As a kid, I remember the fragrance of flowers in the air, the hurling of gulaal, posters and hoardings that would mark the arrival of election season. But in 2013, that scenario is changing, slowly but surely. The popularity of a leader is defined today, mainly by his presence and activity on social networking sites. This is true for cities and even some small towns, where leaders are adopting a more informal and impersonal, yet effective way of netting the voter.
As the century has turned over, not much has changed drastically. The rallies and door to door campaigns remain, but the modern neta has got an additional voter base to cater to. The youngest voters are also probably the largest in the country and have an active opinion about the state of the nation. More importantly, what they say is not read just by the country, but by the whole world. With so much at stake, netajis cannot take a chance!
This voter base is what experts like Nirzar Barve, a social media advisor, call the ‘online voter base.’ “It is almost as if it is acceptable for a politician to not be visible in person, but their existence on the web is a must. This is one of the foremost qualities that today’s young voter, who is active online, seek in a political candidate. A digital platform is where they can have direct access to the politicians for communication, and it brings about a sense of credibility to the political outfit”, says Barve.
Social media in India exploded in the mid-2000s, when the number of Indian web users was thrice the number at the end of the 20th century. The complicated concept of the internet became an instant hit with the advent of social media platforms like Orkut, Facebook and Twitter. These allowed the common man to not only interact with fellow countrymen but with people from across the world. The introduction of affordable mobile internet services popularized in the same era brought the world to the palm of the aam aadmi, literally. And it was not long before political parties in India realized the potential of this new weapon to woo voters. The 2009 General Elections were probably the first to witness the crucial use of SMS services and online campaigns frequently. By the next Lok Sabha elections, this medium will play a more important role for political outfits.
If one looks at the recently concluded Karnataka State Assembly polls, most senior leaders in both the primary parties, the Congress and the BJP, kept traditional campaigning methods secondary to the latest trends. Leaders who probably never considered online opinions were opening up accounts on social online platforms by the hundreds, to get visibility from the new kind of voters.
The Karnataka polls were all about which leader could gather the maximum number of “hits” on her or his social media profile. While Younger Congressmen in the state like Priya Krishna and Krishna Byre Gowda have had such accounts for a very long time, these elections saw Congress veterans such as G Parameshwara and current CM Siddharamaiah making accounts weeks before the poll process. May be that’s where Former Karnataka Chief Minister Jagdish Shettiar from BJP fell short of the line.
Many state netas candidly admit that their accounts are managed by hired professionals, which brings to light a whole new dimension of social media strategy. Specialist teams are deputed to accumulate thousands of followers on these accounts and operate them. These form the backbone of the State Congress unit’s strategy, which ultimately came to power in Karnataka after a long wait in the opposition. Many leaders like the former health minister of Karnataka, BJP’s Arvind Limbavali admit that social media has given an opportunity for politicians to reach out to a wider sect of society and gain some useful insights from ordinary people. The son of the newly elected CM Siddharamaiah operated a popular page on one of the social networking websites and managed to get thousands of hits and comments every day.
Many, like Shobha Iyyer, a lawyer by profession, believe that social media campaigns ran by the Congress during these polls played a crucial role in bringing down the BJP led government. This belief stems from the fact that several documents related to various scams in the state, were made available through internet for the common man.
In the coming year or so, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan and Mizoram will go to polls, followed by Lok Sabha polls in 2014. Political parties across all these states and at the centre, including the Prime Minister’s Office have started maintaining a strong presence on social networking sites.
Will the India that adopted an electronic voting system, develop an easier voting mechanism for the common man? An online poll perhaps? One won’t be surprised if that happens soon, since the impact of the internet is growing larger by the day and the results of the Karnataka elections is just a small window into the power of that impact.
Written by Ishan Choudhary for Image Management