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In India: Is social media really that important in politics?

July 20, 2013

By Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor

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.

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 organised supporters — prominent Indian politicians from all parties have leapt in.

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.

Nonetheless, scepticism 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 more than 10 per cent 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 mobilisation. Unlike the US, for example, Twitter will be useless for organising a mass rally or even convening a large public meeting.

But, while social media cannot be a substitute for conventional campaigning, they can help 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. Read the rest in


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One Comment
  1. I delight in the data on your websites. Thank you.

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