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Alistair Scrutton: Social media holds the key to Hazare's campaign success

by Prasad Krishna last modified Sep 01, 2011 06:09 AM
IROM Sharmila has been on hunger strike for ten years to protest against military abuses, force-fed by tubes through her nose. But the tragedy for the world's most resolute hunger striker is that she is on the wrong side of India's digital divide.

Twitter, Facebook and aggressive private television coverage have helped rally India's biggest protests in decades to support social activist Anna Hazare, a digital groundswell of a wired middle class that echoes the Arab spring and has surprised a Congress party-led government of elderly politicians. 

But Ms Sharmila, who has been on a hunger strike in the northeastern Manipur state to demand an end to the army's sweeping emergency powers there, has only managed a small following, a footnote in media coverage.

She must be frustrated. The Hazare phenomenon has rallied Indians from the start via social media. His India Against Corruption website says it has had 13 million phone calls of support. Its Facebook page has nearly 500,000 "likes".

Its leaders have tweeted each step of the whirlwind crisis, whether describing their arrests in real time or negotiations with the government, outmanoeuvring prime minister Manmohan Singh and his ministers at every step. 

Cases like Ms Sharmila's expose the digital divide of Asia's third largest economy and underscore how a growing urban middle class may be getting its political voice heard while millions of poor remain off the digital protest map.

"This is the first time digital social media has resonated with such a large number of people," said Nishant Shah, head of research at the Centre for Internet and Society think-tank. "But this is far more of a middle class, urban movement, than a national movement. Many in India are excluded from it."

Twitter and Facebook are barely used in many of India's social causes, including battles over land rights that are one of India's most pressing problems involving millions of farmers.Huge social issues in India, from caste discrimination to high food prices, from the building of dams to protests by farmers against nuclear power, have failed to create the kind of digital mobilisation that Mr Hazare enjoys.

India's internet users grew 1,400 per cent between 2000 and 2010, behind only China and Vietnam in Asia, according to a report by consultant firm Burson-Marsteller. But that masks India's low base. Internet penetration is around 8 per cent there, the lowest among major Asian countries. That compares with nearly 40 per cent in China.

Out of a population of 1.2 billion, there are only 29 million people active in digital social networks.

Those statistics highlight that, while the middle class has found a voice, electorally the centre-left Congress party will still need to pander to its traditional base of millions of therural poor ahead of a 2014 general election. Congress, in power for most of the life of independent India, has failed to use social media tools. One minister lost his job for tweeting too frankly, in a sign of government unease over the web, and the party lags behind an opposition that has embraced Twitter.

So far, private TV channels have provided 24-hour coverage of the Hazare protests.

Urban Indians with mobile phones in hand have dominated rallies in the grounds where Hazare was on his second week of fasting. Small protests, from demonstrations outside ministers' houses to rallies outside metro stations, have been organised through Twitter and Facebook.

An app downloadable to smartphones running Android gives users the latest news on the campaign for a tough "Jan lokpal", or anti-corruption bill, and details of meetings.

"Social media has been huge for us, it has a life of its own," said Shazia Ilmi, in charge of Hazare media strategy.

"It's not an up-and-down, national movement. It is largely a middle-class cause," said Sagarika Ghose, a journalist at the CNN-IBN TV news. "But it's hugely important one. For a younger generation, corruption has become a catch-all phrase for the failure of development."

This article by Alistair Scrutton was published in NEWS.scotsman.com on 26 August 2011. The original story can be read here.

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