For a country of 1.2 billion plus population, the Internet penetration today at about 10 per cent is by all means pretty modest. This level has been achieved mainly due to the advent of smart phones that has changed the way India accesses the Net. This in turn spawned a sudden surge in the social media usage in the country.
India is now ranked third in Facebook statistics by country, next only to Brazil and the United States. India on last count had about 53 million users as compared to 56 million users in Brazil and 163 million in US. The 53 million Facebook users in India translate into a mere about 5 per cent penetration of the country’s population.
India’s much celebrated digital club comprises an assortment of individuals drawn from various walks of life including actors, sportsmen, civil society champions and an eclectic mix of people from society, fashion and technology.
The political class (given that the 15th Lok Sabha had the highest numbe
r of 70 young MPs) is perhaps the least represented there. Primarily out of office mainstream politicians or political pygmies are currently active on social media.
But the low penetration has not deterred the rise of social media in emerging as a slow but steady driver of political discourse in the country. Social media was indeed the primary driver to enlarge ‘India against Corruption’ (IAC) stir into a pan India movement.
The Anna movement witnessed huge youth endorsement. Young India used the opportunity to vent its frustration against corruption. Until then the youth had episodically channelized the social media to articulate their ire against the system. The Anna episode offered an opportunity for select politicians to exploit the full potential of the social media.
The limited reach did not deter them from making a statement courting the social media. The rise of the blog politician in out-of-office L K Advani came up as an interesting case study. Denied the limelight, the former deputy Prime Minister used the Blog to claw his way back into prime time.
Advani, who displays a rare technology instinct for his age, got the Blog to drive home his presence not only within BJP but also for the nation. Of course, he was ably helped by the mainstream media that found ready-made headlines (though quite often undeservingly) in his Blogs.
The marathon ‘yatra’ man literally snatched the media spotlight away from his own party as he blogged earlier in May this year his veiled criticism of the incumbent party president. Thus the all India BJP bandh success headline had to make way for Advani’s introspection sermon. This provoked the usual circus of sound bites and media hysteria but the introspection comment did ensure publicity.
Recently he was at it again when he predicted a non BJP, non Congress Prime Minister in 2014. This again provoked a war of words but not without setting the nation in introspection over the real possibility of another rag tag coalition in 2014.
Come to be recognized as a party with differences, BJP does represent meager convergence on use of social media. Narendra Modi, who no longer enjoys the greatest of relations with his former party president, has brought about a paradigm shift in use of social media for political purpose.
A busy account holder at Twitter, Modi became the first politician here this month end to engage directly with his constituency in a live chat (the questions though were prescreened). He followed it up with a live chat with NRIs all over the world. Mamata Banerjee, who has frowned at anyone daring to question her, used Facebook to curry support for A P J Abdul Kalam as her choice for President. Akhilesh Yadav made his debut on social media ahead of polls in his home state.
The digital engagement though is yet limited. But there is absolute merit in use of social media by politicians. First and foremost the engagement is direct, positioning the politician as highly accessible and digitally literate, a must have for politicians to connect to the Gen Next voter.
Second, the messaging is instant and two-way unlike a rally where quite often the success depends upon the capability to ferry truck loads of ‘supporters’. Also, given the huge appetite for social media content yet in mainstream media, the story tends to become format secular. This would eminently suit Modi who is essentially seen as the villain in the mainstream media, particularly so among the English press.
Lastly, with less than two years to go for scheduled 2014 polls, the Internet connectivity is bound to go well beyond the current 10 per cent, fueled by ever falling smart phone prices in the country. India added 69 million netizens since 2008 to reach 121 million in 2011. The growth remains unabated.
The digital outreach phenomenon is secular in nature but is possibly best bet for young politicians who can firm up their presence in political arena dominated by elders. That is why it is rather surprising that Congress mascot Rahul Gandhi, who is touted by Congress as the key prospect in 2014, has chosen to stay away from social media. He and his mother have completely shied away from media scrutiny extolling the virtues of mystery and enigma.
As for the UPA, Kapil Sibal might be happy patting himself for having been able to uproot randomly a few pages here and there from social media menu. But he and his bosses are pretty oblivious to the growing power of social media in altering the domestic political discourse.
(The writer is Editor-Zee Research Group (ZRG))
(The views expressed by the author are personal)