Facebook and Twitter offer excellent opportunities to gauge public opinion

The more things change, the more they remain the same. My tryst with journalism began with the ‘Letters to the Editor’ column when I was in school. As a compulsive contributor and an avid observer of this space, I seldom came across people in public life responding to genuine grievances or outpourings of angst or even an interesting point of view expressed by those who elect them. Two decades on, the platforms for those in power to interact with the common man have obviously multiplied. The social media, barring its venomous fringes, are a fairly reliable barometer of at least urban sentiment. But does the political class deign to engage with them?

I did a dipstick survey with a band of social-media-savvy youngsters. To my poser on how many of our leaders are active on the social media, many mentioned Chief Ministers Narendra Modi and Omar Abdullah, the Prime Minister’s Office, Former Union Minister Shashi Tharoor (who can sadly attribute the ‘former’ to his ‘cattle class’ tweet!) Sushma Swaraj, Digvijay Singh, Milind Deora, Derek O’Brien and Karti P.Chidambaram on Twitter, Dayanidhi Maran on Facebook, and senior leaders like L.K.Advani in the blogosphere. A few names that turned out to be fake profiles put up by sycophant followers can be given a tolerant pass.

At the time of writing this column, Narendra Modi has 1193 tweets, 6.81 lakh followers and is following 234 others. Sushma Swaraj has tweeted 2002 times, has 2.59 lakh followers but follows no one. Digvijay Singh has 95 tweets under his belt, 4976 followers and follows a dozen people. Shashi Tharoor has tweeted 10,773 times, boasts of 13.6 lakh followers and follows 244 handles. Derek O’Brien seems to have tweeted the most - 14,717 posts (many presumably on the cartoon row). He has 76,549 followers and follows 74 accounts. The politician whose social media interaction comes across as the most vibrant is the Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. His 4968 tweets are admittedly his own views “but sometimes the line blurs!” Taste a sample. @gautamsatpathy tweets “Srinagar driver blackmailing for additional 2000 rupees for airport after full payment yesterday! State of cheats!” Omar Abdullah replies: “I'm very sorry to hear that. I have been warning against this but there are bad apples in every lot but still inexcusable.” And the J&K CM adds: “ I'm sorry, sir. We are NOT a State of cheats any more than India is a country of thieves or snake charmers.”

Imagine every Chief Minister earmarking a few minutes every day to interact with citizens on the social media. Today, this seems more than wishful thinking. If they really want to gauge public opinion, this is the space to do it. The steepest petrol hike in the decade had its play on Twitter and Facebook. As did the unprecedented petrol scarcity for almost 4 days in Chennai. Why didn't any leader pay attention to this chorus? Profit-making oil companies can flex their financial muscle with front-page semantics on under recoveries vis-à-vis losses. The social media can also emerge as the poor man's outlet that even intelligence agencies can use to base their reports on. The adulatory tweets on Viswanathan Anand and the related demand for a Bharat Ratna for the World Chess Champion could well give the political establishment a sense of the mood of the nation.

How palatable will the ‘Rules Of Engagement’ in the social media be for politicians, some of whom cannot stomach even remotely inconvenient questions from the mainstream media? The other day, in response to a tweet on how much cash-strapped West Bengal had spent on the victory parade of the Kolkatta Knight Riders, a person shot back: “How will that information help you? Even if you sell your family can you make that money? Shut up, you fxxxxxxx idiot.” A classic instance of misuse that could put off a public figure from hopping on. But despite this danger, our film stars are active on Twitter, with fans hanging on to their every tweet. Don’t forget bureaucrats. It was touching to read a wall post on Facebook by IAS officer Santhosh Babu about a call he received from a girl whom he had rescued from a home. She had scored a distinction in her Class X exam, thanks to his 'back to school' initiative when he was the Collector of Krishnagiri. Don't we all love to read such inspirational stories?

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