Four men chatting in a Delhi bar are not, by their own admission, natural drinking buddies.
The young professionals in their 20s and 30s come from vastly different regions of India and varied backgrounds.
They first “met” on Twitter, spotting each other on the micro-blogging site where they voiced a common desire – to see Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi become the next prime minister.
After online introductions, they met face-to-face on their own initiative, and, finding they had plenty in common, gather monthly in the nation’s capital to talk about life, work, and, most importantly, how to make a difference in India’s upcoming election. The men insisted they paid for their own expenses, and only one of them was associated with Modi’s party.
Tiny cells of friends like this one are being created up and down the country, they say – a rare instance of India’s politically apathetic urban middle class getting drawn into activism. Many come together of their own volition, others with a nudge from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
It’s another arrow in his quiver ahead of a general election that must be held within six months, and opinion polls are already predicting he and the BJP will win more seats than the ruling Congress party.
The young pro-Modi activists are being dubbed “cyber-Hindus”. When online, they spread Modi’s message, counter newspaper criticism of him and question reporters’ integrity, or mock the Gandhi dynasty that runs the Congress party and has dominated Indian politics since independence in 1947.
At party rallies, where the more traditional cadres are also at hand, the tech-savvy volunteers tweet, or produce live-streaming of speeches.
“I think he (Modi) has proven himself,” says Nitin Kashyap, a financial services executive who took a six-month sabbatical from work to volunteer for the campaign.
“This guy has done something which should have been done in India a long, long time ago,” adds the 34-year-old from a small town in the state of Assam in India’s far northeast.
The brand consultant sitting next to him, who gives only his Twitter handle @Keshar_ because he is concerned his political views could affect his business, calls Modi a “uniting force”.
“That guy has worked his way up from being a tea boy to becoming an aspiring prime minister of India,” he says of Modi, who has played on his humble roots during a grueling pre-election tour of the country that has electrified Indian politics in the last 10 weeks.
“That’s a big deal for the country. He’s relating to an IT guy, he’s relating to somebody in the desert, somebody up north in the hills, everybody.”
While the numbers of these cyber-Hindus are a drop in the ocean of an electorate of 770 million, tech-savvy activists believe that, with the aid of social media, they can mobilize millions of like-minded Indians to vote for Modi and the BJP in the elections.
The BJP even appears to be making inroads into the poor rural vote and that of an emerging middle class living in small towns, even though both groups benefit from Congress handouts to farmers – underlining how Modi’s pro-business credentials are striking a chord.
RISE OF TECHNOLOGY
The rise of the cyber-Hindus marks a shift for the BJP and for Indian politics as a whole.
The party has long been associated with its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a voluntary right-wing group that preaches “Hindutva”, a hardline brand of Hindu nationalism.
Clad in baggy khaki shorts, RSS members still meet in parks across India to salute, exercise, sing patriotic songs and discuss the greatness of their nation.
But now, the BJP’s message comes increasingly from a swell of aspirational, right-leaning Indians angry about endemic corruption they blame on Congress and eager to protect the rights of a Hindu majority.
Modi, who joined the RSS as a teenager, flits between both worlds. Since 2001, he has been chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, where he touts an economic success story he wants to apply to India to lift it from economic torpor.
It was under his watch there in 2002 that Hindu mobs killed at least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, and Modi has been accused of turning a blind eye, or even encouraging the riots.
He denies any wrongdoing, and says he has been unfairly targeted by Congress, which boasts a secular, inclusive agenda.
India’s 1.2 billion people are mostly Hindu with Muslims a 14 percent minority. Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists make up the rest.
In a Reuters interview, Modi called himself “techno-savvy”. He has nearly three million Twitter followers, and addressed four rallies at a time using holographic technology last year.
Congress, meanwhile, has been slow to develop a cyber strategy, amid disagreement among senior figures about how much impact it will have on the election outcome.
Modi sees technology as a particularly good way of connecting with India’s burgeoning youth – there are expected to be more than 150 million first-time voters in 2014. The percentage of the population using the internet has jumped from around 0.5 percent in 2000 to 12.5 percent in 2012, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
“Technology is our DNA,” says Arvind Gupta, the head of Modi’s Delhi-based IT cell. He sees social media as a way both to tell and to listen, or, as he calls it, “a two-way street.”
At Gupta’s state-of-the-art IT operation, a team of young volunteers works at computers to spread the BJP message, knock down negative articles or comments and delve into corruption scandals that could taint opponents. At huge Modi rallies across India, local IT outfits numbering up to 100 volunteers also stream speeches live and tweet and blog words and images.
“It’s not hype – he has a proven track record,” said Anil Chalageri, 33, as he helped livestream Modi’s November rally in Bangalore, where he addressed a crowd of some 300,000 people.
“They want to see Gujarat across the nation,” said the founder of QualiBrisk, a humanresources firm.
VOTES, NOT TWEETS
Back in the Delhi bar, Kashyap and his friends see social media as a means of empowerment – getting their message to hundreds, if not thousands of people.
What they want, they say, is real change.
“I feel a responsibility on my shoulders,” says Ankit Jain, a 26-year-old diamond dealer with some 8,600 Twitter followers.
“Twitter will not change anything. Voter registration is very important. Every vote counts.”
Shreshtha Sharma, the fourth member of the group and founder of a software development company, shares his friends’ excitement about Modi, whose popularity among young, right-wing Indians borders on a personality cult.
But he is reluctant to predict outright victory for the BJP, which needs to make huge gains from 2009 to prevail in 2014.
“That will depend on whether this generation has obtained the critical mass,” says the 28-year-old. “But the generation after us, they will be able to shift it. If Modi isn’t able to do it now, then he will definitely be able to do it later on.”