NEWS ANALYSIS UPA belatedly beginning to take the use of online social networks to mobilise thousands of protesters seriously

Even as the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry is in the process of formulating a communication strategy based on a more skilful use of the social media to reach out to an increasingly restive urban middle class, senior Congress functionaries indicated that the ‘chintan shivir’ slated for January 18, 19 and 20 in Jaipur will also see the issue discussed. With over half the delegates invited under the age of 45, it is expected that they will add an edge to the discussion on the urgent need to change the medium of reaching out to the people to help the government introduce an alternate narrative to the one on the streets.

Indeed, the Congress-led UPA government is now belatedly and reluctantly beginning to take the arrival of urban agitators on Indian streets — and the use of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to mobilise thousands of protesters almost instantly — seriously. “The entire communication paradigm has changed dramatically over the last five years,” says Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari, “and so the government is considering getting onto platforms considered agnostic.” The Ministry, he says, is currently working on a proposal on how it can use the social media for itself, which can then be “extrapolated” to other Ministries. Comparing the social media to direct cash benefits, Mr. Tewari says the government needs to embrace the new medium to ensure that the government’s message can reach the people without any “editorial dilution.”

In recent weeks, there has been a growing acknowledgement among senior party leaders — from Finance Minister P. Chidamabaram to party general secretary Digvijay Singh, who is himself on Twitter, to Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath (who raised the need to tackle the social media monster at the party’s governance conference at Surajkund last month) — that the issue must be addressed. “Flash mobs are a new phenomenon... sometimes they gather to sing and dance, but sometimes they can gather to protest also,” Mr. Chidambaram said last month, adding, “We need to take note of it. I don’t think we are fully prepared to deal with it. We need to devise SOPs (standard operating procedures).”

For the Congress, heading towards the next general elections slated next year, this is of paramount significance: in 2009, the party secured a huge chunk of urban and semi-urban seats, barring those in Bangalore, winning all 13 seats in Delhi and Mumbai. This time, post-delimitation, the number of such seats has grown exponentially and with it, concern on how to address a constituency that has increasingly begun to take an interest in issues of governance. Equally important, youth voters will form a sizeable part of the electorate in 2014 — and it is this section that is most active on the social media.

If the phenomenon started a year and a half ago, with protests led successively by activist Anna Hazare, yoga teacher Baba Ramdev and RTI activist — and now Aam Aadmi Party leader — Arvind Kejriwal, against corruption in high places, it culminated last month with students demonstrating against the gang rape and murderous assault of a paramedical student.

Conversations with a cross section of Congress leaders reveals that while there is a certain degree of bewilderment among the older among them on how to make use of this new tool — used to great effect by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi — there is simultaneously a sense that it needs a serious look.

Congress deputy chief whip Sandeep Dikshit pointed out that last month’s protests presented a new difficulty as far as communication is concerned. “In the case of Anna, Ramdev or Kejriwal, there were identified leaders with whom the government could talk,” he said, adding, “but during the student protests, there were no leaders; the media context was completely different.” Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde met two delegations of students, but the meetings were not televised; Congress president Sonia Gandhi came out late at night and spoke to students on the pavement, but that too did not receive any media attention.

Ahead of the ‘chintan shivir, party treasurer Motilal Vora has written to AICC members asking them to provide details of their Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts, in addition to family particulars, address and contact numbers, to update the party database. At present, very few party leaders use the social media, with most of them conscious that they need to use it carefully, especially after Union MoS for HRD Shashi Tharoor’s initial forays into the medium triggered unwanted controversies. Of course, today, he has more than 1.5 million followers.

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