One of the hazards of being active on social media is that it can easily colour one’s ideas about public opinion. What opinion a person comes across on social media depends on what sort of people follows that person and what sort of people are followed by that person. If the person’s circle is skewed towards a specific ideology or point of view, that person can easily fall prey to the delusion that the opinions that s/he is hearing are the opinion of the world at large.
Take for example, the article of the self confessed ‘Underage Optimist’ Mr Chetan Bhagat in The Economic Times, titled “Narendra Modi: People's choice as PM of India?”. Entire Article is based on the findings of a ‘fun poll’ conducted by HIM on HIS Facebook page, in which over 10,000 people voted, with 82% supporting Narendra Modi for PM while Rahul Gandhi getting mere 5% votes and remaining 13% voters supporting neither.
To be fair to Chetan Bhagat, he says, “No, i am not implying this is India's verdict. In fact, it could be far from the national consensus, as Facebook is a highly skewed demographic of younger, affluent and more educated Indians. As some say, many people on Facebook don't even bother to vote. Also, Modi has some fervent supporters, who rush to support him in times of need such as this poll. Hence, i would take the results with a huge pinch of Gujarat-made salt”. Yet he goes on to analyse the very findings of that fun poll in the entire article and try to tell us that why India wants Narendra Modi as PM. (In a lighter sense, I think the only finding of the fun poll is that Chetan Bhagat and Narendra Modi generally shares same kind of followers! Now you can draw your own conclusions on that.)
Look at another example of Presidential Elections. This is one election in which people of India have no direct role as the Constitution has entrusted the task to their elected representatives. By this scheme of things, it is natural that the Party or Group that is in power, and can muster the majority of votes, will have the final say in electing the President.
The very post of President under Indian Constitution is more of a ceremonial post with limited discretion in any matter. President is supposed to act as per the advice of the Council of Ministers and have little discretion in decision making except for his right to send back a Bill or Decision for reconsideration (If the same Bill or Decision is send back to him after reconsideration it shall be binding on him to act on that). Yet, social media like Twitter and Facebook went hyper on the choice of candidates for the election, in an unprecedented manner. Tags like #PeoplesPresident trended on Twitter in support of Dr Abdul Kalam for his second innings as President of India. Even Ms Mamata Banerjee who is not otherwise considered media savvy, chose Facebook to promote her suggestion of candidate!
If we go by the Twitter responses alone, as Chetan Bhagat would do, Dr Kalam is the greatest President we ever had and Pranab Mukherjee will be the worst President we will ever have! With all due respect to Dr Kalam, I have never found his presidential innings inspirational in any manner. I respect him for his achievements after coming from such humble beginnings and his inspirational speeches that continue to ignite our children’s imaginations. Yet to say he was the best President and no other person can be as good a President was little too much and out of touch with reality.
Even in that one aspect where a President has real discretion, i.e., deciding on mercy petitions filed by death row convicts, Dr Kalam’s record was anything but inspirational. Out of total 28 mercy petitions that went to him for decision, he only cleared two in his five years is so telling! As far as I am concerned, delay in considering Mercy Petitions is no less a crime! So, for me, Dr Kalam remains a great person but just another President.
That apart, when Dr Kalam declared his intention not to fight for a second term the so called public opinion changed immediately. Suddenly, Mr P A Sangma became the choice for People’s President. Facts that he was still very much part of NCP, a constituent of UPA and that his daughter still continues to be a Minister in the UPA Government (though it is not unnatural to be so) etc were forgiven overnight and he became the new champion. The fact that same ‘public opinion’ used to praise Mr Pranab Mukherjee on his political skills as against that of Dr Man Mohan Singh’s skills, till recently, was also forgotten as soon as his candidature was announced.
Dr Kalam’s tryst with social media did not end there... As soon as information came out that his new book speaks about how he was ready to make Sonia Gandhi the Prime Minister of India, in 2004, he turned villain. No matter, as back as on 19 May 2004, President’s office had clarified through a Press Note that “It has been reported in a section of the press that the President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had discussed the citizenship issue with Smt. Sonia Gandhi when she met him yesterday at Rashtrapati Bhavan. This is contrary to facts. It did not figure in the discussions at all.”
Yet Dr Kalam was subjected to all name callings because he admitted that he was ready to do what a President is supposed to do as per the Constitution of India. It is like, to be a People’s President you are supposed to go against the Constitution and do what the so called ‘public opinion’ wants; no matter, what the real ‘people of India’ had decided in a recently concluded election!
I do not want to enter into a debate whether it is desirable to appoint a foreign born person as the Prime Minister of India. I have my opinion on that issue like most others have their own. But what matters for a President is what the law says and the law does not differentiate between different classes of citizens of India. That being the position, President was bound to administer oath to a person who had the support of majority of the members of newly elected Loksabha. Yet the so called public opinion on social media finds no problem on condemning someone who was their ideal People’s President just a couple of days ago, for admitting that he was ready to stand by the Constitution.
Finally look at the interest, for and against, that Dr Subramaniam Swamy (and even Team Anna for that matter) commands over the social media, with an army of supporters pouncing on anything and everything spoken about him or his views. Yet, his Janata Party is in such a dismal position electorally, is an indication how detached the ‘public opinion of social media’ is from the ‘public opinion on ground’.
Forget about social media; I seriously doubt if there is any homogeneous opinion throughout India on any matters. Even in our Parliamentary elections, local issues and factors gain prominence and affect ultimate results. Even an issue as fundamental as Emergency did not succeed in universalising the public opinion throughout the country, is a lesson for all of us.
Social media has its role in propaganda, counter propaganda and simple sharing of views and information. Let us use the social media for what it is worth while still keeping our eyes and ears open so as to differentiate propaganda from facts! To succumb to delusions that what one is experiencing is the pulse of Indian people at large can only blind one and lead him/her to fundamental errors.