I’m the Prime Minister of India and I follow who I want to, on Twitter

There is extensive debate around character certificates stemming from being followed by the head of a country recently in India. It has even made it to the New York Times!

The background to all this debate is this.

A noted journalist in Karnataka was brutally murdered. Amidst the myriad R.I.P messages on social media were also messages of gloat. Gloating about how she ‘deserved’ the gory death.

One such tweet (among many) caught the country’s attention. It was posted—and later deleted—by a Surat-based businessman named Nikhil Dadhich.

His tweet went,

Meaning: “A bitch died a dog’s death and all of her litter is crying in the same voice”

Now, in the social media space where anything and everything goes, this is a fairly normalized vile tweet, unfortunately. This is worth ignoring, at best, and has come down to ‘poor taste’ than, ‘How can someone even say this!!?’. That’s how ‘evolved’ we are, thanks to social media.

But, there’s an important additional point here.

Nikhil proudly claims (or claimed, before updating it after national attention) that he is being followed—on Twitter—by India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

Narendra Modi follows about 1,700+ Twitter users, while he is being followed by 33 million+ people. There are no explanations of the criteria he uses (or his team uses) to select who to follow on Twitter. Or, there are no details on why the 1,700+ were chosen to be followed.

The only thing we know is that Nikhil proudly proclaims that he is being followed by the Prime Minister.

(Related: An interview with Nikhil, in The Indian Express, after this issue blew up)

After a lot of hue and cry, BJP released an official statement on this imbroglio. It said,

The controversy over Prime Minister (PM) following people on Twitter is mischievous and contorted. PM Modi is the only leader who freely engages with people on social media platforms. He follows normal people and frequently interacts with them on various issues. He is a rare leader who truly believes in freedom of expression and has never blocked or unfollowed anyone on Twitter. We have multiple examples of leaders curbing free speech on social media, including the previous PMO handle.

PM following someone is not a character certificate of a person and is not in anyway a guarantee of how a person would conduct himself. However, PM also follows Rahul Gandhi, who is an accused in loot and fraud. PM also follows Arvind Kejriwal, who abused him on Twitter and told a woman ‘Settle Kar Lo’ when she complained of a party member molesting her. PM still follows Parthesh Patel, a former BJP volunteer who joined Congress and abused PM in the worst possible language.

This debate is also a one-way street. Rahul is never questioned for the abuse by Tehseen Poonawala, who also happens to be his relative. Kejriwal is never questioned for the abuse and rape threats his supporters shower on others. This, this debate is not only farcical and fake, but also exhibit of selective right to freedom of expression.

While the absurd logic of this statement can, in itself, be a topic of a full-fledged post, let me focus on the main point here – the politics and the meaning of following and being followed on social media.

Let me break it up into specific points.

1. Nikhil is on Twitter. He tweets a lot of things.
2. Nikhil is followed by the Prime Minister. Nikhil calls this out proudly in his Twitter bio.
3. Nikhil tweets vile abuse about a murdered journalist.
4. People notice his tweet and his bio, and point it out to the Prime Minister (‘s handle).

The Prime Minister following Nikhil is most definitely not a character certificate about Nikhil. For all you know, the PM does not know Nikhil at all. Something Nikhil may have said in the past may have triggered the follow and there’s no reason to believe otherwise at all. It’s a simple Twitter follow, no big deal.

But, when a lot of people point it out categorically to the PM that one of the people he follows on Twitter is saying something vile, about a murdered journalist, what should the PM do?

He can ignore the notifications from people. This is what he has done. For now.

How does that reflect on a leader of a state who portrays himself to be active and engaging on social media? One, it shows that he ignored a lot of people when they said something to him. Their notifications indicate,

“Dear Sir, your office is important and respectable. Could you kindly not be open about following someone who can say such vile things about a murdered journalist? You may not know he would say such things and you may have followed him on a completely different occasion that doesn’t involve such nastiness – we get that. But now that he has said something this vile, could you please remove that badge of honor (that he claims so proudly) so that people do not assume things by mistake, and by association?”

Now, saying ‘I’m being followed by the Prime Minister’ is not the same as ‘I live in the same city/state/street as the Prime Minister’. It’s a lot more pointed and specific than that. It means, in the past, there has been a time and instance when the Prime Minister found something of value (could be as simple as a compliment or a query that Nikhil posed to the PM) from Nikhil that made him think it was worth bestowing the ‘follow’ on him.

But, in light of the recent revelation that proves that Nikhil is capable of delivering vile abuse about a murdered person (it is also perfectly reasonable to believe that Nikhil can be compassionate to the people he cares about, while also being vile about people he doesn’t care about – this is not to portray Nikhil as a completely evil person. We are all shades of grey anyway), why should the Prime Minister of the country continue to be associated in even a flimsy way with him? This is more about creating and building perceptions than about the individual character of Nikhil.

Ironically, when the Prime Minister does not heed the notifications from people who point out that a person he follows delivers vile abuse about a murdered journalist on Twitter, it says more about the Prime Minister than Nikhil. Why? Here’s why.

1. It says that the Prime Minister doesn’t care.
2. It says that the Prime Minister doesn’t bother about the perception it may create in the minds of people.
3. It may say that the Prime Minister continues to follow Nikhil to egg others to do the same – offer tacit support to the vile abuse about the slain journalist because she was anti-BJP and anti-right wing.

Why should the Prime Minister persist with people forming these assumptions? Isn’t it important to maintain the sanctity of the Prime Minister’s office, at least from the perception point of view?

If people had not pointed it out to him, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that the PM doesn’t read all the tweets from the 1,700+ people he follows. He is the Prime Minister, after all – he doesn’t need to read every single tweet from the people he follows.

But, people did point it out to him. Then, he (or his team) has a choice. His course of action says something.

Now, all this is very, very different from normal people, like you and me, following another normal person who abuses on Twitter. I usually mute them when I find out. You may choose not to. For whatever reason.

Following someone on Twitter is definitely not an endorsement of all that they do, on Twitter or in real life. But continuing to follow someone after it has been pointedly and categorically proven that they did something vile and despicable (about a murdered person no less) says more about our motivation than that person.

This is exacerbated by the fact that there is a power equation at play too. The person following Nikhil is the country’s Prime Minister. He follows very few people (compared to the number of people following him). Given the position he holds and the number he follows, it sure looks like a select few. Basis what? We do not know. All the more reason why people may assume things on their own.

Following is also very different from engaging on Twitter. If Nikhil asks a question to the PM on Twitter by tagging him, the PM would anyway get that notification and respond to him. The ‘follow’ is strictly not necessary. With that, Nikhil could even proclaim on his Twitter bio, ‘Proud to have got a response from the Prime Minister, on Twitter’. This would not lead to any kind of debate that the PM is endorsing Nikhil’s actions or utterances – this is just like the PM interacting with millions of people online and offline during the course of day-to-day work.

But following, as an action, that too, with a universe as small as 1,700+ makes it the equivalent of the PM inviting them to stay in the periphery of his home (figuratively). People can see that Nikhil and 1,700+ others loiter in and around the PM’s home visibly. When one of them does something despicable, it impacts the office of the PM too, in association, because of the public visibility of the association. This is not an endorsement of what Nikhil did all through the day in and around the PM’s home, but people could wonder why he is still allowed there when it has been shown to the PM what he said. Does he not care? Does he want Nikhil to continue like this? Or, does he want to send a sign that he does not agree with Nikhil by doing something about it?

The choice is with the Prime Minister, not Nikhil.

An interesting parallel to this is the recent debate on film stars keeping mum when their fans abuse dissenters, as it happened in the case of The Newsminute’s Dhanya Rajendran v. fans of Tamil actor Vijay. Vijay was forced to offer a statement disassociating himself from abusive fans.