The raging intolerance debate against actor Aamir Khan, which led to Snapdeal dropping him as a brand ambassador in February this year, was not just the e-commerce company's first choice. According to journalist Swati Chaturvedi's book I am a Troll, which is being published by Juggernaut, the BJP's social media cell was implicitly told by the party's information and technology cell head to exert pressure via social media on Snapdeal to drop Aamir as its brand ambassador.
Snapdeal had announced the termination of contract almost a month after Incredible India, the signature advertising campaign for the tourism ministry to promote India globally, dropped the actor as its brand ambassador. The decision, at that time, was attributed to Khan's remark on "rising intolerance in India", but the government had tried to distance itself from that controversy.
In her book, Chaturvedi spoke to Sadhvi Khosla, a former volunteer at the BJP social media cell. Khosla was part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's social media 'dream' team in the run up to the 2014 General Election. She quit the BJP social media cell as a volunteer at the end of 2015. Khosla, who runs a knowledge process outsourcing (KPO) company in Gurugram, was in the US in 2014 when she got the call from Modi's social media team and told Chaturvedi that she was ecstatic at the offer and believed that Modi, "her idol, the man she wanted to see as the Prime Minister of India", would bring in all the positive change and development that he promised.
In a couple of months, Khosla came to realise that everything was not as it seemed. Khosla told Chaturvedi that the BJP IT cell head Arvind Gupta, who ran the "biggest ever social media operation in the country", told Khosla that the "goal was to attack and expose the UPA government and the Gandhi family. Volunteers were told to attack certain mainstream journalists — the book explicitly mentions the names of NDTV's Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai (then of CNN-IBN) — and malign a few politicians on social media. The trolls were ordered to attack any unflattering mention of Modi.
Khosla admitted that she herself was forced to send messages trolling and abusing minorities, Gandhi family, liberals and journalists. She told the author that WhatsApp messages threatening rape against Barkha were sent out at the behest of Gupta, whose word was the last word as he was directly in touch with Modi. An IIT alumunus, Gupta joined BJP in 2010 and was part of the core team that was credited hugely for the massive mandate that Modi received in 2014.
"It was a never-ending drip feed of hate and bigotry against the minorities, the Gandhi family, journalists on the hit list, liberals, anyone perceived as anti-Modi," she is quoted in the book as saying.
The "breaking point" for Khosla, however, was when the two reigning Khans of Bollywood were attacked. Last year in November, breaking his silence on the stormy intolerance debate, Aamir had expressed alarm and despondency over the rise in such cases. Speaking at the Ramnath Goenka Awards, Aamir had said:
"Kiran (Rao; filmmaker and Aamir's wife) and I have lived all our lives in India. For the first time, she said, should we move out of India? That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make to me. She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers everyday. That does indicate that there is a sense of growing disquiet."
Aamir was attacked in the worst possible manner after his comments and Khosla said Gupta messaged everyone from the party's social media cell: "Sign the Petition to Snapdeal India. Appeal Snapdeal to drop Aamir Khan from their ads" (sic). It provided the link to sign an online petition. At the end of January 2016, Snapdeal did not renew Khan's contract.
Khosla told Chaturvedi that this incident was the "last nail in the coffin" for her association with BJP. The decision to go after Aamir appears to have had the tacit approval of Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. Khosla, in the book, has said that the operation to troll anyone who has unfavourable remarks for the prime minister, still continues.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Gupta rejected the claims made by Khosla and said that she was a supporter of the Opposition Congress party. Her claims are unsubstantiated, Gupta told the paper. He said the BJP had published social media guidelines on its website and never "encouraged trolling". He said the social media cell of the BJP is being headed by another person since July 2015.
The author of I am a Troll, Chaturvedi herself has been the target of social media trolling. She filed a police complaint last year against an anonymous Twitter account that had deluged her with malicious posts.
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Updated Date: Dec 27, 2016 13:43:28 IST