Dr. Pradeep Kumar Misra, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education and Allied Sciences of M.J.P. Rohilkhand University, Bareilly, India, discusses the use and implications of the Internet and social media in Indian politics. Dr. Misra will be completing a research project about Internet policy in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh as part of CGCS’s Internet Policy Observatory.
The last decade has witnessed unprecedented Internet diffusion in India. Over the past three years alone, Internet usage in India increased from 100 to 200 million people, growing far more rapidly than the decade it took to raise Internet users from 10 million to 100 million. A report from the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) estimates that by June 2014, India will have 243 million Internet users, at which point in time it is expected to overtake the US as the second largest Internet base in the world. This report further observes that the mobile Internet is going to be the next game changer for the Internet in India, with Indian mobile Internet users experiencing huge growth reaching 155 million in March and 185 million in June 2014 (IAMAI, 2013). With this rapid growth, scholars adopting a normative perspective present the Internet as a friend, philosopher and guide across different localities and communities in India. One such scholar, Adulkafi Albirini, articulates one possibility of the Internet as an emerging, “…utopian, egalitarian and empowering tool with the potential of ushering in a new era of development, democracy, and positive cultural change” (2008, p. 49).
As in other parts of the world, the Internet’s socio-economic impact is becoming more and more visible in India. A 2012 McKinsey report discussing the Internet’s economic impact observes, “India has potential to double its economic contribution from the Internet in the next three years, from 1.6 percent of GDP at present to 2.8 to 3.3 percent by 2015.” The report also notes that the impact of the Internet on both the Indian economy and the lives and wellbeing of Indians goes well beyond GDP. In terms of social benefits, the Internet is helping people in India in almost all aspects of life such as education, communication, socialisation, healthcare, development, and entertainment. Indians are rated as one of the most active social media users in the world. A global survey by Forrester Research found that more than two-thirds of online adults in India create social content (Fleming, 2012). Now, after transforming many facets of Indian life, the Internet has taken a new turn and is emerging as a tool for political strategists and leaders of political parties.
Politicians in India are heeding the words of Sey and Castells who, in their 2004 publication, wrote, “The Internet can, indeed, be an appropriate platform for informed, interactive politics, stimulating political participation and opening up possible avenues for enlarging decision making beyond the closed doors of political institution.”(p. 363). As India’s Internet user base is expanding, people are experiencing the Internet’s ability to help them connect and learn about politics, political parties, and leaders. Almost all major political parties have websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and blogs. Growing use of the Internet for politics in India, which is the world’s largest democracy, presents three fundamental questions: (i) Is the Internet really emerging as a new player in the world of Indian politics? (ii) How has and how will the Internet continue to change the art of politics in India? (iii) Is the emergence of the Internet good for politics in India? Let’s tackle these questions one at a time.
Is the Internet really emerging as a new player in the world of Indian politics?
Recently, elections were held in five Indian states. In the state of New Delhi, the Aam Adam Party (AAP), a new party established only a year ago, came into power winning 28 out of 70 assembly seats. Political analysts in India are still busy decoding the AAP’s phenomenal rise, however analysts are coming to the conclusion that, barring their anti-corruption approach, strategic and effective use of the Internet was key to the AAP’s success. Mahima Kaul argues that the AAP’s Aravind Kejriwal, the latest Indian political sensation, defeated three time New Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit partly through the adroit use of social media. As the Telecom Lead blog explains, “Throughout their campaign, AAP members used social media, text messaging, voice, and mobile internet to mobilize voters. Their success was visible in the number of likes and shares each page of the party and its candidates got in Facebook. The campaign also saw videos of candidates’ open forum going viral through YouTube and other social media platforms.” Although it is still early to make generalizations exclusively from AAP’s success, one thing is for sure—the Internet has opened the door of politics in India.
How has and how will the Internet continue to change the art of politics in India?
With evidence that the Internet is emerging as a new player within Indian politics, how has and how will it continue to change this realm? In his Huffington post article, Colin Delany suggests that in politics, the Internet can be used in many ways, for example for fundraising, recruiting, mobilizing people, grassroots organizing, advertising, messaging and geographic targeting. This is happening in India now as parties are trying to use the Internet to enroll new members, create larger volunteer bases, and aski people for donations, votes and support. For example, through its website, the AAP asks for donations and nominations for the upcoming 2014 general elections. The website also encourages party membership, and is used to conduct opinion polls that ask for suggestions on important issues. Following this trend, different national and regional parties such as the Bharatiya Janta Party (the main opposition party in Centre), Indian National Congress (the ruling party in Centre), Samajwadi Party (the ruling party in state of Uttar Pradesh), and Bahujan Samaj Party (the main opposition party in state of Uttar Pradesh) are regularly updating their websites and developing new plans and strategies to maximize the Internet for political gains.
Besides websites, politicians are using the Internet to express their views and opinions via different social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, is among India’s most famous social media celebrities with 10 million Facebook ‘likes’ and 3.3 million Twitter followers. Another politician Shashi Tharoor of the Congress party has 2 million twitter followers. Meanwhile, the ruling Congress Party officials have taken it into account that most of their leaders, including party vice president Rahul Gandhi, are not into Tweeting or posting updates on Facebook. The Congress party has now decided to more effectively adopt social media to connect with different sections of society, especially youths who use these platforms (Agnihotri). A recent study by the research group IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the IAMAI reported that social media could have a “high impact” on 160 of the 543 constituencies in the next election (IRIS Knowledge Foundation & IAMAI, 2013). Since at least 272 seats are required to form the national government in India, the 160 seats highly impacted by social media are significantly important meaning no candidate can afford to ignore this communication platform.
Critics, however, believe that the Internet will not make any significant political impact in India. They often argue that the majority of Internet users are from urban centres, and citizens in villages and rural areas, with limited Internet connectivity, hold significant power in determining the elections. This, however, is an oversimplification of available statistics and emerging trends. India has a population of 1.237 billion, and, as of December 2013, 213 million of that population are Internet users. These 213 million users include 141 million urban and 72 million rural users. In the 2009 general elections, 414 million Indians exercised their franchise, a number expected to increase in the 2014 general election. Similarly, the number of Internet users is also expected to increase. Roughly calculated, almost every second voter has, or will have, Internet access soon. The Internet will certainly create a significant impact as about 35-40% vote share is enough for a candidate to win an election. Also of importance is the “sharing mentality” of Internet users, which pushes them to disseminate information with others. This will be a big advantage for online political campaigners. With the political parties and politicians utilizing social media to engage constituents, and the number of Internet users increasing, there is no doubt that the Internet has and will continue to change the political parties, candidates, campaigns, voters and outcomes of the elections.
Is the emergence of the Internet good for politics in India?
The Internet is definitely an emerging force in Indian politics, a key question, however, is whether it is good for Indian politics. Discussing the effect of the Internet on politics, Nelson (2010) argues that the Internet’s power to disseminate information has created an environment in which any individual can potentially find and motivate like-minded people to take political action. Echoing these sentiments, Christina Maza writes, “[The Internet] is giving a voice to previously marginalized people and groups and allowing for the articulation of alternative political discourses to a wider audience than ever before.” These observations are equally applicable in Indian settings. The Internet in India is offering numerous opportunities for people to participate in interactive political social media campaigns and become political activists. Additionally, the Internet is helping voters better know and scrutinize candidates. Metrics such as voter data and candidate details such as attendance in Parliament, criminal records and reported misdemeanors, when available in granular form on social media, will change the way the voter perceives a candidate (IRIS Knowledge Foundation & IAMAI, 2013). Based on present trends and circumstances, it can be predicted that Internet use will bring a paradigm shift to Indian politics.
Presently, the Internet is providing new opportunities for political mobilization and participation in India. In fact, Internet use is causing a snowball effect in Indian politics, changing a lot of things for both leaders and voters. All the political parties in India, even those who were previously reluctant, are leaving no stone unturned to attract the next generation of voters via the Internet. Meanwhile voters are closely monitoring political parties and candidates, freely sharing their political opinions with others. These, however, are still early days for the Internet in Indian politics, and one cannot say with certainty how much the Internet will impact Indian elections which are usually designed around public rallies, popular welfare schemes, sentiments, low voter turnouts, and print, television or radio advertising.
The Internet in politics and the impact on policies
As the Internet assumes a more prominent role in politics and politicians really begin to take the Internet seriously, perhaps the government will focus on creating better Internet policies that ensure online freedom of expression and attempt to bridge rural-urban Internet divide. At present, two different perspectives—local and global—guide Internet policy in India. From local perspective, the government makes efforts to promote the Internet as a tool for socio-economic development and an affordable and easily available medium for individuals to seek, receive, and impart information. From a global perspective, the government is concerned about issues such as protecting children online, safeguarding national security, tackling cyber crime, enforcing intellectual property rights, ensuring online privacy, and taking a stand on online freedom of expression.
Responding to recent cases when social media was used for commenting on politicians, spreading rumours, and posting hate speeches/visuals, some politicians are discussing further policing and surveilling social media and the Internet. Situations such as the Snowden revelations and information leaks from WikiLeaks have added more fuel to this fire, and both central and state governments are more cautious and concerned about the power of the Internet and its use by people for dissident means. The majority of people, however, seem against any effort to curtail freedom of expression on the Internet. It appears that the growing impact and political use of the Internet will influence politicians to form better Internet polices in India. Overall, political parties have now started to take the Internet more seriously as it slowly becomes a game changer and the success ‘mantra’ for a new age of politics in India.
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Albirini, A. (2008). The Internet in developing countries: A medium of economic, cultural and political domination. International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology, 4(1), 49-65.
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