INDIA - Social media giant Facebook is getting into the election action in India.
Starting next week, the social networking site, which has 93 million users in India, will offer an election special in which local journalist Madhu Trehan of news site newslaundry.com will grill local politicians.
It is modelled on the townhall-style meeting in which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously grilled United States President Barack Obama in 2011.
In the Indian version, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal will kick off the series.
For an hour, at a Delhi site, they will answer questions posed by members of a live audience, posted on Facebook, and from Mrs Trehan.
"It is a townhall meeting in which positions on issues will be clarified by the candidates," said Mrs Trehan. She noted the style "would be serious and connected rather than confrontational", the latter being a popular style of questioning on Indian television.
Glaringly absent is the ruling Congress Party's vice-president Rahul Gandhi. After a disastrous TV interview on Jan 27, he has put on hold a plan to have at least one interview a month. He has not yet agreed to be part of the series.
What is clear is that social media will play a part in this general election, due within three months.
Indians whose lives revolve around social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter form a substantial chunk of the 378.6 million voters in the 18 to 35 age group, out of a total electorate of 762 million.
"In 2009, the popular vote of the BJP was 78 million and that of the Congress Party was 119 million. There were hardly any people using Facebook at that time in India. That has changed. Today, we have more than 93 million people in India engaging actively every month on Facebook," Ms Ankhi Das, the director and head of public policy at Facebook India, said in a statement.
A study last year by the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India said social media is likely to influence 160 of the 543 parliamentary constituencies. There were constituencies where Facebook users, for instance, made up more than 10 per cent of the voters.
Thus, it is no wonder that even regional leaders with little social media presence are joining the Facebook townhall meetings - including West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Rashtriya Janata Dal party chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.
Political parties are also climbing on the social media bandwagon with their own Internet campaigns.
The BJP has rolled out a social media campaign revolving around Mr Modi, who has 3.46 million followers on Twitter, as opposed to Mr Kejriwal, who has 1.43 million, and Mr Gandhi, who has no Twitter account. Blogs by senior BJP leaders L.K. Advani and Arun Jaitley are closely followed by TV and print media.
"Twenty-five per cent of Indian voters have access to social media. That is a substantial group," said BJP's IT department head Arvind Gupta. Also, they are not diffused, but "concentrated in pockets" in certain constituencies, making social media "a game changer", he noted. "Eleven million people follow Narendra Modi on Facebook. That is an incredible reach. We are consolidating now," he said.
Even the Congress Party, whose traditional voter base consists of poor rural Indians who are less likely to be online, has stepped up its presence. The party has revamped its website and has started asking for funds online.
The AAP, which surprised pundits by taking a substantial number of seats in the Delhi state polls last year, has been using social media to spread its influence during the one year it has been in existence. It has raised more than 100 million rupees (S$2 million) and reached out to millions of users on Facebook, registering 1.4 million "likes" on its official page.
"Computer literacy levels are rising, and the government has announced free laptop schemes," said Mr K. Swaminathan of Tamil party AIADMK, which is using social media for the first time in elections. "It makes sense to be on the social media platform. Many youngsters wake up and Facebook updates are the first thing they check."
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