Shaili Chopra’s The Big Connect offers interesting observations on how social media influences Indian politics

A few years ago many heads turned to see Nandan Nilekani at the Jaipur Literature Festival. He had just finished his innings at Infosys; he was hot property. Yet he was not really renowned for his skills with the pen, hence regarded by many as a bit of an outsider. Of course, he surprised the ignorant with Imagining India, a persuasive analysis of the country where he argued that India’s population — for long considered its bane will soon be its boon. He talked of ideas, he talked of the next century. He was affable, he was approachable. He won over many admirers.

He was soon to prove that Imagining India was not going to be his solitary hurrah in the world of books and book lovers. He then did a foreword for another book, India’s New Capitalists. Then there were books with chapters on him or by him. Earlier this week, I laid my hands on a book that rang a bell with me for more than one reason. First it came with a warm recommendation by Nilekani. “From being considered an outsider at literary dos to endorsing books, not bad,” I said to myself as I picked up the book The Big Connect by Shaili Chopra. Nilekani waxes eloquent on the book, “The Big Connect is essential reading for those interested in how social media can influence politics in India. It is highly useful and instructive.”

Second reason was the subject: politics in the age of social media. Just finding my way through the maze of social media, it struck an immediate bond with me. There has to be more to the world of instant tweets and the ever-changing Facebook status reports, I had often wondered. And wasn’t social media the driving engine for the Aam Aadmi Party campaign in the Delhi Assembly elections? Now as our screen space is often encroached upon by candidates from all political parties seeking our all-important vote, the book has a huge topicality.

Understandable then I opened the book on a note of curiosity and excitement. Honestly, the misgivings about it being a quickie book were put to rest with Nilekani’s words on the cover. Then I decided to check out some of my apprehensions about the social media being an urban phenomenon or at best a change driven by youth of the country. “The number of social media users in urban India reached 78 million by June 2013, according to a report by IAMAI and IMRB International, and this number is expected to multiply through 2014… social networking through mobile phones is widely observed with 19.8 million users accessing websites on mobiles,” Chopra writes in the chapter on social media and demographics.

So my feeling of the social media being largely used and propelled by urban youngsters was well-founded. Of course, it may not stay that way for long with more and more people accessing the Net on their mobiles. Interestingly, the data projects ‘non-working women’ — that condescending term for women who work at home bringing up their children, cooking their meals, washing, cleaning , etc without any credit or remuneration — to be the next demographic segment with nearly 10 per cent of them accessing social media.

However, the most enlightening bit comes from the chapter on the success of AAP and how social media was central to its working. Indeed, the Delhi elections were a game-changer for our society and the Internet community. Talking of Arvind Kejriwal and his team of volunteers who piloted the campaign online, Chopra writes, “They made certain that of the people who were fired up with new ideas, debate and desire to contribute to nation building — at least some actually stepped into poll booths.” No wonder AAP’s Somu Sundaram confesses, “Technology has been our saviour.”

So, social media was at least partly responsible for the success of AAP, which also was the first to get off the mark, leaving the BJP and Congress in its trail. Soon the BJP decided to tap into cyberspace with greater energy for any advantage in the upcoming polls. Today, Narendra Modi has three million Twitter followers and is ever present on Facebook. He does better than Sachin Tendulkar, which is saying something in the country where Tendulkar is regarded as nothing less than a deity by millions. “Before Modi became a PM candidate he became a social media phenomenon. With the rise of social media and the arrival of politicians on it, there are greater opportunities for direct communication with voters, and Indian leaders are beginning to use this as a way to interact with people.”

Finally, one confession: I did not pick up The Big Connect because of Shaili Chopra. She did not let me down though. I picked it because of Nilekani. Now, when was the last time Nilekani let down a technology lover?