When Twitter was young, Indian politicians were hardly aware of the site. The ones who took to the medium, paid a hefty price. Six years on, the microblogging site is fast becoming a place which politicians can no longer afford to overlook.
The site has some 16 million users in India, definitely a minority in a country of 1.2 billion people. Why pay all this attention to the twitterfolk then? The old saying, “crying baby gets milk first,” fits the scene perfectly and more so if the minority is influential. When twitter folks cry, they bring the house down and milk is served.
Political analyst and pro vice chancellor of Jain University, Sandeep Shastry says that leaders are increasingly using social media as they realise that on Twitter there is a segment of society which is easily accessible and responsive. However, its direct influence is little as a vast majority of population is not hooked to the Internet, he points out.
That said, it has a significant trickle down effect on the Indian electorate and politicians, though hesitant and fearful of the new medium, know that it can not be ignored for much longer. What else will explain the presence of 3-4 chief ministers, leaders of the opposition and the ruling party, commentators, journalists and the government itself on the site? The governments of almost two-thirds of the 193 UN member countries have a presence on Twitter even though just about 30 of them tweet themselves and very few are regular.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) August 25, 2012
There was a time when pundits from internet dense parts of the world declared that the site is the “new global water cooler.” With the mainstream picking up trends and issues being discussed on Twitter and vice versa, despite low internet penetration in developing countries like India, it is now much more than a water cooler.“It is also becoming a voice for alternative politics,” Mr Shastry says. He points to the India against corruption movement and many protests that have mobilised people through social media as examples.
Lately, Indian politicians have begun taking cues from their western peers and started using social networks to reach out to people. While brevity is not their forte, our verbose politicians have learned to say a thing or two in 140 characters over time.
I never thought I’d say this but I love having nothing to say on Twitter 🙂
— Omar Abdullah (@abdullah_omar) August 7, 2012
Besides the usual stuff that internet is made of, twitter has now become a place for hard political discourse:
I gave a notice in Lok Sabha for suspension of Question Hour to discuss the attacks on our people from North (cont) tl.gd/is8hdq
— Sushma Swaraj(@SushmaSwarajbjp) August 16, 2012
One of the first to join Twitter from the political clan was Shashi Tharoor, who returned to India to chase a career in politics after numerous assignments in foreign countries as a United Nations official. Mr Tharoor went on to become the first Indian politician to cross 100,000 followers on Twitter but soon he was in for trouble. His remark on Twitter, which referred to economy class flight as “cattle class,” did not go well with the Twitterverse or the real world. This was a classic case of what is now called an angry twitter backlash.
The twitterfolk, for reasons right or wrong, have been critical of the government, politics and politician bashing is the favorite pass time on Twitter. “I’m concerned about the excessive negativism on the site,” Mr Shastry told Pi pointing out that the idea of “I love democracy but I hate politics,” to which many people subscribe to, is not it tune with Indian political process.
— IAC Pune (@IACPune) August 26, 2012
Now heavyweights like leader of opposition Sushma Swaraj, Gujarat Chief Minsiter Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav have joined a number of other politicians to air their views.
To the government’s frustration, unlike Google or Facebook which have big business with India, the government has little control over San Francisco based Twitter which does not even have an office in India. Recently, the government was miffed by the tardy response from twitter when it asked the site to block certain accounts.
In an analysis after the latest censorship episode, Pranesh Prakash of the Center for Internet and Society said:
The goodness of the government’s intentions seem, quite clearly in my estimation, to be unquestionable. Yet, even with the best intentions, there might be procedural illegalities and over-censorship.
As the nation comes to speed with new technology, its leaders are struggling to come to terms with the changing nature of political discourse. Mr Tharoor puts it wisely in this article last week:
Technology has become the biggest asset for those who seek to promote and protect freedom of expression around the world. That is why we must support and celebrate the Internet and strive to ensure that the freedom it offers are neither abused nor eroded. There is a thin line between the risk of abuse and the threat of censorship, but in a democracy, there is only one side of that line we can stand on.
Here are some of our politicians on Twitter *
Omar Abdulla (@abdullah_omar, Chief Minister of J&K)
Shashi Tharoor (MP, former MoS for External Affairs)
Vijay Mallya (@VijayMallya MP, Businessman)
Narendra Modi (@narendramodi/Gujarat Chief Minister)
Dr Manmohan Singh (@PMOIndia)
Kapil Sibal (@kapil_sibl, Minister for Ministry of Human Resource Development, looks like a fake account)
Rajeev Chandrasekhar (@rajeev_mp, Independent MP)
Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwarajbjp, Opposition)
Subramanian Swamy (@Swamy39, President, Janata Party)
Tarun Vijay (@Tarunvijay, MP)
Varun Gandhi (@varungandhi80, MP)
Milind Deora (@milinddeora, Minister for IT)
K Sudhakaran (@ksudhakaran, MP)
Baijayant Jay Panda (@Panda_Jay, MP)
Naveen Jindal (@MPNaveenJindal, MP)
Ajay Maken (@ajaymaken, Minister of Youth Affairs & Sports)
Rahul Gandhi (@rahulgaandhi, not verified)
Sharad Yadav (@Thesharadyadav, MP)
B S Yeddyurappa (@Yedyurappa, Former Karnataka CM)
Akhilesh Yadav (@yadavakhilash, UP CM, not verified)
*Disclaimer: Some accounts could be fake. Follow at your own risk.