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Anunaya Rajhans and Neeraj Prasad

Memes have become an important tool in India’s political landscape and elections. With the rise of internet-based digital participatory cultures in India, social networks have become sites of volatile political discourse. Memes played a significant role in the previous Indian general elections in 2019. Most political parties employed digital media extensively for campaigning and voter mobilization. We draw on existing scholarship on political mobilization to understand the use of memes as a campaign strategy in India. We identify two distinct mobilizational strategies: First, political parties may prioritize increasing turnout among existing supporters (inclusion), gaining new supporters from independent and swing voters (extension), and deterring turnout among committed opposition supporters (exclusion). To the extent that political parties use memes as an instrument to either strengthen polarization along existing issue dimensions or activate new issue dimensions, stimulate participation, draw in new voters, and create clear party choices, we will have diametric empirical expectations for the substantive content of memes produced by incumbents and opposition parties. To verify empirical expectations on meme production, usage, and the substantive content of memes, we propose to study the supply of memes by political parties during the 2024 national elections in India. We propose to study memes and other visual material shared on their official twitter handles of political parties, important national and local leaders, and partisan or non-partisan brokers and political entrepreneurs. Specifically, we will study four states of Hindi speaking northern India with vastly different incumbent-challenger dynamics. In this context the study will focus on three interrelated questions:

  • When it comes to national political parties, is there a uniformity of political messaging at the national and state level when it comes to their usage of memes on twitter?
  • Do national parties tailor their meme rhetoric in different states depending on their status as strong/weak incumbents as well as strong/weak challengers?
  • Does this pattern hold for different national political parties or are there further differentials?

The study thus has the potential to delineate the intricacies of digital political communication using artefacts of new media such as memes. This process is hardly unique to India as we see increasing prevalence and importance of platform-based political communication globally. This is also key to understanding more about the increasingly central role played by platforms in facilitating, moderating and amplifying such communicative media and becoming a key battleground for political deliberation and its consequences.

Anunaya Rajhans is a PhD candidate at the Amsterdam Centre for Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam. His work studies the impact on meme culture in India on the quality of online public discourse.

Neeraj Prasad is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Amsterdam and a research fellow with the ERC project on Election, Violence, and Parties. He is also affiliated with Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research, Political Economy and Transnational Governance, Amsterdam Centre for Conflict Studies, and Amsterdam Conflict Research Network.