Trick or Tweet? Can politicians have an online life?
I recently came across this article on the Washington Post.
Being a part of a generation that gradually, if with cautious unease, learnt to adjust to the Internet, I could not help but compare India’s policymakers with those of developed nations based on their level of acceptance of changing media.
Frankly, it is difficult to imagine our lawmakers in the same position as described in the article.
For years, when social networking meant visiting friends and family at Christmas and New Year, and Facebook was still a concept, representatives of our democracy would depend on traditional ways to reach out to their electorate.
Rallies would block traffic, fields would fill with squatting populace hanging on to their leaders’ words and newspapers would print carefully penned statements.
Then came the Internet boom and more and more politicians realized the utility of the 24×7 online audience and the tools at their hand to maximize their reach.
Ministries now have regularly updated websites and a team of media specialists put out updates on important issues in easily downloadable format.
So far so good.
The vast domain of social networking and its utilities, however, still remains untapped as our leaders approach it wearily.
This can be evident from the furore over Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor’s comments on Twitter and the subsequent flak he took for airing his personal views on visa regulation on the popular micro-blogging site.
Tharoor, a newcomer to India’s politics, is known for updating his Twitter account regularly with news and personal updates, a habit which seems to not have gone down very well with his more experienced colleagues.
If I were to compare the Indian polity’s mindset to social networking with that of the Republicans in America in the Washington Post article, it would be evident that there is a gaping chasm in opinion about the potential of Facebook and Twitter.
Adam Conner recommends a status message a day to Republican Peter Roskam on his Facebook page, a fact he says will appear “interesting and cool to his constituents.”
Tharoor’s Tweets received a mixed response. A section of followers appreciated and awaited his comments on issues varying from the Prime Minister’s speech to his head cold and suggested remedies for it.
A political section on the other hand responded with jaded cynicism on the futility of such newfangled trends and their longevity.
Veteran journalist Vir Sanghvi tweeted “If Shashi Tharoor said same things to journos he would be hailed as frank. When he tweets he is called irresponsible. ”
Tharoor has probably captured the obsessive curiosity of a section of Indians who have never before been able to directly connect to their elected leaders as intimately.
“Shashi Tharoor talks directly to half a million people on Twitter. Few newspapers or TV channels have the same reach,” Sanghvi said on his Twitter page.
It remains to be seen whether the tech-savvy minister’s move pays dividends in popularity or backfires within his party which is clearly uncomfortable with the concept of taking personal views on policy matters to social networking.
India has begun dominating the technology market in the last few decades, being home to some of the world’s best programmers. Its leaders, especially of the younger generation, are fast adjusting to changing technology and exploiting it to their benefit.
Most have Facebook pages, carry the latest BlackBerrys and iPhones, and some send out smses to voters during elections.
Does the slamming of Tharoor expose a contradiction in using technology solely for votes garnering and imposing gags when regular feedback and follow-up is expected of the elected leaders? Is a serving politician right to air his personal opinion on policy matters on social networking sites?
Do you feel our senior leaders need to make adjustments to stay relevant in a fast shrinking world?