Social media channels and influencers have steadily and covertly shaped public thought and discourse, explains a new book
India’s YouTube streams are filled with influencers like Sandeep, who are aligned with the Hindu right-wing and provide everything, from polemical, communally charged rhetoric to ‘analysis’ and perspective. The style is uniformly common too—live videos from makeshift studios set up in their homes and offices, mostly alone, sometimes with other ‘expert’ guests—offering their takes on current affairs events.
Such influencers perform useful roles for the BJP—on any given issue, they become valuable voices for the party to shape public thought and discourse covertly in ways that it wants, without directly getting involved in it. These influencers, often, lay the ground for the Modi government’s actions by creating consensus on critical issues. As a result, when the government finally takes decisions on those issues, a substantial section of the party’s base is already likely to have been convinced of its need, thereby allowing the party to drown out any criticism of its actions. This played out to perfection when the Modi government decided to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy. While most others were stunned at the hurried manner in which the decision was taken without consulting many of the stakeholders, the BJP’s supporters backed it firmly—having been constantly fed the rhetoric that scrapping the region’s special powers would help local Kashmiri Hindus ‘fight back’.
These influencers also, often, peddle narratives that might be too controversial for the party itself to officially peddle. For instance, in October 2022, a minister in the ruling Aam Aadmi Party of the Delhi government, Rajendra Pal Gautam, courted criticism from the BJP when he attended an event where 10,000 people converted to Buddhism after they were administered vows that Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit reformer and architect of India’s Constitution, administered to his followers wanting to embrace Buddhism.
The BJP leaders latched on to the event, circulated its videos and referred to it and Gautam as being ‘anti-Hindu’. Media reports called the criticism a ‘calibrated campaign’. Sandeep took the issue up in a video and went further, calling the AAP a party that is an agent of ‘Christianity’. He lashed out at Gautam and at followers of Ambedkar, saying they were malechchh, a casteist slur often used to target those born into lower castes. Sandeep said ‘these neo-Buddhists’ were no better than Christians, and were ‘indirectly’ agents of those ‘Abrahamic’ people.
Sandeep’s rhetoric targeting neo-Buddhists as well as Dalits is a rhetoric that the BJP could never employ since it had been actively trying to win over Dalit communities. But Sandeep can do that, and his doing so can help the BJP—his rhetoric helps consolidate the BJP’s Hindu voters by painting its main rival in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party, as being anti-Hindu.
In times when Hindutva is the dominant, mainstream political ideology, taking such strident stances also makes commercial sense for Sandeep. According to Social Blade, a US-based website that tracks social media analytics, Sandeep’s YouTube channel, India Speaks Daily, on the back of its followers and reach, possibly earns as much as $30,000 or nearly ₹2,500,000 a year.
It’s not surprising then that more and more YouTube influencers are doing what Sandeep does: promote Hindutva causes online.
A study published in July 2021 by First Draft, a global non-profit working to track disinformation on social media, had found how Islamophobic content from India flourished on YouTube and, in fact, pushed viewers down rabbit holes of anti-Muslim content on the platform. The study had found how content that centred around demonizing Muslims and blaming them for the spread of Covid-19 in India flourished on YouTube.
Similarly, in June 2022, a report by the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights said that the ‘most troubling abuse of YouTube in India’, which at 450 million users is the platform’s biggest market, was the ‘targeting of Muslims by backers of ruling BJP and other right-leaning Hindu nationalist groups’. Like Sandeep.
Cover of HPop: The Secretive World Of Hindutva Pop Stars by Kunal Purohit, published by Harper Collins India, ₹499
Through his videos, he ends up benefiting the BJP in different ways—on rare days when the party is facing criticism, Sandeep will spin the events in a way that the criticism is forgotten: facts are conveniently chosen, and events are selectively highlighted. In June 2020, Indian and Chinese soldiers posted along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) saw a fierce clash break out between them in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley. The clash saw twenty Indian soldiers killed and many others injured. However, the Chinese side refused to reveal the casualties on its side, leading to much intrigue and speculation about the real extent of damage suffered by China in the clashes. The clashes had been the worst-ever peacetime attack on Indian soldiers in decades, and the Modi government had faced flak from several military experts as well as Opposition parties over its lack of transparency in dealing with Chinese aggression.
Many within the establishment were keen to portray India as the ‘winner’ after the violent clash. A minister in the Modi government, former Army Chief General V.K. Singh (retd) said more than forty Chinese soldiers had been killed in the clash. The Northern Army Commander, Lieutenant General Y.K. Joshi, said that at least forty-five Chinese soldiers had been killed.
On pro-government news channels and social media handles, various unverified claims were bandied about, speculating on the casualties on the Chinese side. Claims of Chinese casualties by Indian officials ranged from forty to hundred.
In some cases, news anchors even cited viral WhatsApp messages as their source to insist that the Chinese had suffered heavily at the hands of Indian soldiers. Much of this was an effort to prop up a counter to the criticism the government was facing, and to help reiterate the muscular nationalism that the Modi government had cultivated for itself. Fact-checkers were having a field day in the interim, debunking many of these claims.
Eight months on, in February 2021, the Chinese side finally admitted that four soldiers had been killed. From the claims of 100 casualties, four seemed an underwhelming number. But not for Deo.
In a live video on his YouTube channel, Sandeep uses the Chinese admission of deaths—even if it is a fraction of the casualties claimed by Indians—to claim a victory over the Chinese. But while he does this, he uses the Chinese admission to hit out at critics of the government as well as fact-checkers who had flagged unverified claims of Chinese casualties earlier.
His performance begins with lavish claims—about Chinese propaganda being run from ‘a massive building in China’, and how China has cultivated agents everywhere, across the globe, as well as in India. While he does that, on the screen, alongside his face crops up a 2008 photo of former Congress Chief Rahul Gandhi, in a handshake with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Gandhi, he says, is ‘Chinese agent number 1, who is the umbrella agent … and keeps talking in favour of China.’
He does not offer much proof. He refers to a statement Gandhi made, criticizing the fact that Indian soldiers had been unarmed, as per media reports of the incident. Incredulously, Sandeep says that China admitting to the four deaths was proof that ‘their necks were broken’, and that Gandhi was wrong, refusing to remind his viewers that the Indian side lost twenty soldiers. Chinese admissions had exposed Gandhi and had shown that he was lying, and his propaganda had failed he insists. With his claims, Sandeep manages to divert his followers’ attention from the underwhelming Chinese admission and the inaccurate Indian claims. Instead, he takes their attention towards a familiar old enemy in Gandhi.
As his video rolls on, his audiences lap it up. The comments section is buzzing—one man named Chandrabhan Pandey, writing in all caps, is furious. ‘WHAT STOPS US FROM HANGING THESE TRAITORS?’ he asks. Another asks for a ban on Alt News, a fact-checking agency that Sandeep targets. Alt News had earlier called out the unverified claims of dozens of Chinese casualties to be misinformation. One more user asks that the BBC be banned from India. Many ask for Gandhi to be jailed; some call him a traitor, others call him worse names. During the thirty-seven-minute-long video, over 150 people have commented on it, and it has got over 35,000 views in minutes.
Sandeep’s deed is done.
Excerpted with permission from HPop: The Secretive World Of Hindutva Pop Stars by Kunal Purohit, published by Harper Collins India, ₹499