Few politicians in India have as canny an instinct for social media communication as Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In his general election campaign, he used it to his advantage, reaching out to a growing demographic of savvy users on Twitter, Facebook and Google hangouts.
Now, the Selfie with Daughter campaign — started by sarpanch Sunil Jaglani in Bibipur village, Jind, Haryana — has gone viral after Modi, during his Sunday Mann Ki Baat, asked parents to tweet photos of themselves with their daughters.
The response was instantaneous. On the first day, the hashtag had been used 1.5 lakh times. Congress politician Naveen Jindal posted a selfie with his daughter Yashasvini. Fashion designer Kenneth Cole chipped in, too.
Not everyone was impressed. Actress Shruti Seth tweeted: “A selfie is not a device to bring about change,” adding the hashtag #selfieobsessedPM in case anyone had missed her note of dissent. And activist Kavita Krishnan (recklessly, in my opinion) raked up the snoopgate issue where Modi is alleged to have ordered the Gujarat government to place a woman under surveillance.
Anyone who has even a passing interest knows that Twitter can be a place of instant reprisal, particularly where the prime minister is concerned. Seth and Krishnan were no exception, and the backlash was predictable, swift, vicious and, in many cases, criminal. Most trolls tend to be anonymous, but actor Alok Nath who tweeted ‘jail the b****’, crossed a line.
Others followed with not just abuse, but also threats of rape — and worse. Krishnan is reported to have written to the commissioner of police, asking him to treat her letter as an FIR, while Seth chose to hit back on Twitter. The storm, like most twitter storms, would soon blow over. Alok Nath has since deleted his offensive tweet. And Modi spoke up, belatedly, for the first time against Twitter abuse, asking a handpicked group of social media supporters to “be positive” because “abuse will finish this exiting medium”.
To be sure, the ugliness has detracted from a fine campaign that needs all the optics it can to improve India’s abysmal record with women’s rights and plunging child-sex ratio — the worst since Independence as a recent India Spend report finds (http://bit.ly/1KxQ5uJ).
The report warns that if the child-sex ratio does not improve, we will face a deficit of 23 million women in the 20-49 year-old age group by 2040.
Already, Haryana, which has the country’s worst child-sex ratio of 834 girls for every 1,000 boys, has been forced to ‘import’ brides for its adult male majority population.
An estimated 1,300 female fetuses ‘go missing’ every day, and the result of this skewed sex ratio has horrible long-term implications of male predominance on issues such as legislation, health care, education policy and women’s rights. A society that is dominated by men in terms of sheer number is not likely to be in any hurry to dismantle patriarchal norms and systemic discrimination against women.
A selfie campaign will not resolve the problem. Photo ops might help in generating awareness — in this case pride in daughters — and can be a good start, but much larger policy initiatives are required. A report in Mint points out that Modi’s administration last year spent only a third of the `90 crore budget alloted for India’s child-sex ratio programme and, this year, slashed the ministry of women and child development’s budget by 45%.
We need to go beyond heartwarming photographs. Certainly the irony of Twitter abusers trolling someone else’s daughters for holding differing views could not have been lost on anyone. But it also points to the sad fact that the problem behind our worrying sex ratio is not just female foeticide or early marriage. It is misogyny.
Perhaps it’s time to stop talking about ‘respecting our mothers and sisters’ or ‘protecting ladies’. Perhaps it’s time to start talking about empowerment. Nothing will change without it.
The views expressed are personal