Tweets Democratic

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New Delhi – On July 4, Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat and putative prime ministerial candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), became the most-followed Indian politician on Twitter, with more than 1.8 million followers. (Full disclosure: the long-time leader whom he eclipsed was me.) The occasion was celebrated by BJP supporters across the Internet, and triggered a spate of assessments of social media’s growing impact on Indian politics.

Four years ago, when I first went on Twitter, many Indian politicians sneered at the use of social media. It seemed like every remark of mine was taken out of context in the press and blown up into a political controversy. As the BJP’s president at the time, Venkaiah Naidu, presciently warned me, “Too much tweeting can lead to quitting.”

As recently as last September, India’s Economic Times reported that, faced with such risks, most young Indian politicians were not active on any social-networking site. Those with active accounts posted only sporadic – and uninteresting – updates.

The journalist and poet Pritish Nandy, interviewed in the Times article, remarked that even he had more Twitter followers than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (who had only around 195,000 at the time). Others interviewed made it clear that they had no intention of adopting social media in the near future.

But the pace at which the political world is embracing social media has accelerated dramatically in the last year. Aside from the BJP’s wholesale adoption of Twitter – Modi’s allies on the network include the party’s parliamentary leader, Sushma Swaraj, and a coterie of organized supporters – prominent Indian politicians from all parties have leapt in.

A day after he was sworn in as India’s president, Pranab Mukherjee announced that he would open a Facebook account to receive and respond to the public’s questions. Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee runs a popular and widely read Web site that traditional media outlets mine daily. Similarly, Omar Abdullah, the youthful Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, regularly interacts on Twitter, and his much older Rajasthan and Kerala counterparts, Ashok Gehlot and Oommen Chandy, respectively, have opened Facebook accounts as well.

More than half of the Council of Ministers are now online, as is the statistics-dispensing Planning Commission, and most government offices are establishing a social-media presence. The prime minister’s Twitter account has more than tripled its following in the last nine months, to almost 660,000 (more than 50 percent higher than Nandy).

Indian political issues are being raised and debated regularly – and boisterously – across social media. The finance minister spoke to the public about the budget, not on TV, but in a Google Hangout.

The Planning Commission, the Minister of Road Transport and Highways, and I have all emulated him. Even 12 percent of India’s population – the extent of Internet penetration today – makes the country the world’s third-largest online market, and also the fastest growing for its size. Indeed, in terms of people online, India is expected to overtake the US by 2020.

Nonetheless, skepticism about the reach and political impact of social media in India is in order. A recent study conducted by the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India (AIMAI) suggests that there are as many as 160 constituencies (out of 543 in India’s popularly-elected lower house of parliament) where the margin of victory is smaller than the number of constituents on Facebook, or where over 10 percent of the population is on Facebook. The study estimates that by the next election, due in 2014, as many as 80 million Indians will be using social media – a voting bloc that, supposedly, no politician can afford to ignore.

As one of India’s first politicians to embrace social media, my view is that this conclusion is premature. I do not believe, given the numbers, that any Indian election can be won or lost on social media alone.

Only a small minority of India’s 753 million voters use social media; with electoral districts of some two million people each, Twitter is of little help in political mobilization. Unlike the US, for example, Twitter would be useless for organizing a mass rally or even convening a large public meeting.

But, while social media cannot be a substitute for conventional campaigning, they can help to set the agenda of public debate, because traditional media – newspapers and television, which do reach most voters – tap into social networks for information about and from politicians. This indirect impact makes social media an indispensable communications tool for politicians.

This will certainly become even more important when developments that improve Internet availability on mobile telephones, and the advent of 4G services, make access to social media more universal. Though only 12 percent of Indians use computers, more than 70 percent have mobile phones, but very few currently find it easy or affordable to use them to access social media.

In any case, no democratic politician should resist a new communications medium, particularly an interactive one – even if some seem to regard it mainly as a public-relations tool. Modi’s triumph has not noticeably been marred by widespread accusations that the BJP is creating “fake” accounts to boost his number of followers (and, if true, it would be further proof that Twitter now matters in India).

The name Twitter initially put me off, and many Indian savants suggested that it was not a suitable medium for a serious politician. But Google and Yahoo! were once silly names; both are now household words. I am convinced that a majority of politicians in twenty-first-century democracies – including India – will be tweeting within ten years, and those, like me, who were ahead of the curve will have only the consolation of knowing that we got there first.

Shashi Tharoor
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Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary general and former Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently a Member of Parliament for the Indian National Congress.

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