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What Narendra Modi’s selfie says about India’s elections


Narendra Modi, the man who may very well be the next prime minister of India, voted Wednesday, and gave the world photographic proof – with a selfie displaying his inked finger.

Modi might not be the sort of person you would expect to be shooting the self portraits stereotypically beloved by teenagers.

For many supporters of his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the 63-year-old is an economic strongman: They believe Modi will be a change from the corruption and economic mismanagement seen during recent governments. Others view him with concern, however, pointing to the less tolerant aspects of the Hindu nationalism that BJP espouses. To get an idea of how he fits into Indian politics, consider the two U.S. presidents Foreign Policy recently compared him to: Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.

However, like many U.S. and European leaders, Modi has clearly realized that social media can be a powerful tool for reaching his electorate. The BJP leader has 3.85 million followers on Twitter, and has been taking selfies with supporters for some time now: In the Instagram below he is shown with Indian writer Chetan Bhagat:

Modi himself may not be a natural social media user – images from outside the voting booth appear to show him struggling to take a picture on his phone, and the Wall Street Journal has suggested that the photo  he shared online was actually taken later in BJP offices. However, the voting selfie itself seems like it might be success, with the #SelfieWithModi hashtag featuring hundreds of posts.

It's not an isolated example, either. According to analysis conducted last month for The Washington Post by Simplify360, Modi is the second-most-talked-about candidate on social media, trailing Arvind Kejriwal of the grass-roots Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party), but far ahead of his main rival, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party (Gandhi has a far smaller social media presence, and is said to be uncomfortable when meeting with his supporters).

In India's enormous 2014 elections, a social media strategy is clearly smart: Of the 815 million people voting over the past month, some 100 million are believed to be young first-time voters, and many of these young voters are using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. CNN even dubbed it "India's first social media election." That's probably an exaggeration (only 12.6 percent of Indians were reported to have an Internet connection in 2012), but social media is still worth paying attention to. It also fits into a broader love of technology shown by Modi (see also his use of holograms) which helps to portray BJP as a modern, technocratic party that can lead India into the 21st century.

However, as many Western leaders will tell you, social media success also brings with it a large possibility for embarrassment. At times, BJP's social media strategy has seemed rather crude (automatically tweeting at every single person who mentioned Modi, for example), but today's selfie could be a potentially important mistake: According to the Hindustan Times, both Congress and Aam Aadmi Party have filed complaints to the electoral commission arguing that Modi may have broken voting rules by displaying the BJP symbol immediately after voting.