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Rise of the cellphone voter

delhi Updated: Apr 22, 2013 09:14 IST
Abhijit Majumder
Abhijit Majumder
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Before an election, the Indian politician takes advice from two kinds of people: the astrologer, and those good at maths.

One offers him an ear to the cosmic whispers. The other - through Census charts and privately collected data on religion, caste, sect, ethnicity, rural, urban and other real and imaginary divides - an ear to the ground.

This election season, however, the same data may actually serve to hide more than reveal. While the ethnic composition has more or less remained unchanged, India has been undergoing a silent, sweeping revolution.

The nation is urbanising faster than we realise. Government statistics will tell us 68.84% of India still lives in villages. But the reality is different. A voter may live in a small town or village, but her mind is fast urbanising.

One of the biggest drivers of this change is the mobile phone.

India has the second largest and the fastest growing telecom network in the world. There are more than 80 phone connections per 100 Indians today. In 1998, it was 12 per 1,000. In 2012, 20 million smartphone handsets were sold in India, 48% more than double of the previous year.

We have close to a billion mobile phone subscribers today. There is hardly a village untouched by mobile phones or TV sets.

In 2011 - early days of the Anna Hazare movement - I was travelling to a forest bungalow in Madhya Pradesh's Tamia, about 225 km from Bhopal. At obscure stops like Pipariya, people were being mobilised for rallies to support the activist. Many of them were in touch with activists in Bhopal and Delhi on their cellphones. Village families watched Hindi channels beam the agitation 24x7.

Cable reaches about 120 million Indian homes today. In small towns and villages, more and more youngsters (remember, more than 50% Indians are below the age of 25, and more than 65% below 35) download songs, access videos, participate in contests, call friends and cousins working in cities, learn about more gadgets and newer lifestyle, form their political opinions. And at the end of the day, they share all these over roti and dal with the larger family.

Economic realities of liberalised India are making our aspirations more urban, even if our geography requests otherwise. In Census 2011, for the first time the absolute growth in urban population (91 million, a 32% jump) has outdone growth in rural population, which increased by 12%. Number of census towns - formerly rural areas which are becoming urban settlements -has risen from 1,362 to 3,894.

In the '80s, about 30 in 100 Indian women were literate. Today, it is more than 65 per 100. Male literacy in the same period has gone up from 56% to 82%.

It is time our politicians read the nation's mind, have a finger on the urban surge. First, they underestimated the anti-corruption movement as a passing, candlelight affair, only to realise that the youth from hinterland were seamlessly joining city protesters and propelling the movement to a different level.

But they did not learn from the debacle. Anti-rape protests first met with derision in Delhi's rooms of power, and then a shell-shocked political class lied, overreacted and bungled through it, further alienating the young.

The animal is right here in the room, but most Indian politicians do not admit to its presence.

The urban Indian is a demanding, political creature. She is irreverent. She has access to enough information to see through half-truths and lies. She values merit and expects you to value her merit over sycophancy. She demands a better life. And above all, she demands her leader to speak the language of hope.

The parties who embrace the new reality will do well. It is not for nothing that the cunning Mulayam Singh Yadav, dust-caked for years in UP's political soil, used his relatively inexperienced son as the progressive, aspirational and urban face of the party. It worked, even in a state believed to be largely backward and rural.

Narendra Modi's growing popularity in this segment should worry the Congress. In spite of having a number of young leaders and ministers and rolling out progressive mass schemes like the Right to Education and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the party has struggled to communicate with young, urban voters. The tone remains defensive and dated. It may want to rethink this.

Politicians can no longer be smug in their belief that city voters don't vote. They will vote. And city voters will not come strictly from cities. They will carry the city, and its aspirations, in their mind.