If anyone had logged onto the Google+ hangout with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi late on Friday in the expectation of a politically hard-edged interaction, they may have been less than satiated with the discourse. For the most part, Modi avoided partisan political polemics – and even when he was served a few questions that might have allowed him to go over the top, he preferred to play with a straight bat.
In any case, since most of those who had signed on for the interaction appeared to be in awe of the man, Modi himself was not seriously tested by the questions he took. He’s faced up to far more challenging bouncers from the mainstream media – although he has on occasion (such as in this interview with Karan Thapar) come across as somewhat prickly about the media’s monomaniacal focus on the 2002 riots.
Even so, Modi’s experiment in digital outreach is loaded with political significance, which it would be folly to underestimate. For one thing, it has the potential to alter the terms of engagement between political leaders and citizens in India, where leaders far too often hide behind high walls and layers of Black Cat security. By putting himself out in the open and taking questions directly from the people – without the traditional intermediation of the mainstream media – Modi has overnight raised the bar for leaders on two counts: public accessibility and accountability.
This is all the more striking given the particularly low threshold that our leaders typically have for anyone who might ask them any questions. A farmer, or even university students, cannot ask Mamata Banerjee a question without being branded Maoists. And as for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and the heir apparent Rahul Gandhi, how often do we see them take hard-ball questions from the mainstream media – much less from ordinary folks? And even if they did, it would be quite a sight to see Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi hold forth on policy minutiae or even just map out their worldview in the way that Modi did.
Coming so soon after the UPA government’s ham-handed attempt at cracking down on social media, Modi’s embrace of the platform too conveys a subtle political message. Modi may not always have been a defender of free speech – his own government has banned books in the past – but his defence of it now is the “new normal” to which he – and others – will henceforth be held accountable.
By going over the heads of the mainstream media, and reaching out directly to citizens, Modi has also cut out the filters that typically direct – and distort – the nature of such interactions. On occasion, the message gets lost in transit. (I should know: I wrote this commentary based on remarks that Modi made to a mainstream publication on the subject of malnutrition, but as it turns out the remarks that the journal published were only edited extracts from Modi’s broader articulation on the subject. The point I made about the trivialisation of the debate on malnutrition still holds, but the episode is illustrative of the scope for things getting lost in translation, so to speak.)
Strikingly, a majority of the questions that were put to Modi at the hangout related to matters of policy, not politics, and they gave him ample scope to advance the argument that Gujarat has under his watch built dramatically on the industrial edge it has always had. That too is a refreshing change from the discourse that happens in much of the mainstream media, which tends to focus excessively on politics – and reduces everything to a spitfest between various parties.
There is, however, one cautionary caveat for Modi’s followers, who have been rejoicing on Twitter over the success of Modi’s digital outreach. Yes, Modi has opened up a new channel of communication with people, and yes, he has shown himself to be rather more savvy than the leaden-footed, Luddite Congress in his embrace of social media platforms. Yet, given the low levels of Internet penetration in India, this will have an impact only on the margins of politics. Much of the grunge work has to be done on the ground. And given that the Congress has been very skilled at playing the game of welfarist politics with the rural and low-income voters who are typically under-represented on social media platforms, that challenge is a serious one.
In any case, the social media support for Modi is a diffused constituency: it is not confined to a geographical space and to that extent, it cannot influence the electoral outcome in even one panchayat constituency. That too shows up the importance of boots-on-the-ground politics even in a digital age.
Social media platforms tend to work like echo chambers; they amplify the volume among a small circle and makes one’s voice out to be louder than it is. It’s easy for Modi’s army of loyal followers to get carried away by the #ModiHangout hashtag trends and the general manner in which they bend the arc of Twitter conversations to their advantage. But there is no substitute for the old-style politics.
For now, though, Modi has with his experiment in digital democracy, raised the bar for political leaders. At least on the margins, politics will never be the same again.