Elections And Social Media: A Socio-political impact analysis

Rohith Nathan

This 2014 General Elections has seen a multi fold increase in the use of social media by political parties. Its outreach has also been widely discussed over print and electronic media as well. The social media strategies of Indian political parties are being compared to that of American parties in their Presidential elections. This is exactly where I have a problem. No doubt that India has one of the highest number of internet users in the world, with facebook users alone crossing 100m. Estimates say that each user has the ability to influence at least 2-3 other voters in his/her family due to strong social ties that are seen in the Indian social fabric. Have media marketing companies over estimated the impact of social media ? Is it a ploy to divert election funds to marketing executives ? The answer to this will divulge after the election results, but for now we can discuss the impacts of such a strategy.

The numbers talk by themselves. Political parties are investing 2-5% in social media alone and probably double or triple that amount for electronic media. All this money being spent is based on the assumption that it is helping reach the political ideology to the people. For a country like India it means that parties expect over half a billion people to have Television sets and electricity to watch them. Why else would parties advertise during prime time cricket world cup matches? It means that parties and their media managers expect people to have TVs and watch the cricket match. It also means that a close to 60% cell phone penetration has enabled parties to reach voters through SMS and automated voice messages. This is the sign of development that the BJP is accusing the Congress of not doing! Now if that isn’t ironical, what is? A country like India where over 300m still live in poverty and open defecation is the norm rather than the exception, the very thought of fighting an election on a social media platform alone sounds rather elitist. Just because cell phone penetration and access to television is huge doesn’t mean that basic civic issues have been taken care of. It is in fact a sign of the lopsided growth that India has witnessed. The story of India and Bharath is true. There is an India that can read this and tweet it, there is a Bharath that is worried about whether the Right to Food will be scrapped or not.

The difference between the US Presidential race and the Indian Parliamentary election lies in their very political structures. The US President being directly elected by the people of the US whereas the Indian Parliament deciding the PM based on the majority a party/coalition might have in the Lok Sabha. This is essentially the reason why I feel the nature of use of social media is not calibrated properly. The social media platform of the BJP has been portraying Modi and only Modi as a one man party for the 2014 General Elections. This is not healthy because it has led to a centralisation of power or at least paints an image of the same. Social media managers have forgotten that we are not electing a Prime Minister, we are electing our member of Parliament to voice the concerns of our constituency in the parliament. Modi has over shadowed the local candidates and this is not a healthy sign for Indian politics. I wouldn’t blame this on him alone, I’d rather blame it on the media marketing companies that the BJP has hired. Coming from a different social fabric they think that implementing tools and methods employed in the US elections would deliver the same effects in India.

This trend of centralisation of power has already led to a party’s local district leaders and youth leaders to be neglected. Their importance has diminished due to the advent of social media and electronic media which allows the top leader to reach the masses that are sitting in front of their television or reading the news paper, or even sitting on facebook. Urban party workers are probably the most neglected. Case in point being the Congress party that has lost its charm in urban India, with Rahul Gandhi being more popular than the local Congress district Secretary. Of course Rahul Gandhi is important, but for the average voter who needs street lights and regular water supply, the local party workers who used to go door to door to collect donations were accountable to them since they had donated money to them. Now with the advent of social and electronic media, their importance has diminished since the party ideology can reach the urban voter without the door to door campaign. The accountability was not just because of donations but donations coupled with strong social relations that we see in India, the voter could go right up to the part worker and demand for a solution to a civic need because he would some how be closely linked to the party worker which is why in the first place he had donated money to him/her. Party membership as a percentage of voter population has dropped significantly since 1991, especially among college students. The apathy of voters is one factor, the other being the lack of strong grassroot organisations.

We can see a similar fall out while understanding the nature of political funding of our parties. It has changed from a large number of small donations and is shifting towards one with a small number of large donations. The fall out being the local district party leaders lose their relevance since they are no longer needed for fund generation. But this is a much larger debate on the nature of political funding which we can leave for another time.

On talking to several voters across cities who are going to vote for the BJP I found that they aren’t really aware of who the local candidates are but they know that they are voting for ‘Modi the development man’. Something very similar can be seen in Tamil Nadu where the Chief Minister Jayalalitha has propped up relatively lesser known candidates for the Lok Sabha elections and is asking people to vote for her (and the party) and not specifically the candidate. Candidates are not even allowed to give sound bytes or talk to the media for interviews. This kind of centralisation of power is not a healthy trend since it leads to a kind of autocracy that will strangle political debate and push us towards a monoculture. Tamil Nadu which was a hotbed of political activity during the days of the Dravidian movement is nowhere close to the kind of vibrant political dialogue that it used to see. None of the top engineering colleges and medical colleges have an active political discourse going. Political membership as a percentage of voters in this segment is an all time low and they have leaders who are 35-40 leading the ‘youth’ wing of their parties. The lack of political vibrancy and discourse has led to sycophancy and centralisation of power, the portrayal of CM Jayalalitha as the next Prime Minister is just one of the ways to overcome the lack of political dialogue. Weberian ‘charismatic’ leadership is what we are seeing in both Jayalalitha as well as Modi.

The Indian socio-political landscape is changing faster than we can adapt. The question this time is whether we have adapted before the political landscape has fully changed. The results to these questions will come along with the results of the elections and a full fledged analysis of the effectiveness of all the election spending is something that we are all eagerly awaiting. Till then, lets tweet , retweet and definitely vote!

Rohith Nathan has not disclosed his affiliation; the official record however informs that he was a former student at the Department of Socioology

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