Smart netas vs smartphones this election in India
By Sunetra Choudhury
Have you met my colleague? She’s the one who runs the Press Information Bureau handle on Twitter?’’ asked my friend, who also happens to be a sarkari information officer.
I looked around curiously to spot the person who had been tweeting riveting things like ‘CCEA approves creation of the Special National Investment Fund’ and noticed a woman with her head down on a computer typing furiously. She didn’t turn around to say, ‘hi’, and my friend explained: “She’s going to tweet about the minister’s briefing.’’
I don’t know why I found that fun and took out my phone so that I could tweet her photograph. A-behind-the-scenes look at the sarkari media machine, I thought, but I heard squeals. “No, no, please don’t do that!” they screamed, “It’ll create problems for us.”
The media-shy government tweeter and I had apparently attended the same briefing, and while I sent my news flashes as the minister spoke, she took copious notes and was now preparing to distill them carefully into tweets. I understood that it was a tough job; she would have to weigh each word to ensure it doesn’t upset anyone or create a controversy. But I just thought the whole point of a PIB Twitter handle to disseminate information was to do it quicker, so using a smartphone from the conference room may have been more effective. But this was the Government of India, and I expected a file on every tweet that was being sent. After all, I knew that the CBI had an official file that was signed on every page and sent to senior officers about every story that appeared about them, every single day!
I thought about the PIB’s official ‘tweeter’ as I read her tweet on Thursday. The Cabinet had met and approved a plan to have a ‘New Media Wing’ in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Headed by a joint secretary level officer, this wing would focus solely on social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
And to do what every pre-pubescent kid could do, they had allotted a budget of Rs 22 crores for five years — not a colossal amount but not mean either. It just makes me think, aren’t politicians going a little overboard with this social media jamboree?
It’s like in the 90s when everyone was launching a website expecting it to change their lives. Of course, by itself, a website didn’t change anybody’s life. And yet, we see a disproportionate amount of attention by political parties to their new media plans. The Congress, which is ridiculously opaque with the media, whose leaders will make heavy weather about revealing even the agenda of a routine meeting, held a two-day brainstorming session just to discuss this plan. They’ve made young Deepender Hooda who is hardly active on Twitter their social media mascot. And he’s kickstarted his duties by launching a new Twitter feed for the national party — not exactly nail-biting stuff.
The BJP has always been much better with its communication strategy and for them this whole micro-blogging stuff is as last season as the ‘Advani for PM’ campaign. They’ve moved on to WhatsApp and other tools and Piyush Goel is the man in charge, as Ananth Kumar solemnly informed us while announcing the new BJP team and its responsibilities. The five-time MP from Karnataka, obviously thinks it is important enough to send some 200 tweets just like party president Rajnath Singh, who disses English but has taken to tweeting.
Is all this effort for the majority of India who are under 35? Are they suddenly going to head to the polling booth and vote for their neta just because he has a zillion followers? I don’t know but I feel a bit cynical about that. My assessment of that captive votebank is more that their civic responsibility may end with pressing the ‘like’ button.
But don’t go by my assessment but by that of Internet evangelists themselves. The Internet and Mobile Association of India supported a study by Iris Knowledge Foundation in March which concluded that social media would influence 160 constituencies out of the total 543. It would have no impact whatsoever in 256 constituencies and low impact in 60 of them. Yes, 160 constituencies is significant but the study only assumes that it will make a difference there because those areas have 10% or more voters using Facebook, or where the margin of victory in the last elections is less than the number of Facebook users.
So, it is a leap of faith to assume that social media is bringing about a revolution in Elections 2014. I know that looking at Sushma Swaraj and Omar Abdullah who thrust and parry using 140-characters and Shashi Tharoor and Anurag Thakur who debate secularism of Eid and Teej greetings. It seems that next general elections, the cyberspace will be a frontier that will be captured. But, at the same time, we all have to literally look up from our smartphones and take a good look at reality. The smart neta knows virtual followers will never replace those who brave the heat, rain and cold to come hear him speak and then make the effort to push the voting machine button instead of the one that just says ‘like’ or ‘tweet’. Publilshed in DNA.