Mumbai: For a party known for its ‘rada’ politics, the Shiv Sena’s use of social media, including microblogging site, Twitter, has generated interest among political watchers.
In the past few weeks, Sena leader and Member of Parliament Sanjay Raut has used Twitter to attack leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in opposition in the state, over a variety of issues. Raut targeted BJP leader Kirit Somaiya accusing him of siphoning off ₹58 crore in 2013 collected to save INS Vikrant warship from being scrapped. On April 11 Raut tweeted, “Baap bete jail jayenge… Anil Deshmukh aur Nawab Malik ke baju ke kothadi me rahenge” (Father-son duo will go to jail. They will be in the cell next to Anil Deshmukh and Nawab Malik – the latter two are senior leaders of the ruling coalition government). This tweet alone received over 10,000 likes. He did not name the either Somaiya or his son, Neil, who ran the campaign.
Raut also spoke out against independent MP Navneet Rana when the latter threatened to chant a Hindu prayer outside the chief minister’s private residence last month. Raut tweeted a picture of Rana’s election affidavit which showed that she had received a loan of ₹80 lakh from Yusuf Lakdawala, who is under arrest by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in a money laundering case and for his alleged links to the underworld.
When MNS chief Raj Thackeray circulated a video on May 4 of Bal Thackeray from the early 1990s, stating that the Shiv Sena will not rest until it is successful in preventing people from offering namaz on roads when it comes to power in the state, the Sena official party handle put out video clips on WhatsApp groups as well as social media platforms, in which the Sena founder can be seen mocking Raj for imitating him. In a bid to counter the claim made by leader of opposition Devendra Fadnavis during his Mumbai rally on May 15 that Shiv Sainiks were not present in Ayodhya during the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, Raut circulated a clip of former union home minister LK Advani’s interview in which he said that people on the domes of the mosque were speaking in Marathi.
“We have to keep our words measured and make it as effective as possible. We must attack daily and speak fearlessly. I speak to the media daily, if I don’t speak to them, the party’s agenda is not set. Shiv Sena must remain in the news and on social media,” Raut said at a convention of social media coordinators held in the city on May 8. The convention was attended by Sena’s chief spokesperson Arvind Sawant as well as Yuva Sena secretary Varun Sardesai, who handles the party’s social media outreach. The strategy is essential to retaining power in the state, he said.
“He (Raut) told us that it is not enough for only him and Arvind Sawant (both chief spokespersons of the party) [to respond]. The BJP’s army is much bigger, so we need to strengthen the army in the virtual space,” a functionary present at the meeting, and who did not wish to be quoted, said.
Ahead of the local body elections slated to be held across the state this year, the Shiv Sena is upping its social media game. Part of the Sena’s social media agenda includes attacking the BJP-led Centre over issues like inflation, pending GST dues as well as putting out counters to allegations levelled by the opposition on the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government’s party leaders.
After setting up social media teams in the 36 assembly constituencies in Mumbai in October 2020, the party is now setting up social media teams in the remaining 252 assembly seats. The party has taken on a cadre-based approach —each team will have 10 members and will cover wards — and Yuva Sena, headed by Sena leader and Maharashtra minister Aaditya Thackeray, is responsible for putting it in place, starting immediately.
“We don’t want to engage a private firm to do our social media. Instead, we want to keep it organic. Therefore, we are looking to use our Yuva Sena cadre and members to drive social media [outreach] across the state,” a Yuva Sena functionary involved in the planning of the party’s social media strategy said. “The plan now is to depute a team in all the 288 assembly constituencies. The team would have 10 members and would go down to the ward level,” he added, asking not to be quoted.
“The focus will be the failures of the BJP-led Centre to tackle price rise, including of cooking gas and fuel. Inflation is at an eight-year high. Prime minister Modi ji came to power seeking votes on all these issues, but this government has failed. The Centre has not been able to create employment in the last seven years,” another senior Yuva Sena functionary, who did not wish to be quoted, said.
The Centre last week declared a cut in central duties on petrol and diesel (by ₹8 a litre and ₹6 a litre, respectively) as well as a raft of measures to curb inflation. Chief minister Uddhav Thackeray however responded saying, “The central government had two months ago hiked central excise duties on petrol to ₹18.42 per litre and has now announced that it would be reduced by ₹8. The central excise on diesel was also hiked by ₹18.24 per litre and now a cut of ₹6 has been declared. It is not proper that prices are first raised manifold and then reduced marginally to put up a pretence of rates being cut.”
The Sena has also planned to have dedicated people in these teams to spread the word on the work carried out by the Sena-led state government. “At the same time, we are dedicating a team in each constituency that would counter any allegations and bring up issues against the opponent there.”
The party has been dragged into controversies over a host of issues since it took charge of the coalition government, comprising Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress, in 2019. In 2020, it was accused that a Sena minister was involved when actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide. Earlier that year, a social media campaign was run allegedly by BJP that Sena had turned anti-Hindu when a group of locals near Palghar lynched two seers and their driver. More recently, leader of opposition Devendra Fadnavis launched an attack on NCP leader and state minority minister, accusing him of striking deals with persons linked to the underworld and accused of terror funding. More recently, opposition leaders made allegations of corruption against the CM’s brother-in-law, Shridhar Patankar, following which the properties were attached by the central agencies.
Since October 2020, Aaditya Thackeray and Yuva Sena secretary Varun Sardesai began structuring the party’s social media team appointing coordinators for the 36 constituencies in Mumbai. With the crucial municipal corporation elections coming up, Sena wants to set the narrative on the virtual platform as well.
“When somebody attacks us and does not look at morals then I believe that we must not go by morality… The BJP used social media in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh elections. They reached millions of people through smartphones and social media. By that standard, our force is small; we must increase it. This is war, and if we have to keep power in the state and fight against such an opponent, then we have to prepare our people accordingly… The future of the Shiv Sena is on your shoulders. We must counter every attack on Shiv Sena in the same manner,” Raut said.
“We have been asked to push tweets by Shiv Sena leaders and spokesperson. Without engaging in any foul language, we respond to attacks. We are using WhatsApp status as one tool to reach out to more people on our contact list. The WhatsApp status could be some project kicked off by a party leader, or a message by Uddhavji in a rally, photographs, etc. Instagram and Twitter are limited to rural and semi-rural areas. Facebook is another medium we are exploring,” a Mumbai-based social media coordinator said, requesting anonymity.