Social Media Is An Add-On To Indian Politics #BigTentIndia

Panel discussions on 'The role of the Internet in Indian Politics' at Big Tent India. Panelists included Omar Abdullah, Shashi Tharoor, Stephanie Cutter and Barkha Dutt as moderator


Social Media as an add-on to Indian politics. Surprised? When only 12% of the population is on social media then it is not surprising why the political class of the country thinks it is still a supplement. These thoughts were echoed by Omar Abdullah, Chief Minister, Jammu and Kashmir along with Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for HRD during a debate at the Big Tent India summit being conducted in New Delhi.  The post lunch debate focused on ‘The role of the Internet in Indian Politics’ which was also joined by Stephanie Cutter, Political Consultant and moderated by Barkha Dutt, Group Editor, NDTV.

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The discussion sparked off with Shashi Tharoor revisiting his famous controversy that resolved around his comment on Indian politicians being referred as “Cattle Class”. The episode had caught on like wild fire on Twitter, blown out of proportion and resulted in a political setback for Tharoor. So for him today, what is being said on Twitter is as important as how that particular tweet would be heard on Twitter.

Stephanie Cutter had her share of her experiences about the Twitter world from serving as Deputy Campaign Manager for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. She conveyed that today we don’t have time to control anything because of social media. Opinions are made as they happen and so was the case with Obama’s first speech during the 2012 re-election campaign.

Twitter trends were telling us that the debate has fallen flat and we couldn’t do much. Earlier whenever we had Presidential debates, after that we had the Spin Room session to change and deliver it well but now there are no Spin Room situations. Nevertheless, today we can see the true sense of democratization of politics, Stephanie summed up.

But can we use Twitter as a dipstick for Indian politics as it is being done in US? asked Barkha to Omar.  Not yet was the blunt answer since the majority of voters who queue up for voting are still not on social media. Social media is good for having your thoughts expressed but that engagement comes with a lot of online bullying and hatred too. To elaborate the situation Omar shared how he had to deal with online hatred during the Afzal Guru hanging episode. Blocking social media is not an easy decision but when the line of freedom of speech and hate speech starts blurring then you are left with no choices.

Bad news spreads very fast on social media and the medium doesn’t give you time to wait for someone to correct that information.

But isn’t the 66A IT act being misused in the name of hate speech, argued Barkha and asked Tharoor’s view on them. Tharoor placed the ball in Kapil Sibal’s court since he doesn’t have the authority to speak on such matters. However, on a personal level he thought that cops arresting people for some Facebook posts is not at all healthy.

Moving the conversation further, Barkha touched upon the vital issue that why do the big guys or the popular ones have to pay a price on social media. Omar who thinks that his Twitter timeline is the best example for hatred thinks that anonymity on Internet has given the power to say anything. He quoted that he is himself aware that there have been lot of media persons who don’t have the guts to speak on the face but will criticise you on Twitter behind the walls of anonymity.

The debate which lasted for 45 minutes ended on the note that US and Indian political systems are different and we are still a decade behind in terms of integrating social media with the political structure. Tharoor agreed that BJP has been a forerunner but his party has geared up a lot too but still social media has a long way to go. Omar added that social media is still a supplement since today if he were to create a rally via social media, not a single voting candidate will come up since the penetration is still very low. Omar concluded by saying that we have a decade to be where the US is today.

A decade is too long and the next speaker Narendra Modi showed the Indian political class how to use technology for the people and the party. Ending the debate Barkha agreed that 12% is still 150 million and social media may or may not shape politics but it has surely shaped public narrative. 

Image Courtesy: Big Tent India