Absent from social media

The impact of social media in the upcoming general election is as unpredictable as its outcome. While the Twitteratis and Facebook users believe that it can swing the results of a third of parliamentary constituencies, politicians and grass root workers deem such influence to be minimal, confined to a few seats in metros. The principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), having had a head start has utilised this medium effectively for over a decade to engage with citizens and convey its message to the electorate. On the other hand, the ruling Congress party has belatedly realised the need for an internet presence and is playing catch-up just before the coming general election.

 

For such a late entrant, its strategy is fundamentally flawed and a damp squib. The approach adopted by the Congress party signals an aversion to embrace transparency, an inherent reluctance to solicit support for party’s programmes, ignorance as to the interactive and networking nature of social media and an utter disdain for online communities. The party is indeed guilty of bringing its archaic command and control model to a self-governing transparent virtual world. 

Social media, as a transformational tool, is radically changing politics in democratic countries. Online communities are gaining in number, strength and credibility and henceforth are expected to play a definitive role in electoral contests. On such a powerful medium, the biggest blunder of Congress party is the conspicuous absence of influential leaders. Nonexistence of party stalwarts on the virtual world enhances the perception of family stronghold over party machinery while reinforcing the notion of its leaders being prone to sycophancy. 

The other blunder has been to naively confine itself mostly to Twitter and to a lesser extent Facebook. The party has failed to recognise that social media is all encompassing, instantaneous and universal. Youtube, Blogosphere, Podcasts, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Foursquare etc, are also frequented by millions of Indians. By failing to engage the entire virtual universe, Congress party has created a perception that it has nothing to offer to an aspiring generation.  Moreover, second rung leaders are constantly attacking opponents on Twitter whereas online users would like to debate and engage on various issues afflicting them.

Several snafus have been committed by the party in its effort to make an impact on digital media. Ministers from Congress, either rightly or wrongly, give the impression that they prefer to muzzle netizens by banning tweets, conduct surveillance of cyber space, monitor blogsphere and censor unfavourable content. The gagging of Shashi Tharoor, a popular voice online, after his ‘cattle class’ comment exposed the party’s intolerance for openness. And trying to speed up its presence on internet, the party exposed itself to shady fly by night operators. It was embarrassed for having bought “likes on Facebook and followers on Twitter”. 

New age technology

The age of social media is upon us. For the Congress party that prides itself on century old traditions, it’s time to shed inhibitions, modernize and adapt to new age technology. It must decentralise, delegate and empower its leaders so as to attract online communities. Worldwide, social media is driving innovation in politics, political participation and activism. The digital world is radically altering the relationship between the elected and elector. 

In our country too, many young turks are exploiting the internet to drive change, improve their own lives as well as to transform their neighborhoods and cities. The medium offers excellent tools for politicians to deliver crisp personalized message to their constituent’s inbox or Twitter or WhatsApp account. Failure to establish a vibrant and meaningful online presence will certainly jeopardize the party’s future and damage its electoral prospects permanently. 

To woo online communities, Congress must discard its current lackadaisical approach, shed its misgivings of social media and reinvent itself with a superior digital platform. India currently has 200 million internet users and more than 600 million own a cell phone. Sooner or later, most mobile phone users will be on the internet and information will be delivered to their handheld devices or personal accounts. 

According to research conducted in the United States, youth who are active on social media are twice more likely to exercise their franchise on Election Day. Suffice to say that India’s young electorate is not far behind. Moreover, youth are also likely to be more of an influence on family members and hence a critical mass of voters is waiting to be captured through this new medium. The Congress party must launch a blitzkrieg campaign with a coherent message on issues that matter to netizens - jobs, taxes, corruption, environment, livable cities, affordable education and health care. 

It is never too late to alter strategy and change course. The party possesses talent and resources but needs to come out of its cocoon and comfort zone. It desperately needs a “Kolaveri de” wave on Youtube, “Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu” moment on Google Hangout, and an “Arab Spring” spark on Twitter and Facebook to shakeup the political landscape on social media. Until then, BJP will continue to rule the virtual space.

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