India is on the move. India is young. India’s literacy rate is rapidly increasing and so is the usage of latest gadgets like the Internet, smart phones, digital media and the social media. All these breathtaking changes are reflected in the ongoing general elections in India, the humongous dance of democracy in the biggest democratic power on earth involving 814 million voters.
Forget advertisement campaigns through television and print media. Forget car rallies, public meetings, hoardings, banners, corner meetings, ‘padyatras’ (on-foot marches) and door-to-door campaigns. All these are so conventional and anachronistic to young Indian voters – and thus boring.
This is a new age India. This is the new age general election. Indian Elections 2014 are not only being fought on tarred roads and dusty streets across the length and breadth of the country. Even more interesting battle of the ballot is being waged in cyber space and through an increasingly powerful social media.
The Anna Hazare-Arvind Kejriwal combo had demonstrated to the country and the world the power of social media. The Hazare-led pressure group had effectively milked the social media cow to expand their outreach in their numerous agitations in 2011-12. Virtually all major political parties took the cue and are now using the Internet, mobile phones and social media in a big way for the first time in the ongoing elections for the 16th Lok Sabha.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube are being used by political parties, candidates and their campaign managers to woo the young Indian voters like never before. This is the smart way to reach out to the upwardly mobile Indian youth. And why not, especially when India is a young nation, with 66 percent of the population under 35 and almost 72 million Indians are in the age bracket of 18 to 23? Needless to say, a large percentage of Indian youth is educated and tech-savvy. As many as 93 million Indians are on the Facebook and 33 million are on Twitter.
They use these social media tools not once or twice a day but practically on second-to-second basis using their mobile phones. Increasing number of young Indians are graduating to smart phones and making full of 3G and 4G technologies. No, this trend is not limited only to youngsters anymore. Even grandpas and grandmas in rural India are increasingly being seen flaunting their personal mobile phones. After all, India is a country where the number of mobile phone owners exceeds the total number of voters (814 million).
Over 100 million Indians are avid users of social media. These numbers are growing rapidly. According to GSM Association figures of October 2013, of the nearly 900 million mobile connections in India, there are only 350 million subscribers. Of these, nearly 31 million were 3G subscribers. The number of 4G subscribers was 0.4 million in 2012. Projections are that as of now there would be at least 100 million 3G and 4G subscribers. Besides, India added 69 million Internet users during 2008-2011 pushing the total number of Internet users by 2011 end to 121 million, with a population penetration rate of almost ten percent. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Indian politicians, cutting across the party lines and ideologies, are increasingly taking to the powerful social media to reach out to the voters. They are relying more and more on Facebook feeds, tweets and YouTube videos to woo the voters.
Consider the Twitter craze among the Indian politicians, for example. Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has the maximum number of followers on Twitter (3.77 million), followed by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal (1.65 million) and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (1.18 million). There are others in the million followers club, like Shashi Tharoor of the Congress who has 2.15 million followers. Indian politicians have taken to the Facebook also in a big way. For example, Narendra Modi has 13 million “Likes” (Facebook terminology for fans), followed by Arvind Kejriwal (5.2 million). Main issues being discussed and debated through various social media platforms pertain to communalism versus secularism, corruption, transparency, development, accountability of political leaders, jobs and economy. With slightly more than 100 million social media users, it is too early a stage where social media can be a real game-changer in Indian politics. But it can definitely be a major swing factor in at least 160 Lok Sabha constituencies out of a total of 543 as these are the seats where winning margin has been less than five per cent. Also, it is a little known fact that in a large number of Lok Sabha constituencies, a candidate who has polled just about 30 per cent of the valid votes polled emerges as the winner. There are dozens of Lok Sabha constituencies where the winning margin is less than 5000 votes, often in three digits and sometimes even in double digits.
Consider these facts brought out by Electoral Reference Handbook released by the Government of India earlier this month. In as many as 54 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats in the 2009 general election, the victory margin was less than ten thousand votes. Of these, 21 candidates won the last Lok Sabha election with a victory margin ranging between 5000-10,000 votes, 27 candidates with an even slender victory margin ranging between 1000-5000 votes and six candidates won with a wafer-thin margin of less than one thousand votes. The narrowest victory margin in the last election was a mere 317 votes and the lucky candidate was Namo Narain Meena of the Congress party who scraped past his nearest BJP rival in Tonk-Sawai Madhopur constituency in Rajasthan. In situations like these where every single vote counts, the potential utility of social media cannot be ignored. Social media is set to be a major swing factor for all political parties in India in years to come.