This news bit resembling a 140 character tweet appearing somewhere in a corner in today’s Indian Express caught my attention and set the tone for my this week’s blog post. Has social media in general and Twitter in particular become so important a tool today for delivering Governance? Though our PM Narendra Modi has been in the forefront in using social media as an important medium for direct communication even before he became the PM, it’s only now (may be an year or so) since we started seeing other Ministers on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Apart from the Ministers themselves, we are now seeing even official accounts of Ministries, Secretaries and other key officials.
It’s a fact that Indian politicians except a few like Shashi Tharoor or Narendra Modi were quite slow in taking to social media. During the UPA rule when Tharoor as a Minister was quite active and visible on Twitter with day today updates of his work, Congress party admonished him to keep a low profile, we were told. And that time from the opposition, leaders like Venkaiah Naidu took sly digs at Tharoor for his excessive tweeting!
More than 4 years later, the wheel has come a full circle. Naidu has an active Twitter account with more than 220K followers. And it has now become the norm for the Ministers and other ruling politicians to customarily post updates on their day today activities and accomplishments on their FB page and/or on Twitter. We as citizens who had to depend earlier upon newspapers or TV reports (who in turn relied on press releases/briefings from Ministries) or Full page ads in newspapers released by parties to tom-tom their achievements (by the way this rotten practice continues to this day by all parties) now can get an idea of what is happening by “following” different ministers. Of course one must know to separate “gloats” from “ground reality”! Apart from this method of feeding information – the game changer has been the emergence of a medium like Twitter to solve people’s problems.
We all now know how our Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj has become a darling of Overseas Indians because she religiously takes actions based on tweets directed at her asking for help. For those who get stuck in unforeseen situations that too in foreign shores, this has become a Godsend to cut across the Embassy security and bureaucratic maze and get the needed attention. And similarly Suresh Prabhu, the Minister for Railways is another who is prompt in responding to passenger grievances on Twitter. So much so a passenger’s complaint tweeted from one station while he was on a journey got addressed by the time the train reached the next station! Or so we were told. Routinely we see people tweeting to Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister for Commerce and Industry about various queries on policy matters,… and she makes it a point to respond diligently. In another positive use of social media, few days back Star anchor Rajdeep Sardesai tweeted about the need for a post office in Pithoragarh a small town in the Almora district – a mountainous stretch in Uttarakhand and lo, Ravi Shankar Prasad the concerned Minister obliged with opening of a new Post Office there I believe in 4 days!!! So it didn’t come as a surprise when the Ministers who were ranked high in opinion polls at Modi Sarkar’s 2 year Anniversary were all those who were active on social media. Not just active by their presence but by earnestly attempting to solve governance problems.
Though an active “twitterer” myself, I was initially a sceptic too. Whether the social media influence on public at large is an overrated phenomenon. After all a Facebook or a Twitter as a medium is still considered very urban and elitist and not one that reaches the bottom of the pyramid in a country where the political “fortunes” actually lie and where the IT penetration is a still a Work in slow progress. In fact, many including me were caught by surprise when a not so IT savvy grass root politician like Amit Shah, BJP’s President announced that one of the criteria for candidates for the upcoming UP polls was that they should have social media accounts and must be active on the same with XXXX number of followers! Is it that Modi is “bully pulpitting” the BJP and its leaders to take social media seriously and take advantage of the same???
May be or may not be actually. For the innately smart Indian politician (whether IT savvy or otherwise) it doesn’t get so difficult to grasp the growing utility of social media. There were many politicians in the pre- social media era too who earnestly addressed citizen issues being brought up to them thro petitions, letters, appeals,… However when they addressed those issues, it was only known to that petitioner or complainant concerned. However, in social media, when a Suresh Prabhu addresses a passenger issue promptly and responds on Twitter it reaches many of his followers. Multiple Retweeting then generates a humongous multiplier effect! And finally, if the story gets picked up by main stream media also then it delivers a huge reach – may be to the actual target audience of the Minister😃
So though social media still is very much urban and caters to a very literate and niche audience (considering India’s size) as of now, it is growing at a fast clip in terms of adoption. And more importantly what we see is social media today feeding off the narrative in main stream media routinely. What happens on Twitter gets lapped up and stories developed by many reporters, anchors and columnists for Newspapers, TV News,…
Yes, the obsession with “Trending on Twitter” by News channels and political parties may be completely misplaced. But if a political party gets also obsessed with using a Twitter as a medium to listen to the common man and communicate, it automatically becomes a very effective tool for delivering Governance. Today, it could be a staid EPFO that wants to be on social media. Tomorrow it could be a more staid Ministry of Ganga Rejuvenation😃. By the way, young boys and girls, managing social media has become a very attractive and powerful career option in political capitals!!! (more powerful than the “Personal Secretary” of yore)
P.S: Being very responsive on Twitter to deliver Governance also has its side effects. As Mrs. Swaraj recently found out. Somebody tweeted to her for help regarding problem with his Samsung Refrigerator😃😃 It’s another matter that the astute tweet got huge play and negative WOM for Samsung that I am sure the Tweeter would have got the desired result swiftly!!!