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Veterans and newcomers in the politics of Twitter

In poll season, Lalu, Sibal, Jaitley and more warm up to social media.

In poll season, Lalu, Sibal, Jaitley and more warm up to social media. (CR Sasikumar) In poll season, Lalu, Sibal, Jaitley and more warm up to social media. (CR Sasikumar)

With millions of Indians hooked on to Twitter and Facebook, it is too tempting for any politician to ignore. While some such as Omar Abdullah, Milind Deora and Akhilesh Yadav were early on Twitter, the looming elections have encouraged many more to follow.

Law & Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal stepped into Twitter territory last November, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley a month later. January 2014 saw old-school politician Lalu Prasad Yadav on this new medium. First-time Lok Sabha aspirant Nandan Nilekani had begun tweeting in September 2013.

Most political leaders are on both Twitter and Facebook, though some such as Mamata Banerjee prefer one over the other. She took to Facebook in mid-2012.

Lalu, who joined Twitter January 14, explains why a politician of his vintage should do so. “Only change is constant. With change, we change… finally on Twitter. Stay connected”. That he was not one to give up despite court battles was also conveyed in a Hindi tweet that translates loosely as, “So what if I can’t contest elections, my alphabetical characters will.”

Sibal’s entry comes after he had once been under attack on social media websites for allegedly advocating censorship of unparliamentary tweets and blogs. The reason, he says, is there is little option but to join this new mechanism. “If there is trolling also, you have to learn to deal with it,” he says. There may have have been about 70 per cent negativity when he joined, Sibal says, but he feels that figure in barely two months is down to 50 per cent and hopes it will drop farther. His first tweet was, “So Twitter is everything they said it would be. Passionate, blunt . I got trolled and was even trending. Not bad for just Day 1!”

He used Twitter to congratulate the Aam Aadmi Party and fellow tweeter Arvind Kejriwal  on their Delhi victory, to express his opinion on the government efforts following a Supreme Court order on Section 377, and on waiting to see how the court would serve justice in the  Justice Ganguly sexual harassment issue.

Jaitley is said to have decided to join because he finds it empowering him to reach people who may not be reached with conventional methods.  With 118,000 following him within two months, this can hardly be contested. A recent chat session of his is said to have been retweeted nearly a million times. He held another session February 22.

Narendra Modi and other senior leaders such as Sushma Swaraj are already tweeters and bloggers.

When Nilekani, chairman of UIDAI and contesting from Bangalore, got on to Twitter, he was greeted with welcome messages as well as angry tweets asking whether he and his family had got Aadhar cards or how much of the taxpayers’ money had been “flushed” for the UID endeavour. Today Nilekani is steering through Twitter a campaign of sorts with his “Ideas for Bengaluru”.

Political conversation is decidedly creating a buzz on Twitter, agrees Raheel Khursheed, head of news, politics & govt, Twitter India. “… In particular for this coming election, politicians and voters not on Twitter will be missing the bus and doing so at their own risk… Politics has one of the highest engagement scores on our platform as people not only discover interesting content across the political spectrum, but they can also connect, discuss and debate with other people with the same (or different) political views,” Khursheed told The Indian Express in an email response. “The fact that media outlets, political parties and related stakeholders are spending so much time and energy to reach out to the online audience means that this audience is now mainstream,” he added.

Ankhi Das, Facebook’s public policy director, India & South Asia , said while launching “Facebook Talks Live with Top 2014 Contenders” that in the 2009 polls there were hardly any Facebook users in India but today there are over 93 million engaging every month on Facebook and this would be a factor to reckon with. “We have always been focused on making sure that we give people the power to share, and to make the world more open and connected. This and the opportunity to engage actively and regularly with constituents have led campaign teams and leaders to use the medium, making Facebook a core part of the political infrastructure in the country. An independent 2013 study by IRIS Knowledge Foundation found that 150 constituencies in the country would be impacted by the Facebook vote,” Das said in a statement.

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