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Politics trades in symbolism, and it is no surprise that prime ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi would attempt to marry his modest origins story with the meanings contained in a cup of chai to woo voters. Modi took his “chai pe charcha” a step further. He used the tools made available by new technology to beam this “footpath parliament”, as he called it, to chai stalls in multiple cities.
But while Modi has been especially adept at weaving the opportunities afforded by technology into his campaign strategy — remember the 3D projections of the Gujarat chief minister at rallies during the 2012 assembly campaign to create the illusion of his presence — he is far from the only politician to have recognised the possibilities inherent in such tools. On Wednesday, UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav announced a “talk to your CM” Facebook campaign.
New technology has always had an impact on how politicians communicate with their constituents. If radio and then television changed how leaders could reach citizens, especially during elections, social media presents another advance. It allows politicians to combine the virtues of traditional door to door messaging with the detached efficiency of mass communication by enabling them to scale up the personal and simultaneously address hundreds, even thousands, of voters scattered across the country.
Twitter and Google Hangouts offer another advantage. Politicians can set the agenda, uninterrupted by pesky cross-questioning. The interactive potential of social media can be harnessed to project the image of an accessible, accountable representative. But the level of control leaders can exercise over the discussion means that the spontaneity of such an interface is ultimately as much of a mirage as a 3D hologram.