A Civic Engagement Lesson from the Social Media Politician

by Justine Dodgen

As we highlighted earlier this year, 2014 is the biggest year in the history of democracy and India led the charge with the largest democratic election in the world this past spring. India’s spring elections selected members of its lower house, the Lok Sabha, from which a new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was chosen. This election was a landmark event not only for democracy, but also for India, as it brought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into the majority with a landslide victory, one of only a few instances since India’s founding that a party other than the Indian National Congress or its coalition has been in power. Further, the BJP won a majority of the parliament’s seats outright, a feat that has not been accomplished by a political party since 1989.

Last week, Prime Minister Modi’s party continued to gain momentum in a round of state elections wins. The BJP won the most seats of Maharashtra state’s legislature, the state in which financial capital Mumbai is located, and Haryana, a relatively industrialized state in northern India. Modi has called his platform “cooperative federalism,” and he has advocated for state-level government to play an important role in strengthening economic growth. The BJP’s gains in two economic states thus represent a powerful boost in support for Modi’s plan.

While Mr. Modi and the BJP’s successes place India at the dawn of political and economic change, India’s elections this year also present a powerful example of how democracy can succeed- even on the largest scale- during a time when democratic principles have been challenged across the globe. Notably, we have seen citizens calling for greater democratic freedoms in Hong Kong as well as challenges to the democratic process in Malaysia, where the elected leader is on trial. With a few more elections before the end of the year, notably Brazil’s run-off presidential election this week and the United States mid-terms, Modi’s strategy reminds us how to effectively encourage civic engagement and mobilize a population to the polls.

540 million voters participated in the spring Lok Sabha elections, representing 66% of eligible voters, a record high suggesting that Indian voters were ready for change. The state election in Haryana also made history with 73% voter turnout. Remarkably, the BJP’s harnessed the vote of the 120 million new voters who voted this year.  Exit polls showed that first-time voters between the ages of 18 and 22 voted for the BJP in greater numbers than any other demographic. Modi, dubbed the social media politician, and the BJP’s success has been attributed to the use of technology and social media. The BJP’s campaign heavily utilized SMS alerts, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to engage young voters.

Modi, who is behind only Obama, the Dalai Lama, and Pope Francis in political figures with the most followers on Twitter, reached out to young voters personally to discuss the issues he supports and the issues important to them, helping break down information barriers. Other politicians could have great success by following Modi’s lead and utilizing social media to connect with voters and help them understand the candidates and the issues they support. While Modi’s rhetoric of change and ability to appeal to young voters may not seem new (Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign had a similar approach), it proves yet again the importance of finding ways to connect with voters through mediums that appeal to them. It also shows that politicians must remember that technology is constantly advancing and each campaign must adjust to fit the times.

Perhaps most importantly, Modi has also recognized the importance of continuing to connect with voters after taking office. Since voting ended in May, Modi’s likes on Facebook have increased by 50% and he continues to engage constituents via Twitter, such as during a recent visit to Srinagar after the area experienced devastating floods. Transparency is another important characteristic of good governance, and Modi is demonstrating that he will continue to engage with his constituents as he follows through with his reforms. As we head into the mid-term elections, this is an important lesson that American officials should remember.