Because of digital media’s growing footprint, a new political constituency is taking shape: the cyber constituency. And you will mean much more to the political parties in 2014 than a forefinger that pushes a button. By BV Rao

> I am a farmer in Sabarkantha district, Himmatnagar taluka. My village is Vaktapur. Will I be eligible for increase in subsidy for drip irrigation system because I am a small and poor farmer and can’t afford this new system? Alpesh Patel

> My father is a farmer and we have about five acres of land in Kareli and we live there. Now we want to install drip irrigation system in our farm so I want to know in depth about subsidy grant by the government. Please give contact number. My number is 096629064xx. Vaghela Nareshkumar Ganpatsinh, village Kareli, taluka Jambusar, district Bharuch

> I am a farmer of Panthawada (in Banaskantha) area. I want to install the new drip irrigation system in my farm and I want information regarding the subsidies and other loan systems provided by the Gujarat govt. So please reply as early as possible. My mobile no. is 099048059xx. Harikishan Desai

> I want to install the new drip irrigation system in my farm and I want information regarding the subsidies and other loan systems provided by state and Gujarat govt. So please reply as early as possible. My mobile no. is: 098339515xx. Dashrath Kakdiya, village Gadhula, district Bhavnagar

These are some of the requests that landed up in the comments section of a news item announcing the Gujarat government’s subsidy scheme for drip irrigation system. It was posted on our website almost three years ago in April 2010. From the first request by Alpesh Patel two months after posting the news to the latest by Dashrath Kakdiya just last week, we have been receiving these requests at regular intervals from farmers from different parts of Gujarat.

Each time a mail like this throws up in our system, we are hit by the unfolding reality of a new India; an India where the combined effect of improving literacy and exploding connectivity is turning old beliefs and assumptions upside down. As you can see, all the mails are from small farmers from interior villages of Gujarat, from people who we would assume would have less than functional literacy even in their mother tongue, forget English; people too poor and too isolated to even have an inkling of the new virtual world that has suddenly sprung up.

Don’t look at these mails from the perspective of what they are seeking but from what they are telling us. They are telling us that while they might not be urban netizens spending their day in a virtual world, they do have access to the net; that whether or not they are educated, there is someone in their village who is literate enough to communicate at least in broken English; they have mobiles and are unafraid to engage with the unknown; and while they might not be tech nerds they all have the ability to manœuvre the world wide web, distil information that matters to them and demand their pound of flesh from the government.

We have had similar experience with two other reports, one pertaining to the setting up of a portal for pensioner teachers in West Bengal and another relating to the website set up by the Maharashtra prisons department. These are not stories on our pride list” and we don’t push them through our social media links. But it seems they don’t need our help at all because these two reports are accessed so often from so many rural and semi-urban locations in these two states that they show up on our daily list of the top five most read reports at least twice every week.

These examples show that, beyond the questionable statistics about net and mobile penetration, something big is going on, that the heart and soul of India is changing. Thomas L Friedman was perhaps referring to this disruption at the ground level when he wrote about the virtual Indian middle class” in his New York Times column: Leaders beware: your people don’t need to be in the middle class any more, in economic terms, to have the education, tools and mindset of the middle class – to feel entitled to a two-way conversation and to be treated like citizens with real rights and decent governance.”

This whole new political community,” Friedman says, has a 300-million-person middle class and another 300-million-person virtual middle class, who, though still very poor, are increasingly demanding the rights, roads, electricity, uncorrupted police and good governance normally associated with rising middle classes. This is putting more pressure than ever on India’s elected politicians to get their governance act together.”

Friedman’s construct of 300 million real middle class and an additional 300 million virtual middle class might be open for debate because these two groups are not mutually exclusive – there is a huge overlap. Some might even argue the other extreme that they are largely the same. We will grapple with the numbers later but it cannot be denied that the pressure on governance is being mounted definitely from the virtual world more than the real.

But the story of 2013 is not just about the size of the virtual middle class or the pressure it is exerting on governance. Because of the Right to Information, rising literacy, telecom explosion and the slow but steady unfolding of e‑governance – and the resultant transparency they are forcing on the system – citizens have been exerting pressure for governance for a few years now. So the story of 2013 is that Alpesh, Ganpatsinh, Harikishan and Dashrath and the millions like them have started intervening in and influencing governance one step earlier, at the level of the political parties, the very crucible of India’s politics. That is what is exciting about the current change.

Take the Congress party’s January 18 – 20 chintan shivir (ideas conclave) in Jaipur, for instance. After eight years of lavishing its attention on the aam aadmi (common man) and bitterly fighting the middle class for two years during the Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal movements – before contemptuously dismissing them as anarchical political conspiracies of the right – the Congress party decided to roll out the red carpet for the middle class. It has set up a ten-member committee headed by senior leader Digvijay Singh to draw up a digital strategy to engage with the middle classes, virtual and real, through social media platforms. Digvijay is now talking of creating an entire cadre of digital media specialists in the party (see interview). This is a far cry from the time not long ago when the government was making naked attempts to police and even censor the internet, especially social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. So a brief history of how we got here is in order.

Just because the success of Anna, Kejriwal and other tormentors of the government lay in their digital muscle, bulk text messages were curtailed through executive fiat and social media itself became a platform to be belittled and distanced from. At a Governance Now conclave on how social media could change the face of governance (March 2010, the early years) telecom minister Kapil Sibal had aptly said that internet should become a transformational, not a transactional” medium.

Yet, when subsequently the transformation started happening, the UPA government was priggishly dismissing it, resisting it and generally refusing to acknowledge it. Being the fulcrum of the UPA government, the logic of the state that any challenge to its authority is necessarily bad, rubbed off on the Congress party, too. This prompted it to at best ignore the phenomenon and at worst take an adversarial position against it. Ironically, the biggest ambassador of social media in India is a Congressman, Shashi Tharoor, who has an unmatched following of 16,63,384 on Twitter. But he was looked upon with the scorn reserved for an impetuous teenager for tweeting from his ministerial chair. And when he was sacked because of one tweet from Lalit Modi (former Indian Premier League chief), social media became the plague itself for the Congress.

The opposite was true for the BJP, the principal opposition party. Not only was it the natural gainer from the discomfort of its ruling rival, but it also welcomed the social media revolution with open arms. A bunch of highly qualified communications professionals of rightist persuasion came together and offered their expertise to the party. A national IT cell was created at the BJP’s New Delhi headquarters with similar cells in all its state party units. They set up the BJP’s official website some years ago and stayed on top of their game when the social media revolution came along.

As a result, the BJP’s website (www​.bjp​.org) is interactive, is updated every day and also has its own internet TV channel, Yuva. It’s Facebook page is a rage with netizens with 8,27,223 likes as on February 12 and intense, if one-sided, debates on national political issues. In contrast, the Congress party’s official website (www​.aicc​.org​.in) is a dud with no activity, no interaction and a complete absence of social media interfaces, a reflection of the party’s dogged refusal to embrace the medium.

The December 16 gangrape and subsequent death of a Delhi girl changed that for the Congress in a flash. The national outrage over the incident and the tsunami it unleashed on the social media – which in turn fed the tidal wave of protests on the ground — unnerved a bumbling government and showed up the complete disconnect of the Congress with the middle class. The spontaneity of the outrage meant that there were no political rivals or foreign hands to blame. This was the same universe that fuelled the massive anti-corruption movements which were defused using administrative highhandedness and political chicanery rather than honesty of action. The anger was real, not orchestrated. It was more than two years old and it was directed against the party and its government.

This time the message from the middle classes hit home. The Congress came under immense attack for not responding to the outrage for more than a week and became the butt of jokes for its stony silence. But because it had no toehold in the virtual world, it had no way of making itself heard. The Congress realised that it had been batted out of the digital game or rather that it had not even bothered to bat itself into it. The enormity of a missed opportunity and the stupidity of foreclosing its options dawned on it resulting in the Jaipur declaration to cosy up to the middle classes through the digital (and conventional) medium.

About time because the virtual middle class is poised to have a big role in the next general election in 2014. While internet penetration in India is still very low because of the high acquisition costs (laptops, modems, broadband costs etc) mobile internet is changing the landscape very fast with services provider offering internet packages for as little as Rs 98 for a month. According to the Mobile Internet Users data released by the Internet and Mobile Users Association of India (IAMAI), as of October 2012, there are about 78.7 million mobile internet users in India. This figure is projected to grow to about 130.6 million by March 2014, a growth of nearly 64 percent in 18 months (see chart). The survey also revealed that internet usage charges account for 40%, or nearly half, of the monthly mobile bill of every user, an encouraging trend showing a definite bias for consuming digital content on mobiles.

Add to this 130 million another 120 million (calculated at 10 percent internet penetration) traditional internet users who access the net on laptops and desktops and you have a whopping 250 million consumers of digital content by election time in 2014. Providing for a liberal 20% overlap in these two data sets, that still leaves about 190 to 200 million unique digital content users. That might not be anywhere close to the 600 million middle class that Friedman estimates (300 million conventional and 300 million virtual), but it does underscore the fact that political parties will have to reckon with a whole new constituency in 2014 that is 200 million- or 20 crore-strong: the cyber constituency.

Addressing this cyber constituency will be very critical for political parties because this is an extremely young and vocal constituency that does not shy away from a hot debate nor does it display voter apathy as the high polling patterns of recent years indicate. After nearly three decades of apathy in which the common Indian logged out of politics and political debate, the digital media has given the space right back to them, the result being that India has been debating national politics in the last few years like never before.

But where is the debate,” asks Anja Kovacs, project director, Internet Democracy Project, Delhi, pointing to the stranglehold of the Hindu right on digital platforms. If there’s only one party on these platforms, who will it debate with? The Centre has been sporadic in its use – only Omar Abdullah and Shashi Tharoor engage the constituency – and the Left has been notoriously absent. Without at least one other party joining the debate, I don’t think digital campaigning will get anywhere as crucial as you might suggest.”

Anja is right. As of now the digital medium belongs to the Right because it realised the importance of this space very early and has been exploiting it to the hilt. Our digital strategy stands on three legs. One is outreach, we use it to listen to and engage with the citizens at large. Two, internal communication and coordination for better synergies and three, big data analysis for better election management,” says Arvind Gupta, head of the BJP’s national IT cell that drives all its digital strategy.

The outreach has helped. Just through their website the BJP has enlisted nearly 50,000 members apart from lakhs of volunteers. It’s Facebook page keeps its constituency engaged with articles by senior leaders (the last one by Arun Jaitley on Afzal Guru hanging elicited 872 likes and 57 comments), audio of a poem by A B Vajpayee in his own voice (2,701 likes and 147 comments) and full video of Narendra Modi’s speech at Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi (a whopping 7,303 likes and 424 comments.) The 20 Mbps connectivity ensures that the central leadership can hold virtual meetings with all its state unit presidents in one go, put to good use by ousted president Nitin Gadkari. As for the analytics, at the basic level Gupta can tell you how 61% of all references to Rajnath Singh upon his ascension were positive on the social media (see chart) and at the deep end he can tell you how the BJP is in a happy situation in at least 50 of the 60 Delhi assembly seats from a reading of the results of the recent municipal elections. He is now mapping the movement of Arvind Kejriwal’s party to understand how it might change the equation.

By all accounts digital media is a bastion of the Right. That is why the readiness of the Congress to join issue with the BJP on social media is a welcome development. For one, it satisfies the necessary condition that we need at least two parties for a healthy debate and for another it will signal an opening up of the political parties who will be forced to re-evaluate the citizen as nothing more than a vote to be won.

All this might not happen overnight. Though everybody has heard about how Obama used the digital medium to micro-target” constituencies, nobody is yet clear on how exactly to do it in India which has a degree of electoral complexity that makes the US presidential campaign a walk in the park. Columnist, brand strategist and market psychologist Santosh Desai sums it up thus: Oh, yes, political campaigning will move into cyberspace in a substantial way. As a medium this has the ability to connect with the maximum number of people during a campaign or at other times. It might not assume a pivotal role as in the US but considering that urban constituencies are becoming electorally more crucial – though that has not yet been firmly established – it is sure to change the behaviour of the political parties. There will be much more anticipation about this new medium and hence more efforts to exploit it. They might not know exactly what to do but since political campaigning works on the concept of eliminating risk, most parties, even if they don’t know what exactly to do, will do something on cyberspace. The logic is that when you don’t know what works and what doesn’t why take a chance, why be left out, why not cover all bases? To some extent then political parties will have to strategise to connect with this cyber constituency. But it is not just about reaching the constituency but also about reaching them with what. Cyber supporters are by nature very vocal. And every vocal supporter of a particular persuasion leads to the creation of a mirror image on the other side of the political spectrum and the conversation often gets hijacked by this extreme polarity. How to speak with this supporter, how to conduct the dialogue and how to moderate the message is something that the parties will have to devise. But we can be sure that political parties will spend much more on their digital campaigns in 2014.”

The 20 crore digital constituency is, of course, not one homogenous vote block that the political parties can hope to encash, like say, the caste or religion vote. As Nirmala Sitharaman, national spokesperson of the BJP, puts it, political parties will need to court this cyber constituency for the immense influence it wields on leading the debate in the conventional news media. Despite the charge that the right-wing forces rule the digital space, it is a fiercely independent space where powerful ideas are being constantly thrown up and existing beliefs regularly questioned. It does not hesitate to throw up data in defence of its arguments and bring anecdotal evidence to buttress its stand. It also challenges the traditional news media when it misleads by cherry-picking facts and forces it to take note of issues that are avoided by the latter. This forced recognition by the traditional media has elevated the stature of the digital media. That is why no political party can ignore it.”

A substantial part of the 2014 campaign will definitely be conducted in cyber space. That’s good for the political parties. What’s in it for the citizen? Hope. The lack of transparency in our governance is rooted in the opaqueness of our political parties that are inaccessible to the average citizen except when seeking them out once in five years. The kind of daily engagement that the social media demands will ensure the iron curtain will lift little by little. It is quite likely that after 2014 you will cease to exist merely as the finger that pushes the button once in five years. Who knows what that can do to politics as it is practised in India!

Originally published in Governance Now.