A chronic laggard in digital outreach, the Indian National Congress had begun showing some spunk on social media in the past several months.
Battered both online and offline by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 general elections, the Congress started giving its digital presence much more attention last year, when it appointed former actress and parliamentarian Divya Spandana to head its social media team, or IT cell. This was expected to help in the run-up to the 2019 national polls.
However, just as the 133-year-old party is hitting its digital stride, the IT cell seems to be unravelling. Allegations of authoritarianism within the team, coupled with the party’s inertia and biases against newcomers, are beginning to hurt. Instead of growing in the months before the 2019 general elections, the team is now battling attrition.
In contrast, the digital operations of the rival BJP are much larger, involving hundreds of employees, including reportedly around 250 people who monitor media coverage alone.
So what’s really happening?
Since the turn of the millennium, the BJP has dominated the Indian political communications sphere, consistently adopting the latest tools and technologies to widen its base. The Congress has typically played catch-up most of the time—even when it had social media stalwarts, they were often shunned for being unconventional.
But the massive 2014 defeat brought home some hard lessons. Party president Rahul Gandhi joined Twitter in April 2015, six years after prime minister Narendra Modi. In the summer of 2017, Spandana was made head of the Congress IT cell to boost the party’s image and online presence.
Many credit her with bringing in corporate professionals to work for the team, while earlier it was mostly filled with party workers.
Now a team of about 40 employees, sitting in an office near parliament, the IT cell controls the party’s social media pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Team members also deal with research, as well as the Congress party website. According to a former employee who spoke to Quartz, the cell also sometimes writes “unofficial content” for dissemination on WhatsApp.
However, over the past four months, around eight employees have left the Congress IT cell, according to interviews with politically connected sources, and current and former employees of the team. This is, it seems, in part due to a difficult workplace environment, including Spandana’s handling of a sexual harassment complaint.
Multiple individuals who have worked for the social media team told Quartz that she can be erratic and confrontational with employees, often ridiculing people in public.
Spandana would often single out individuals, sometimes even threaten to fire people, on employee WhatsApp groups. “Some people even broke down after reading those messages,” said a former employee. “Doing this on a public platform, especially on a WhatsApp group, feels very humiliating.”
She allegedly often gets coworkers to freeze people out, leaving them with no option but to leave. “She’ll tell the team lead that, ‘Listen, I’m looking for ways to get rid of her, would you guys mind if you just stopped responding to her?’” said another former employee.
Spandana did not respond to an emailed questionnaire.
“The constant churn in the team at the Congress social media cell does not bode well for a party that is looking to win the next elections, especially considering social media is a key part of any political campaign,” said a New Delhi-based public policy professional who works closely with political parties. “And the fact that there’s a poor working environment within one of India’s most liberal political parties says much for women’s rights and working conditions in general in India.”
This July, a member of the Congress social media team was arrested for alleged sexual harassment and later released on bail. The complainant, under whose testimony the Delhi police had filed an FIR, also reportedly wrote to Gandhi and the Congress grievance cell chairperson.
The case, still under review by the IT team’s internal complaints committee (ICC), provoked wider controversy not just for the alleged harassment, but also for how it was publicly handled. Soon after the arrest, Spandana posted a statement on her personal Twitter account in support of the accused, affixed with the signatures of 39 Congress IT cell employees. “The team has also come out in support of the current worker based on their interactions and experience working with him,” the statement read. “The team has also recalled some of their conversations with the ex-worker and has no reason to believe that the current worker could have misbehaved with the ex-worker.”
The signature campaign, insiders say, was Spandana’s brainchild.
The team members, the second former employee said, felt compelled by Spandana to sign it. “She said, ‘listen, we have to do this.’ So when your boss says you have to do this and if you say no, you need to know that this might cost you your job,” the second former employee said. The petition, this employee added, was passed to every work table, and everyone was expected to sign it.
The first former employee said that not all signatories had even been around at the time of the alleged offence. “They could not have said if these charges were true or not,” the person said.
All this has clearly affected performance, according to the first former employee.
“They believe they’re doing politics, but their message is confined to the urban elite: it never penetrates down to the grassroots,” the employee said. “You should aim at getting votes from every single tweet. But that is simply not happening… You need to set your own agenda, which is something the Congress social media has failed to do.”
The second former employee said the team used to control the Facebook and Instagram profiles of Rahul Gandhi, but it no longer does. (A party insider, however, denied this, saying Gandhi’s Facebook and Instagram are still controlled by the social media team, though he controls his Twitter handle himself now with his own team’s help).
There is already speculation that Spandana has fallen out of favour after two tweets posted by the Congress Twitter account were widely mocked. This included an awkward photo montage posted from Gandhi’s Europe trip which the BJP cheekily retweeted.
One other concern, said a party insider speaking on the condition of anonymity, is the fact that within the larger structure of the Congress, social media is not afforded the respect it deserves.
“Ever since the social media team was created, a lot of other teams of the party—especially communications and all of the other guys—see it as more of a threat than an ally,” the insider said. “The communications department might do a press conference, but the social media team is not informed until the last minute. There’s a lot of times where press releases are sent out to the press before they’re actually sent out to the in-house social media team.”
This is sometimes compounded, the insider said, with sexism and prejudice that Spandana herself faces for being a young woman who quickly ascended the party ranks.
At the Congress’s main headquarters, 24 Akbar Road, in fact, “the party would not even allow access to wifi networks for social media people who would come in and do a live on Facebook or on Twitter,” the insider said. The social media team had to install two different routers in the office to do their work there.
The BJP, this person said, is far ahead in integrating social media operations. There, “the social media team enjoys a lot more priority and people work very closely with them, because Mr. Modi wants it that way and Mr. (Amit) Shah wants it that way. But within the Congress still, the social media team is seen as a bit of a pariah, a bit of an outsider. And that is, and will continue to be, one of the biggest hurdles for them.”
Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.