The digital divide has gone out of favour, but millions of Indians not only remain illiterate, but are unable to access welfare schemes

Is there a clash between social media and social movements? Or, can social media be used to promote social movements?

As political parties intensify their use of social media and election fever heightens in a country where millions are illiterate and have little access to technology, these questions are inevitable.

Sitting in his home — that also doubles as his election office — in Maharashtra’s Amravati town, Rajendra Gavai of the Republican Party of India (Gavai) is one of the many politicians trying to work out the equation between the disempowered and empowered voter.

My question to him was simple: Do you use social media in an effort to reach out to voters? Dr. Gavai’s answer was interesting: “We rely mostly on our village network of voters but, yes, we do use SMS.” No reference to Facebook or Twitter, staple media platforms for an influential category of Indians.

“But many of our supporters are not happy about receiving SMS because they can’t read,” Dr. Gavai, a skin specialist by profession who earns a living in Mumbai and is the RPI (Gavai) candidate from Amravati again, said in the same breath.

As we drink a hot, sweet cup of tea in a room full of people, one of Dr. Gavai’s aides pipes up, “We believe in social movements, not social media.”

It’s a line that sticks in my head. The point Dr. Gavai was making is this — people who can’t read but have a mobile in Amravati’s villages would rather be contacted in person than through a message they can’t read.

Mostly, another aide said, Dr. Gavai’s campaign will be relaint on using justtheir political workers — all of whom work voluntarily for the party — to reach out to Amravati’s electorate.

Quiet, small, but influential political parties whose vote base consists of the poor and marginalised sections of society are a little embarrassed to use technology that goes over the heads of both their supporters and potential supporters.

Behind the story of numbers

At the same time, it’s undeniable that outreach platforms for political parties have moved beyond the traditional mass meeting and direct candidate-to-voter contacts.

With 161 million television households, 94,067 newspapers (dailies alone number 12,511), 214 million Internet users (130 million use on mobile) and close to 2,000 multiplexes, the change is massive.

According to the FICCI-KPMG Media and Entertainment Report 2014, India had a mobile phone user base of 900 million by the end of 2013. And, the country had become the third largest global market for “smartphones” with shipments touching 44 million units.

There’s no quarrelling with numbers. The growth is both impressive and staggering, but the numbers are not the only reality.

India is a country which encompasses and accommodates many realities. So, with 900 million people out of 1.23 billion possessing a mobile phone, empowerment by technology is a fact.

At the same time, those left out feel disempowered and out of the loop. A recent UNESCO report put the total number of illiterate Indians at a whopping 287 million, 37 per cent of the global total.

Let’s shift the stage to Nagpur, where this writer met up with Ajoy Sanghi, an engineer by training who runs his own software company and is managing the campaign of Anjali Damania, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate pitted against Nitin Gadkari of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Vilas Muttemwar of the Congress.

“Our principal message is that the country needs change and change can’t come from the same set of people who have dominated our politics,” Mr. Sanghi said at his bungalow in Congressnagar.

Ms. Damania’s campaign chief says that AAP is big on both Facebook and Twitter even as they are using SMS extensively in this constituency of 18.5 lakh voters.

“The Congress is in a bad, bad situation across the country. As far as the BJP is concerned, we agree that (Gujarat Chief Minister) Narendra Modi has imparted some charisma to BJP supporters and RSS cadres,” he added.

Whatever be the message, its medium of carriage has shifted. Mr. Modi hammering away at the Congress, the United Progressive Alliance and the Gandhi family from venue after venue is being carried live into the 161 million households with cable and satellite connections.

Being on television is far cheaper and possibly grabs more eyeballs and ears than a traditional public meeting, which isn’t on the screen. More and more, a discerning public is listening to many voices and leaders before making up their minds on whom to vote into power.

Whether it was the anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare-Arvind Kejriwal, or the formation and rise of the AAP, the media has facilitated the process at every stage.

Even the promised Battle of Banaras between Mr. Narendra Modi and AAP boss Arvind Kejriwal has only become possible owing to television, print and web outlets as well as the huge social media wave.

The digital divide (as an expression, or cliché if you like) has gone out of favour, but millions of Indians not only remain illiterate, but are unable to access the scores of schemes that have been rolled out for the poor and needy.

India’s obvious success in increasing the number of literates by nearly 10 percentage points between 2001 and 2011 can be considered impressive, but a lot more needs to be done.

It is also clear that impatience levels are mounting among the people, who now see developments schemes as a matter of right rather than a favour being bestowed upon them by the local legislator or MP.

Those who press the voting machine button for Dr. Gavai in the Amravati constituency may be unhappy or embarrassed about not being able to read the SMS they receive, but they could be angry as well.

In this hour of impatience for the Indian voter, especially the deprived and the dispossessed, political parties might be well advised to come up with delivery mechanisms for the many promises in their manifestos.

Make no mistake, it’s not just the young that want change and delivery — it’s the middle-aged and the old as well. amit.b@thehindu.co.in

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