On 30 January, India reported its first coronavirus case from Kerala. The virus was not yet a global menace, but even by that day, 20 countries already had a combined 7,823 cases. However, it would not be until over a month later that top political leaders in India even acknowledged the coronavirus on social media.
The Twitter response pattern of much of the Indian political establishment has mirrored the administrative response: late on the uptake, active since. Further, they have focused more on issues about health and administration than about the economy, the plight of migrants and the debilitating effect of the pandemic on livelihoods.
These are some findings from an analysis of 23,115 tweets posted by 20 Indian leaders selected from across the political spectrum between 30 January and 30 May. About one-third of these tweets related to the virus, but they stretched out differently.
For this analysis, we divided the four-month period into three phases. Phase I was between 30 January and 24 March, the pre-lockdown period. Phase II spanned 25 March to 3 May, covering Lockdown 1 and 2, when little was allowed. Phase III was from 4 May to 30 May, covering Lockdown 3 and 4, when progressive relaxations were given.
In Phase I, the selected politicians mentioned the coronavirus in 18% of their tweets. This rose to 45% in the hard Phase II lockdown. However, as the economy reopened gradually, the figure fell to 38%. One exception was the group of chief ministers, who were grappling with the health crisis, and half of whose tweets still relate to the virus.
Even in Phase I, there were two distinct divisions. The first was in February, when the virus was barely acknowledged. Just 1% of the coronavirus-related tweets in Phase I came in February. This included the 12 February tweet by Rahul Gandhi, in which he said “the government is not taking this threat seriously”.
The trigger was 3 March, when the global infection count had risen to 90,943 cases across 41 countries. That day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted his first-ever coronavirus-related tweet. It was about a review meeting and coordination with states. Of the 20 politicians we picked, 14 wrote their first coronavirus-related tweet in March, including all five chief ministers.
Once into Lockdown 1, all things coronavirus started dominating the Twitter feeds. However, much of their focus was on health and lockdown-related administrative matters. While millions struggled to navigate the many challenges of the shutdown, the economy, migrants and livelihoods did not get similar mention. Be it the ruling party parliamentarians or those from the Opposition, migrants got about one-third the mention that health issues did.
Gandhi touched upon the economy, migrants and livelihoods in about 71% of his coronavirus-related tweets—significantly higher than central government functionaries or chief ministers. During this period, Modi logged nearly five times as many coronavirus-related tweets than Gandhi, but many of these revolved around administrative decisions, health, and messages of motivation. A similar pattern was seen for other central and state government functionaries.
Modi and his messaging remains important to the popularity of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders on Twitter. Other than Subramanian Swamy, they all actively retweeted the PM’s messages and got much better response than their own tweets. The top coronavirus-related tweets of BJP leaders drew between 64% and 97% fewer retweets than the top tweets of Modi that they re-shared. However, the leader whose coronavirus tweets gained the most traction was Gandhi. He averaged 10,386 retweets against 7,693 for Modi.
Most of the tweets of these 20 leaders, which gained maximum traction, were from March, around both sides of the first lockdown. Leading the way with over 70,000 shares was Modi’s 24 March tweet, assuring the availability of essential services during the lockdown.
During these four months, much of the social messaging was centred around the health and administrative aspects, and fewer political barbs flew. As the country unlocks, expect normalcy to return.
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