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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Writing on the wall


The Congress and BJP are preparing for a showdown on social media in the run up to elections 2014, says Syed Khurram Raza
SYED KHURRAM RAZA | Issue Dated: June 9, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Atal Bihari Vajpayee | Janta Party | Barack Obama | Sheila Dixit | Facebook | YouTube | Blog |

My first encounter with a political rally was post-Emergency when Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then senior Jan Sangh leader, was to address an election rally in support of the newly-set up Janta party at Delhi’s historic Ramlila maidan. It was a huge gathering and after the rally my father and uncle, declared in one voice that Janta Party would win hands down - and they were right. There were no exit polls or surveys, yet the prediction was spot on. The numbers and mood at the gathering gave laymen like us a sense of what lay ahead.

Cut to the present. Times have changed and the day may not be far when likes and dislikes at social media sites too can become a source – much in the manner of Vajpayee’s rally - to gauge the mood of the public.

Take the US. During the 2012 presidential election campaign, President Barack Obama had 22.7 million followers on Twitter and 32.2 million Likes on his Facebook account. It stood in contrast to main rival Mitt Romney’s 1.8 million Twitter followers and 12.1 million Facebook Likes - and this gave a fairly accurate sense of the ultimate poll outcome.

“Social media is a futuristic scenario and with mobile phones becoming internet compatible, the myth of limited reach is also dwindling. At present, users mainly include urban youth, but the reach is increasing and making inroads into rural areas also,’’ says a former bureaucrat in charge of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit’s public relations.

He says that in two-and-a-half months, Likes at the chief minister’s Facebook profile have reached 35,000. “Basically, at present there are three social media sites, Facebook, YouTube and Blog, which make an impact. Facebook and YouTube are take-off platforms while Blog is a landing platform and because it is making its presence felt, political parties can’t avoid it.’’

In reality, until Egypt’s Tahrir Square revolution, which dethroned Hosni Mubarak, no one was quite sure of its effectiveness. After Tahrir, social media became a very potent medium of expression and agitation, the rage among the angry young men and women.

Soon enough, India too witnessed a wave of social media unrest during the Anna Hazare agitation and Delhi gang rape case. It is because of this popularity and mass appeal that there is a race among political parties and politicians to own website, Facebook and Twitter accounts. “The fact is that we can’t ignore this medium because it is a media of common people where an individual has the opportunity to express his feelings independently. Youth under 40 are using it and this group amounts to roughly 60 percent of voters. It is bound to impact electoral politics,” says Srikant Sharma, BJP Media Cell in charge.

According to him, “Sushma Swarajiji and Narendra Modiji have Twitter accounts and Arun Jaitleyji has his website. Rajnath Singhji has a Facebook account, similarly our cell has its own website, Facebook and Twitter. 

Congress is not far behind “Social Media is playing and will continue to play an active role in politics. In addition to the urban vote, it is more informal, designed to send the message across to net savvy voters. They are a new dimension to the communication matrix and is proving to be relevant. I wouldn't say it has taken over but it certainly offers a powerful platform for people to connect and communicate,’’ says Priyanka Chaturvedi, AICC spokesperson and district general secretary, Mumbai Youth Congress.
To be sure though, there are cynics. “The jury is still out on whether noisemakers on social media actually vote. But it has made politicians jittery -  for want of a better word - and that is clearly affecting statecraft. Media is using social media as a stick to beat politicians with and the latter are obliging,” says journalist Abantika Ghosh.

Avers the former Delhi government bureaucrat, “it is also a fact that social media is not as effective in our country as in the West because there is homogeneity there while our society is heterogeneous”. Fair point. The number of online users too is increasing at a mind boggling rate. Clearly, the enthusiasm for going online is immense - particularly considering that English is no longer the only language available on net thereby broadening the scope even further. Maybe, the culture of huge election rallies is a thing of the past. It would also well be that social media may end up providing better clues to read the writing on the wall and raise stinky issues; maybe, they are the Ram Lila Maidans of the future.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017