On May 20, four days after the Congress party and its ruling alliance conceded the mother of all mandates in three decades to the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party, the Twitter handle of the Prime Minister’s Office, @PMOIndia, vanished mysteriously.
It soon re-appeared, but minus its 1.2 million followers, and minus Manmohan Singh’s tired face in the slot for picture. Instead, it had zero followers, Twitter’s tiresome default egg as the picture.
I’ll cut a long story short, as we now know what happened.
The PMO, for reasons we’ll come to in a while, renamed the @PMOIndia account to @PMOIndiaArchive. The PMO team members intended to create a fresh @PMOIndia account — probably, after a little coffee break. Hey, what’s the hurry!
But a young Twitter user called Qaiser Ali, who uses the handle @iamqaiserali, was faster on the draw. He tried registering @PMOIndia, found it free, and took it.
Ali describes it as a coincidence.
“It just suddenly came into my mind,” he told this IANS columnist on Twitter. “I entered PMOIndia, and it said “available”, and I took it. I’m sorry I did it.”
In his Twitter bio, Ali describes himself as a 19-year-old, creating a location-based mobile e-commerce service for multiplexes and malls, who founded a social network at 18.
Qaiser “owned” @PMOIndia for about 30 minutes before it was taken back, following panic calls to Twitter India’s Raheel Khurshid.
But let’s go back to why the PMO did what was apparently done — delete the PMO Twitter account, leaving the next government a new account with zero followers.
A scapegoat called Right to Information?
The PMO’s media team gave its explanation in a series of verbose tweets that India’s Twitter users took very badly.
“The @PMOIndia account has been vacated to facilitate handover to the new administration,” it tweeted. “All official communications are being archived under the RTI (Right to Information) Act.” The Twitter account, it added, was part of digital assets belonging to the PMO and access and control would be retained by the PMO.
India’s RTI Act does say that all communications should be archived, and available for public reference.
What it does not say, or even imply, is that a Twitter account belonging to an outgoing government has to be moved to an “archive handle” and the next government has to start from a clean slate with zero followers.
For, the digital assets being archived and removed aren’t just the tweets, but the 1.2 million followers.
There were howls of protest on social media.
It looked like a below-the-belt strike to hand over to the Modi PMO a zero-follower account. J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted: “How churlish! Just hand over the Twitter account. It’s not like Manmohan Singh was actually using it himself or will use it much now.”
Actually, Singh didn’t use that Twitter account at all. It was managed by his communications advisor Pankaj Pachauri, and it was arguably the dullest Twitter account in existence.
Even so, the protests finally prompted a press release stating that the PMO’s “Digital Assets” — the website, the @PMOIndiaArchive Twitter handle, its Facebook page, and its YouTube channel — all are to be handed over to the new government.
What should Pachauri have done? The answer’s obvious: He should have left the @PMOIndia account untouched. He should have used Twitter’s archiving tool to create a backup, for the records.
If the @PMOIndia account were to ever be lost, that archive could be used to make a PDF version, available online. Meanwhile, the @PMOIndia account itself would have been the archive, searchable via Twitter’s advanced search, or by tools like Topsy.
No major harm has been done, except to the image of the PMO of the outgoing government. If access to @PMOIndiaArchive is being handed over to Team Modi, their first task will be to restore status quo: Delete the @PMOIndia account, and rename @PMOIndiaArchive back to @PMOIndia.
That’s not all, though. The PMO’s facebook.com/PMOfficeIndia page, also saw a similar drop in “Likes” — from many thousands, down to zero and now back up to 821 as of Thursday morning.
Pachauri did not respond to queries on Twitter about this. Facebook India’s only response to this IANS columnist was that the PMO Facebook page did not have “verified” status.
Just in case you thought the outgoing government’s controversies were over and done with, we’ve got one for the road, probably its last one: Twittergate.