Election fever has completely gripped the Indian media. Though general elections are scheduled for 2014, the news cycle regularly carries rumours of early elections every time another corruption scandal breaks. Pundits, analysts and party spokespersons, appearing on television every night, attempt to connect with India’s growing middle classes. And a big topic of conversation: the potential for social media to become a game changer in the next election. Will Social Media really make any impact?
India has the third highest number of internet users, after China and the United States. The growth has been sharp. Nearly 74 million Indians are now online from computers, up 31 per cent from March 2012. If the number of people accessing the internet from mobile phones is added, the number rises to 164.81 million, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.
Social Media Constituencies
India’s large population and increasing teledensity, especially in urban pockets, has spurred an impressive jump in the number of people online. Moreover, a recent report released by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and IRIS Knowledge Foundation has revealed that of India’s 543 constituences, 160 can be termed as ‘high impact’ - that is, they will most likely be influenced by social media in the next general elections.
As the report explains, high impact constituencies are those where the numbers of Facebook users are more than the margin of victory of the winner in the last Lok Sabha election, or where Facebook users account for over 10% of the voting population. The study then goes onto declare 67 constituencies as medium-impact, 60 as low-impact and 256 as no-impact constituencies.
Cong VS BJP on Twitter
Right now, there is a small but very active Twitter base in India that is highly political and there are constant fights between the right-wingers and the rest, which can be read as BJP-Congress fights. Major political episodes in the country become trending topics and both sides are able to make TV news headlines quite regularly. However, at this point it would be safe to assume that most middle class Indians experience political activity on Twitter through news reports on TV than actually by engaging with the medium themselves.
Even the politicians who have invested in social media are quite realistic about what it can do for them. Many of them, including Shashi Tharoor and Orissa-based politician Jay Panda admit that people from their own constituency are not following them on Twitter. Therefore, while they can reach a large number of people through the medium, as yet, they cannot swing an election based on social media.
The Mobile Revolution
Not many of us are aware of the role that mobile phones can play to trigger social and behavioural changes in India.
Mobile Kunji has been implemented in eight districts under the Ananya programme, an initiative to help frontline health workers in Bihar to provide better healthcare services through an innovative mobile job-aid tool.
An interactive voice response system-based daily monitoring system is implemented by the mid-day meal authority in Uttar Pradesh and is being used to regularly monitor and track the mid-day meal scheme in around 150,000 schools across the state through mobile technology.
The Chala Skul Ku Jiba (let us go to school) programme is run by Radio Namaskar, a public radio station in Konark, Orissa. It tries to bring back students who have dropped out of schools with the aid of mobile-based texts and a toll-free call service. The programme has succeeded in achieving zero dropout in the Gope block.
Launched by ZMQ Software in 2005, Freedom HIV/AIDS comprises four mobile games targeting different mindsets and psychology of mobile users. In the first 15 months, they had recorded 10.3 million game sessions.
Kisan Sanchar is an interactive platform for scientists, agriculture experts, and institutions for sharing their technology and knowledge with 350,000 registered farmers across 12 states. The knowledge is shared in their local language through text messages and voice calls.
The e-Mamta health application in Gujarat, enabled with mobile alerts, has more than two million pregnant women and 10 million children registered users who get critical health information periodically on their mobile through text messages and calls.
The World of Apps
Although in a nascent stage, mobile apps (short form of application) are being explored by different political formations to reach their “target audience”. AIADMK runs a mobile app called “Ammas Message of the Day” that delivers Jayalalitha’s message to all the party followers, on their smartphones.
Social Media impact in Bengal politics
The Trinamool Congress is trying to change the face of West Bengal after dethroning the Left wing in the state elections. TMC knows very well that the strength and the growth of its party’s baton lie in the hands of the Indian youth. So TMC is not only planning to mentor the Facebook generation but also scale up its 360 degree of Social Media engagement with the youth.
The existing presence of the party on various social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc is worth praising. However it is not just about connecting, as the TMC also believes in real engagement with fans. In fact, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, and party supremo, Mamata Banerjee regularly sends out messages to her fans via her Facebook page.
Even the Communists, who had once vocally resisted the very entry of computers in the country, have fallen in line and are exploring various online networking sites for mass outreach.
In a country where voting often breaks down by caste or religion, there is no evidence to suggest that any voter's primary identity is 'Facebook user' or 'Twitter follower’ wrote Sadadand Dhume, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote for the Wall Street Journal.
Social media is surely the future, but whether it will make a difference in 2014, is yet to be seen.