn’t lose its morals, values and principles. Bora continued his work, building online communities of young supporters for the party and hoped it would democratize information and expression. Gradually the online following of BJP increased and it was to become a key factor in Narendra Modi’s landslide victory in 2014 election. However, as Modi and his lieutenant Amit Shah (BJP president) took charge and winds of change swept the BJP and the nation, the online presence of BJP and its digital campaign took to spreading lies and hate, and even abusing people, including some of their own. No wonder Bora quit the IT cell and the Hindutva party saying, “BJP’s ideology today is a different one from the one when he had joined.”

Bora recently said the IT cell of the BJP he had founded was now a mutant. As he had feared, he claimed, it had turned into a Frankenstein’s monster. His allusion was to the BJP’s massive troll army going after Sushma Swaraj, external affairs minister, after her ministry had shifted an officer for misbehaving with a Hindu-Muslim couple, who had appeared before him for an interview in Lucknow for passports. Even though Swaraj was out of the country, she was trolled on the social media for shifting the passport officer Vikas Mishra, who had asked the Muslim man to convert to Hinduism and take ‘pheras’ with his Hindu wife for getting a passport.

The passport officer had wronged the couple as the redrafted rules under Swaraj have been liberalized and the procedure of getting the document made more transparent. He had erred in rejecting their application and verbally suggesting conversion to the man and chiding his Hindu wife for using her maiden name even after marrying a Muslim. The MEA did some quick damage control after the media highlighted the couples’ plight and offered them passports in a day. Mishra who was removed claimed he had been punished for following rules.

Even as Swaraj was on one of her rare foreign tours – PM Modi leaves no country unvisited – a storm on the social media was brewing against her. The tone and tenor of the Tweeple was in line with Hindutva brigade’s shameless rants targeting Muslims and other minority groups. No wonder According to a survey of the Hindustan Times newspaper, 41 ministers and MPs of BJP followed the trolls that abused one of the most efficient ministers of the Modi government. That completes the story of BJP’s online presence turning into a Frankenstein’s monster.

Swaraj is no ordinary woman; a veteran leader who has fought many political battles and is one of the most loved members of the Modi team. Her popularity stretches beyond borders as she is ever ready to connect with people through social media and help them. Her use of social media, especially twitter for helping common people and bringing in transparency and shedding red tape in the administration is a new experiment in good governance. In fact Swaraj has been rated as one of the most followed ministers in the world on social media. Even she has to face vulgar messages and expletives from netizens – most of them from the Hindutva brigade – for an action by her ministry in public interest; one wonders how much venom the Hindutva brigade can spew. Also, one can imagine the fate of others in BJP who may not be from the Modi-Shah coterie in the party.

The trolls against Swaraj crossed all the limits. They targeted Swaraj for being ‘sickular’ – a term coined by BJP and its supporters to refer to anyone speaking for minorities. One person called her a ‘raandi’ (prostitute). The debate on the social network sites touched a new low with some of them referring to Swaraj’s health issue. One person wrote on Swaraj’s twitter handle: “Biased decision. Support #VikasMishra. It may be the effect of the Islamic kidney. Shame on you.’ The minister had undergone a kidney transplant last year and this became a favourite prop for the Twitterati to attack her. The other person wondered how long Swaraj will live on the Islamic kidney! Most people demanded her removal to keep BJP’s identity as a pro-Hindu (read anti-Muslim) party intact.

A meme posted in social media called her ‘Visa mata’ and showed Swaraj’s picture with a Pakistan flag in place of a heart. One netizen commented that Swaraj’s heart beats for Pakistanis and she is liberal in issuing visas to them. The other targeted her for bending rules for refurbishing her personal image of being pro-Muslim and called her publicity hungry. She was trolled for reaching out to Pakistanis seeking visa to travel to India for medical emergencies. Swaraj did a gandhigiri on the trolls and exposed their names by liking them on her twitter handle. She said all this happened when she was away on a ten day tour of other nations.

Swaraj is not the only non-confidante of the Modi-Shah team to be shamed by the aggressive Hindutva army that is the proxy team for BJP’s online propaganda targeting minorities, spreading fake news that at times led to riots and deaths and hate mongering. Home Minister Rajnath Singh too had faced similar trolls for showing his sensitive side on Kashmir. The fact is both Singh and Swaraj are seen as vestiges of the Vajpayee-Advani era, when BJP was not as aggressively anti-minorities. No wonder, BJP remained mum on trolling of Swaraj. The party merely said it’s an internal matter of the MEA and that it didn’t believe in controlling online content in the interests of freedom of speech. The same party had quickly jumped to the defence of Shah when his family was linked to a Bank fraud in Gujarat. The party spokespersons don’t tolerate a word against PM Modi or Shah.

For the time being Swaraj is a fighter and she has decided to battle it out with those on the social media who, she knows, are backed by her own party. She is winning support from Congress and the left and also from the saner elements in the country, who may be a silent majority. Bora's prediction of the rot in the BJP has come true as the party's ideology has gone into self-destruction mode.

(Published on 02nd July 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 27)