India’s influencers rally millions to vote for Modi

2 minute read

NEW DELHI - Indian folk singer Maithili Thakur thought she was successful, with millions following her Hindu devotional tunes on social media – but then Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent her popularity into the stratosphere.

With India’s marathon general elections set to start on April 19, critics say Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has co-opted the vast youth fan bases of hugely influential social media stars – in fields ranging from music to culture, and fashion to fitness – to push their political message.

Ms Thakur was among 24 influencers handed prizes in March at the first government-organised National Creators Awards to promote “storytellers of a confident, assertive New India”.


Many of the social media stars have a striking similarity in their promotion of India’s Hindu-majority culture, and several back the BJP’s ideology.

“There are many influencers who are collaborating with the current ruling government and making videos,” said Ms Thakur, who has 14 million followers on Facebook, and more than 4.5 million each on Instagram and YouTube.

But critics say the chance to maximise their followers and income from social posts by collaborating with the BJP may encourage influencers to uncritically back the ruling party, which is widely expected to win.


Ms Thakur, 23, already a popular reality TV star for her classical singing, shot to even wider attention when Mr Modi shared her devotional song on social platform X during the inauguration of a contentious Hindu temple in Ayodhya in January.


“So much buzz was created,” said Ms Thakur, who was named Cultural Ambassador of the Year at the Creators Awards – where she shared videos of meeting Mr Modi.

The temple to the deity Ram was built at the site of a centuries-old mosque that was razed by a mob of Hindu zealots in 1992.

The close ties between the government and major social media stars worry Mr Prateek Waghre, from digital rights organisation Internet Freedom Foundation.


“There is enough to be concerned about just by the nature of these collaborations,” said Mr Waghre, noting influencers wanted to both earn money from their posts and win new followers.

“Purely on the question of incentives, you can see how this will skew them to engage in discourse that’s overwhelmingly positive, or at least non-critical.”

While political parties across the board use social media, critics see the government’s links with influencers as part of a sophisticated soft-power campaign policy by the Hindu-nationalist BJP.

Mr Waghre said he also fears the offers of cash or attention could woo influencers to back a party “irrespective of their own political beliefs”.

With over half of India’s 1.4 billion people aged under 30, according to government health figures, using social media is a “tactic” to reach out to young voters, Ms Thakur added.


The government’s online platform, MyGov, also carried interviews with the prize-winning influencers praising Mr Modi.

India’s 462 million YouTube users are the platform’s largest audience by country, according to market tracker Statista.


“By approaching the youth, you are trying to influence the major population of India,” said Ms Thakur, speaking to AFP from a room in her New Delhi home, which she uses as a recording studio, its walls adorned with colourful traditional paintings.

But Ms Thakur has also been appointed as an election commission ambassador, which means she can only encourage people to take part in polls, not promote a party.

Others are more direct.


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