In 1959, Arthur Bonner wrote a telling piece “India’s masses: The Public Cant be reached”. Chronicling challenges of public governance in a newly independent country, Bonner highlighted lack of effective communication as a serious barrier for developing nationhood and a common purpose. He extensively toured the country for several years interacting with the new city elite on one hand and the Gond tribes in Madhya Pradesh on the other. He concluded at that time that lack of close contact between the governing elite and the governed would make our democracy fragile and weak. History has shown us all civic engagement revolves around dealing with public and political emotions. Philosophers like Martha Nussbaum have chronicled and shown all societies have emotions and organization of these public emotions have large scale consequences for a nation and its goals. Our country with its cultural and linguistic variety represents a daunting scale and complexity of public opinion and sentiments that need to be engaged.
Our country has the largest youth demographic. 703 Million Indians are below the age of thirty.41 per cent of our population is below the age of twenty. The Internet, social media platforms messaging applications dramatically help overcome the barriers recorded by Bonner. In May 2014, I had written about how then Narendra Modi used all these tools to drive civic engagement, engage voters and constituents. Since then, the Prime Minister’s facebook page has grown from 14 million fans to 40.28 Million fans in 2017, making him the most popular global leader on facebook in current times. There has been 580.54 million interactions and 82.24 million Video views on the Modi’s facebook page from May 2014 to date.
In the just concluded state Elections 32 million people in India had over 265 million interactions around the issue on Facebook. With regard to rankings in terms of net percentages of unique people discussing leaders on the platform, Narendra Modi stood at the top with 74% during this period.
The Prime Minister has not only used these tools to mobilize masses for elections but also for public action and causes. 48.5% of our population are women. Our history has been riven with pain and penalty, often facing the worst kind of discrimination in our families and societies. The Beti bachao beti Padao campaign (or save and educate the girl child campaign) launched in 2015 seeks to bring behavioral change in our societies and families, raise awareness about the program and its resources , put more of our girls in schools and increase the share of public spaces for women. Sandesh2soldiers was another national campaign during Diwali extolling citizens to send messages to soldiers during festival time thanking them for their services to the nation.
Social media platforms have also created a culture of daily accountability. Citizens want to have a say in governance on a regular basis and not just participate during elections. The bar on transparency, accountability and daily public governance has strikingly increased. People want to give inputs to elected ministers and parliamentarians, provide feedback and critiques on Govt programs and public services delivery. They do not want to be mere recipients. Armed with new technology tools every citizen is an active publisher and participant in this governing space. A recent IAMAI study estimates 465 Million Internet subscribers in India by June 2017. Of these 285 Million are expected to be in urban areas and 180 million in rural areas.In aggregate, the study currently estimates 32%of our population under internet coverage.
There are 750 million people in rural areas and 175 million people in urban areas, this largely represent economically weaker sections of our society who still need to come online and have a robust civic voice in the changing connected world. The push towards digital transactions, digital identity for public services and subsidy delivery is driving demand, transparency and better accountability in our country.
This phenomena of active political and civic engagement is only going to increase and the need to connect, share information grow. Recognizing this, there’s a big push under Digital India for all ministries, agencies of the Govt and Ministers to have presence and voices on social media platforms to share daily activities, report cards and take feedback. 75 out 76 in the Council of ministers and 46 out of 51 ministries in the national Govt have a presence on facebook.
From Global diplomacy to economic issues like explaining digital transactions to the masses the Prime Minister has used these platforms as integral tools for direct dialogue with millions of citizens of our country. While the elite has many avenues to engage in relevant conversations, Prime Minister has used these tools to remove information asymmetry which plague the disenfranchised, who have traditionally felt left behind. Access to information always leads to better decision making, helps in countering red tape, drives accountability and performance and builds an open and a more equal relationship between the citizens and the state.
This march towards a digitally connected society leads not just to economic opportunity and prosperity.
Creating more transparency, stripping away opacity from our institutions is a great democratic tradition and a necessity in our culture and that is the change Prime Minister Modi’s model of public governance is all about.
(Ankhi Das is the Director of Public Policy for Facebook in India and South & Central Asia. She has over 17 years of public policy and regulatory affairs experience in the technology sector.)