WASHINGTON: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tweeting patterns have caught the eye of American media researchers, particularly his use of sarcasm as a social media weapon.
A study published in the International Journal of Communication this week shows that the Prime Minister tweets under nine broad themes: Cricket, Rahul Gandhi (opposition leader), entertainment, sarcasm, corruption, development, foreign affairs, Hinduism, and science and technology.
But what struck the researchers was his “use of political irony and sarcasm to become broadly appealing and refashion his political style.”
After analyzing and coding more than 9,000 tweets over a six-year period, they found that sarcastic tweets were closely concentrated around election and campaigning cycles.
“We try and explain what makes him popular,” said Joyojeet Pal, University of Michigan’s assistant professor of information who led the study. “Modi’s irony provides a form of political spectacle and resonated on social media as shown by high retweeting of his sarcastically-worded messages.”
In many of Modi’s tweets during national elections, the study said, he referred to the main opposition party as corrupt and Rahul Gandhi, who also has a growing Twitter following, as “Rahul Baba” or “Shahzada (prince).”
By using humor and sarcasm, the Prime Minister was signaling that the Congress was not in touch with its roots and letting his own followers get the inside joke, the researchers said. Among the tweets it cited to make the point: “The way Rahul Baba is making statements with a dash of comedy in them, I think the TV show of Kapil Sharma may soon have to shut shop.”
Modi has the second largest following on Twitter among world leaders with 36 million followers, with Donald Trump topping the chart at 42.8 million followers. Rahul Gandhi’s official twitter handle has 4.36 million followers.
According to the U-M researchers, Modi’s use of sarcasm builds on a longer tradition of slogan humor during political rallies.
“There are plenty of attacks, rhetoric, cleverly worded jibes and jokes,” Pal said.
That said, there hasn’t been much snarkiness from the Prime Minister in November. His last attack on the Congress party came on November 2 when he tweeted, “Congress has become a laughing club. They are non-serious about important issues and are heavily involved in corruption.”
Instead, it was @OfficeOfRG that jabbed at him on Thursday, tweeting, “Modi ji – nice touch removing the suit. What about the loot?” in a reference to a story about the Rafale deal.
The University of Michigan researchers said although social media did not reach many of the “traditional rural and peri-urban upper caste Hindu voters of BJP, they extended the prime minister’s appeal to a new young urban constituency.”
“After the election, the sarcasm and mention of Gandhi disappears,” Pal said. “Instead, the celebrity mentions and tweets about foreign policy increase dramatically.”
According to the researchers, the sarcasm helped separate Hindutva-oriented content, which is traditionally more divisive than the pan-Indian patriotic rhetoric of “India First,” through which Modi has gained a more secular standing.
“The power of Modi’s message is in the juxtaposition of his past as a train station tea-seller alongside his present as a selfie-clicking leader of a strong aspirational but fundamentally nationalist state,” Pal said. “Sarcasm is as much a message from Modi as it is a message about him.”