Shashi Tharoor on Congress’ social media plans, digital presence of Gandhis

September 25, 2013

By Aditya Kalra and David Lalmalsawma

Political parties in India are relying more on social media ahead of the 2014 election as a way of increasing voter support, even though politicians in general do not expect such efforts to influence election results.

India Insight interviewed Shashi Tharoor, minister of state for human resources and one of the earliest adopters of Twitter in Indian politics. Here are edited excerpts of the interview:

Can social media be a game changer in the upcoming general election?
I think it can be a game influencer, but I wouldn’t go beyond that at this stage, because what we are discovering is that you need various ways of reaching out to the electorate, and social media happens to offer an additional way, not a substitute for any of the traditional means of campaigning.

Do you see this as a tool that can help win more votes or is it just a brand-building exercise?
Brand building should help you win more votes, otherwise what’s the point. We are certainly looking at this as one more way of attracting voters and helping change the minds of certain kinds of voters. There is an overall brand-building exercise involved in any use of social media, there is a way of using social media to refute charges or to change or correct a narrative.

(Also read: Social media not a game changer in 2014 elections)

What is the social media strategy ahead of the general election?
A number of workshops are being conducted. So yes, we are trying to educate party workers and party sympathizers who are interested in how to use social media constructively. And frankly, I think it’s already begun in many ways to show an impact.

What are the specific plans?
There are already websites and in the plural, because in addition to the party website and the youth Congress website, many state units have their own websites, and then sympathizers. On Facebook too, there are a thousand flowers blooming, as it were. On Twitter, we have both individual handles and institutional ones.

Do you think it will be helpful if other leaders like Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi personally tweet like you?
This has to be left to the individuals in the sense that what their interests are will often condition or determine what they tend to do. There’s no doubt to my mind that both the Gandhis tend to be fairly reticent when it comes to projecting themselves individually; they prefer to let their work talk for them. I don’t think I can persuade them to be anything other than what they wish to be.

I have some years ago in fact, when I first went on Twitter, encouraged Rahul Gandhi to consider it and he has declined … I asked him once more in fact at the beginning of this year, and he still feels that this is not his cup of tea. That’s fine because I think each person has to decide for themselves.

One point worth making is that Mr. Modi, who has made such a virtue of his vast following on social media and so on, doesn’t do his own social media. He had an agency do it for him, and now I don’t know if it’s an agency or whether it’s staff, but anybody who follows Mr. Modi’s work is aware of two things: one, he doesn’t write his own tweets or his own Facebook posts, and second, that he doesn’t interact, doesn’t respond to the various comments sent his way. Rahul speaking as Rahul to a mass audience in Rajasthan as he did a couple of days ago is more genuine than Mr. Modi having an account in which other people are speaking in his voice.

(BJP’s Arvind Gupta reacts: Nothing could be further from the truth. All of Mr. Modi’s social media presence is taken care of by his personal team under his direct supervision. He in fact is one of the most interactive politicians using Google Hangout, Facebook, crowdsourcing and other means of interactivity on social media)

From an election point of view, don’t you think that leaders like Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi need to be out there if they want to connect to the younger generation?
There are various ways of doing this, and we’ve seen the impact that Rahul Gandhi has when he addresses a youthful audience in a college, for example. He reaches them directly, and he is very often mobbed with admiring supporters … If Rahul Gandhi personally was interested in tweeting and you saw his own authentic voice and his own personal interests and so on, I think (it) would be a fantastic addition to the public conversation. But given that he is not interested, let me say that it will not be very different from what someone like a Modi is doing if we were to do it the way you are suggesting.

(Also read: An interview with Arvind Gupta on the BJP’s social media plans)

BJP says Congress has a lot of catching up to do and the party is just throwing money at social media without a proper plan. What is your reaction to that?
As far as the plan is concerned, you are asking the wrong guy. I have not spent any money and I have not seen any money being spent on any of this stuff.

What do you think about Twitter controversies … we have seen #feku (pretentious) and #pappu (clueless kid) showing up as a way to deride politicians. Does it bother the party?
No, I think if you get into the spirit of this thing as almost an undergraduate slanging back, then you just take it in that spirit and move on. The truth is that these guys who take pride and pleasure in saying we’ve succeeded in trending feku or pappu today or whatever, these are slightly juvenile approaches to the serious business of politics.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Aditya on Twitter at @adityayk, David @davidlms25 and Robert @bobbymacReports. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced in any form without permission)

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