Just a few months ahead of general elections in India, political parties are increasingly resorting to social media for image-building and to reach out a growing tech-savvy population.
With parliamentary elections barely three months away, political parties are gearing up to become social media savvy and attract young voters. In this election season, the two major political outfits, the Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are leaving no stone unturned.
Their urgency to reach out to Internet users follows a recent study by the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India which found that social media could influence the electoral outcome in as many as 160 out of 543 constituencies represented in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament. These constituencies are mostly located in urban pockets where the Internet is widely used.
Social media push
The BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, who has over 3 million followers on Twitter, will be the sole face of the party on social media. Recently the party hired a team of 400 coordinators and over a thousand volunteers to spread its message on the web.
"This social media push can be an accelerator to get more people interested in the party and campaign for us. This will help us amplify our message to get more followers and supporters,” the party's IT chief Arvind Gupta told DW.
The ruling Congress Party has also decided to put its best foot forward by creating a 'cyber army' to take on the BJP onslaught. "Content platforms can be leveraged for an effective two way communication. They have the ability of allowing people and politicians to communicate directly with the masses. Whether they will be game changers in elections… the jury is still out on that," ManishTiwari, the country's information and broadcasting minister, told DW.
Although Internet penetration in India continues to remain low, it is estimated that out of a population of 1.2 billion plus, around 160 million people in India are active users of online services and various social media and email platforms.
A game changer?
This puts the country among the top three Internet markets in the world after the US and China. As of today, more than 71 million Indians use Facebook and there are approximately 20 million Twitter account holders. So political parties in urban areas are increasingly becoming tech-savvy, realizing this is the only way to reach out to the articulate young as this could change the democratic political dialogue.
"Of 790 million eligible Indian voters, about 160 million are first-time voters between the ages of 18 and 24 years old. More and more of us are getting on to social media like Facebook and Twitter. Increasingly, it is being understood as imperative to engage with larger number of followers, friends and would-be voters," Jay Panda, a parliamentarian told DW.
Furthermore, just how effective the use of social media can be on the electoral front was demonstrated when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or Common Man's Party won power in Delhi in December last year.
Dedicated volunteers and coordinators, working for the party, not only raised more than 100 million rupees (1.6 million USD) online, but also reached out to 3.5 million people ahead of the voting day with a Facebook application called Thunderclap, which exhorts people to go vote.
The AAP website on Facebook has got over a million likes and is growing rapidly as the countdown to the general elections begins. The Congress Party's Facebook page shows 1.3 million while the BJP has over 2.3 million likes.
While political parties still rely on the traditional and old fashioned ways of campaigning such as posters, rallies, cardboard cutouts as well as house-to-house canvassing to win voters, many politicians realize that social media is set to influence the upcoming vote.