Twitter quietly changes India

Reuters

Supporters of Gujarat's Chief Minister Narendra Modi celebrate while holding posters and cut-outs of Modi in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad June 9, 2013

Article Highlights

  • Social media boosters exaggerate the role Facebook and Twitter can play in a country where only an eighth of the population has access to the Internet.

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  • By breaking the left-leaning intelligentsia's monopoly on ideas, Twitter and Facebook have the potential to offer alternatives.

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  • It's only by winning the war of ideas that reformers can hope to permanently transform the country's political landscape.

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As digital milestones go, it's easy to freight this one with exaggerated significance. On Wednesday, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi ended Union Minister Shashi Tharoor's long reign as India's most popular politician on Twitter. As of Thursday night, Mr. Modi had about 1.8 million followers, a figure for the most part exceeded only by those at the pinnacle of cricket or Bollywood.

For Mr. Modi's more excitable devotees, some of whom seem to spend all their time on the micro-blogging site, their leader's latest feat is no doubt evidence of his unstoppable ascent to the prime ministership next year. It echoes a series of opinion polls that show him as the country's most popular leader, comfortably ahead of his putative (non-digital) rival, Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi.

That Mr. Gandhi is a no-show on Twitter only highlights a frequent charge against him: He's aloof from ordinary people. He supposedly lacks the political instincts to successfully lead his party into battle.

Common sense, however, suggests a more modest place for tweeting and "liking" in India's complex electoral landscape. Simply put, social media boosters exaggerate the role Facebook and Twitter can play in a country where only an eighth of the population has access to the Internet.

Indeed, the real significance of technology lies elsewhere. By breaking the left-leaning intelligentsia's monopoly on ideas, Twitter and Facebook have the potential to offer an alternative to the reductive identity politics and populist economics that hobble India. Ultimately, it's only by winning the war of ideas that reformers can hope to permanently transform the country's political landscape."By breaking the left-leaning intelligentsia's monopoly on ideas, Twitter and Facebook have the potential to offer an alternative to the reductive identity politics and populist economics that hobble India." -- Sadanand Dhume

But first, the case for social media's new salience in electoral politics. Earlier this summer, a widely cited report by Mumbai's Iris Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India claimed that 78 million Facebook users will "wield a tremendous influence" over 160 of India's 543 directly-elected parliamentary seats. In these so-called "high impact" constituencies, Facebook users constitute either 10% of the total vote, or command greater numbers than the margin of victory in the 2009 election.

On the surface, this calculation appears plausible enough in a back-of-the-envelope way. In India's first-past-the-post system, it often takes as little as 30% of the vote to win an election, so a 10% vote share is not to be sneezed at. Urban areas with a high concentration of Facebook users, which include not only the five biggest cities but also second and third tier cities, loosely match with regions where anti-government protests decrying corruption and failure to prevent violence against women have bubbled up since 2011.

Mr. Modi's outsized fan following on Facebook—with nearly 2.2 million "likes" his page dwarfs Mr. Gandhi's by a factor of eight—mirrors his favorability ratings in urban India. Many of the 75-odd urban seats where the Congress appears most vulnerable, according to pundits, also happen to be where the country's Facebook users are concentrated.

On closer examination, though, there's less to the argument than meets the eye. In a country where voting often breaks down by caste or religion, there's no evidence to suggest that any voter's primary identity is "Facebook user" or "Twitter follower." And going by precedent, India's middle class is more adept at squabbling over politics at a dinner party than actually showing up to vote, much less at organizing and campaigning.

Moreover, the numbers simply don't add up. India's 78 million Facebook users make up merely 6.5% of the population. Twenty million Twitter users constitute less than 2% of the population. Nobody knows for sure how many of these are pimply teenagers rather than potential voters.

To put this in perspective, Barack Obama alone has nearly 1.5 times as many followers (about 33 million) as the entire Indian Twitterverse. And though the consulting firm McKinsey expects the number of Internet users in India to more than double to 330 million by 2015, much of this expansion will likely happen too late to substantively affect an election barely 10 months away.

This is not to suggest that social media commands no influence at all. To begin with, it levels the playing field for the opposition. In effect, Mr. Modi has fashioned a way to appeal over the heads of journalists and directly to his supporters. Twitter trends increasingly help determine what appears on cable news each evening. In Delhi, anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party hopes to use Twitter, Facebook and Google GOOG +0.79% Hangout to fight the better established Congress and BJP.

Nonetheless, it's in the war of ideas that social media can be central rather than peripheral to India's future. Effectively, Twitter and Facebook have accelerated India's process of rejoining the world from which it had divorced itself for four decades by pursuing economic autarky. Regardless of whether it is the best way to deal with corruption, the threat of radical Islam or the folly of reckless populism, the time where a handful of elites can effectively control the "commanding heights" of the debate is ending.

The existence of a large and well-educated Indian diaspora, 3 million strong in the U.S. alone, quickens this process. For the first time since India's brain drain began in the mid-1960s, overseas Indians can actively engage in the national conversation. Indeed, some of the most prominent Indians on Twitter are based in Houston, Singapore and New York.

A country the size of India won't change overnight. But those interested in social media's growing role ought to pay less attention to its likely negligible impact on the upcoming election, and more to how it shifts the parameters of debate.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01

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