With just a few days to go for the first phase of #GeneralElections2024 to begin, every politician worth his salt or her sugar is out campaigning. Physically and virtually.

In this column, I’ll explore how some first-time Lok Sabha aspirants are using social media/digital platforms to campaign and steal an early march over their rivals. And what are the dos and don’ts. (This is not a comprehensive survey. Readers are free - and encouraged - to update this conversation with their choices. Especially from the remote corners of this vast country.) 

Typically, political candidates use social media for reach and nothing else — frequently, there is little effort to even create original content. This sometimes works when the politician is already a well-known celebrity, but probably doesn’t when it’s a first timer with not much of a fan following.

The savvier politicians engage with constituents, share their political positions and campaign promises and mobilise supporters. Platforms like X/Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp (above all), besides allowing candidates to reach a wide audience quickly, also lets them respond directly to voter concerns, participate in public discourse and manage their public image. I think the last is far more important than the others. The candidate is usually too busy to engage, in the classic digital sense. In India, image, or rather perception, is everything.

Here are a few Lok Sabha aspirants that I’ve been following and think are doing a pretty good job of using social media/technology.

Kangana Ranaut (BJP candidate, Mandi): She is one of the few candidates who was (in)famous much before the 2024 elections were a blip on the horizon. Not surprisingly, Kangana is way ahead in the game when it comes to Instagram videos. Every reel looks like a blockbuster trailer — very engaging. Her team tries hard to create narratives, not just press release type clips. Having a subject that can emote at the drop of a hat helps. Incidentally, she called Instagram dumb, once — the same Insta she’s rocking, with 9.7 million followers.

Saira Shah Halim (CPI(M) candidate for South Kolkata): She is pitted against heavyweight candidates from Trinamool and BJP, Mala Roy and Debasree Chaudhuri respectively. This is a David and Goliath situation — two Goliaths in fact — and she’s already stolen a march over her rivals by two things: One, she has been a prominent face on national TV panel discussions for many years, so is already a known face; and two, most of her campaigning is door-to-door, street-by-street — this live content is immediately snapped up by the ‘comrade army’ to create on-the-fly, DIY videos for targeted social media audiences — even local TV channels. Neat!

Madhavi Latha (BJP candidate from Hyderabad): She aims to do a giant killer act on AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi. A cursory glance at her social media handles will tell you she’s doing more than random posts of rallies. Her team is using her handles to drive fans to her live events, recruit volunteers through Google forms, cross post podcasts and interviews from YouTube (including the Aap ki Adalat episode which the PM praised) and more. She’s a killer at vertical videos it seems. Owaisi is far ahead in the numbers game though. He has millions of followers compared to Madhavi’s relatively low figures.

Ravindra Singh Bhati (Independent, Sheo constituency, Barmer): He is a bit of an oddball, outside the BJP-Congress binary in Rajasthan. Bhati has a huge social media presence (2.2M on Insta) and is often referred to as the “Modi of Marwar”. Frankly, his content is terrible but somehow works — look at the kind of adulation he gets from students on social media. A post with a cut-out of a crude newspaper clipping gets 3,20,000 Likes. He breaks all the rules but has a die-hard fan following. Crazy.

Yusuf Pathan (Trinamool candidate from Behrampore): He is a good example of how NOT to do social media. His team treats social media as a college bulletin board, posting pics of his social engagements. He hasn’t gotten off the cricket cloud — IPL, not Lok Sabha, seems to be the priority. Whether he wins or loses, it will have nothing to do with social media. Some of you might say, his constituency is not on social media — but that’s not true, digital penetration in Murshidabad is quite good.

I’ll sign off with a word of unsolicited advice to candidates who might be reading this. You are an aspiring brand, so tell stories. In the end, people connect with human stories, not (just) snapshots of rallies.

(Shubho Sengupta is a digital marketer with an analogue ad agency past. He can be found @shubhos on X)