When the general elections are held in mid-2014, the number of Indian users of social media networks, largely Facebook, could touch 120 million — equal to the Congress’ popular vote in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. Facebook’s Q1 2013 shows that its user numbers are already on a par with the BJP’s 2009 popular vote of 78 million.
This data — which politicians are now unwilling to ignore — contributes to a growing debate on whether Internet and social networking platforms, such as Facebook, will have a significant role in India’s next general elections. Many politicians agree that, despite significantly large numbers, the voting pattern of Internet or social media users is bound to be as unpredictable and diverse as those of the readers of a newspaper or the viewers of any TV news channel. The question of who can harness these platforms best is now top-of-mind for most political parties.
Facebook’s February 2013 filing made to a U.S. regulatory agency puts its December 2012 active users in India at 71 million, up 54% from Q4 last year. Based on its 2013 Q1 figure of 78 million — the figure should have touched 80 million today. Statista — a globally renowned online statistics portal — has projected 75 million social network users in December 2012, 106 million by December 2013 and 129.3 million by December 2014. So far, its projections have been spot on. Considering Twitter’s estimated 12 million current Indian users, in spite of an overlap with Facebook, points to roughly 115-120 million social network users, just ahead of the next general elections in April 2014.
All estimates point to an online population of roughly 200 million by April–May, 2014. At the end of June, 2012, India had 137 million Internet users.
According to Rajesh Chharia, president of Internet Service Providers Association of India, this figure is now at 160 million. McKinsey’s December 2012 report, “Online and Upcoming: The Internet’s Impact on India” estimates that by 2015, online subscribers will be between 330 to 370 million.
Politicians are clued in to these trends. Speaking at a debate on ‘Will Internet and social media be a game changer for the next general elections’, I&B Minister Manish Tewari said, “Content agnostic new media platforms are definitely not something that any politician or political party can ignore. However, elections are a complex exercise where voting preferences depend more on local/regional variations. Therefore, one variable may not be a game changer.”
Admitting that in the BJP, Narendra Modi was ahead of the party, to “foster dialogue through social media”, Ravi Shankar Prasad said “the power of social media cannot be denied and political leaders will be forced to take the demands of young India into consideration.”
Jay Panda of the BJD, who represents a largely rural constituency in Odisha, and uses social media extensively, believes that, “The number of social media users are significantly serious, already forcing accountability and personal engagement, which will result in deepening democracy. However, in terms of impact on elections, we are one election away from that.”
Rajeev Chandrashekhar, an independent MP from Bangalore who is active online especially on issues of free speech, said that in Karnataka, which is going to the polls on Sunday, “Social media is already making a major impact, especially as mainstream media undergoes a credibility crisis and social media fosters an honest discourse. It may not be a game changer just yet, but ignoring it would be foolish.”
Prashant Bhushan, a senior advocate, and Kumar Vishwas — a Hindi poet with 5 million clicks a month on his Facebook page — both associated with the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party – said, “Internet and social media not only enhances accountability, democratises communication but also allows new political formations such as ours, to leapfrog the support base, in the absence of traditional cadres”.
Rejecting the notion that Left parties had been slow to respond, Nilotpal Basu of the CPI(M) said, “We have one of the finest websites in the country and remain conscious of online linkages for a successful campaign. The Indian voter is sophisticated. It is not easy to forecast which way he may turn. Physical proximity remains important.”