For much of the last year, I have been dabbling with new media. It’s not as though I have given up writing this column or appearing on TV, but I have tried to combine the old media stuff I have always done with some new things.
One of these is the Internet. A year ago, when I launched my own website (www.virsanghvi.com) I was motivated less by an urge to reach an entirely new audience and more by a desire to use the interactive nature of the Internet to see how people were responding to issues and events.
A few months ago, I went on Twitter. And while I don’t necessarily tweet every day and I certainly don’t do the personalised tweets favoured by celebrities (“At boring function; wish I could get away and have fun” etc.) I am reasonably engaged with those who follow me on Twitter.
None of this makes me very knowledgeable about the Internet. My site is still very much a personal operation (the most hits we’ve had for an article is around 30,000-odd, which is not bad for a personal site but hardly compares to the might of something like the HT). I have around 3.35 lakh followers on Twitter, which puts me considerably behind Shashi Tharoor (but ahead of most others) and is probably not enough to base very many generalisations on.
But it has been a fascinating year. The technology interests me much less than the people who use it. I have found that contrary to what old farts (i.e. people like me) may claim, young people are keenly interested in politics, have strong views on many events, and are far more articulate than the generations that preceded them.
At present, bloggers, visitors to websites and tweeters remain a curiosity for traditional media. We rarely accord them the respect they get in the West and only use their views as fillers, either for graphics on TV shows or for stories on how celebrities are now on Twitter.
I suspect old media may be making a huge mistake by being so blinkered. There is a new generation out there, expressing itself in ways that were largely unknown even a decade or so ago. As this generation comes of age, its views will determine the path India chooses to follow.
For those of you who are not familiar with the world of the Internet, here are some of the things that I have noticed in my engagement with those who blog, post questions and comments on my website, or tweet.
Of course, I do not claim that my experiences are typical or that I have examined a scientifically chosen sample of bloggers. But, for what it’s worth, here’s what I found.
Economic views: People on the Net tend to have a contemptuous attitude to Marxism and socialist views. The consensus is decidedly right-wing and when Jyoti Basu died, the response to his passing was far less reverential on the web than it was on TV channels or in the press. If there is a new generation of articulate young Marxists out there, then they are not on the web.
Religious issues: Nobody really cares about the Babri Masjid. Even those who are sympathetic to the BJP have no interest in the construction of a grand Ram temple or in a Hindu renaissance. This generation has no time for ancient disputes about medieval mosques.
On the other hand, there is a growing revulsion over Islamic extremism and fundamentalism. This is less anti-Muslim in origin and more anti-backwardness. This generation hates anything that sounds primitive or regressive. Fundamentalism is seen as going back in time, as being anti-modern and thus, deeply revolting.
BJP bloggers: Almost any liberal who has some experience of the Net will tell you that there is a hardcore of pro-BJP bloggers and tweeters who will vigorously defend the Sangh parivar and viciously attack anybody they regard as ‘pseudo-secular’. On the other hand, there is scant evidence of a hardcore of pro-Congress bloggers and tweeters who respond with equal ferocity.
Why should this be so? It could be that many NRIs who support the BJP are Internet veterans. Or it could be, as is often rumoured, that the BJP employs a small group of people to scour the Internet every day and to heckle all anti-BJP bloggers.
I don’t know what the truth is. But either way, the Congress is a clear loser on the Net.
Manmohan Singh: But the Prime Minister is a clear winner. Except for the hard BJP core, most bloggers and tweeters seem to respect Manmohan Singh. He is by far the most popular politician on the Internet and can rarely do any wrong in the eyes of tweeters.
Partly, this is a reflection of the respect that Singh commands among educated Indians but it is also because the Internet sees him as representing the forces of modernity: pro-liberalisation, clean, well-educated, etc.
Pakistan and China: If you were to look at Twitter after a terrorist attack, or some provocative remark from China, you might think that tweeters were all hard-line xenophobes.
But the reality is more complex. This is a strongly patriotic generation that is driven by a vision of India as a potential superpower. Anybody who attacks India or is seen as standing in the way of India’s rise is treated harshly.
There is no generalised hatred of Pakistan on the whole (though there are a lot of hate-India Pakistani sites). If Manmohan Singh says he wants to improve relations with our neighbour, he is applauded. But if Pakistan is seen to back terrorists or to refuse to act against the 26/11 plotters, the tenor of tweets can be high-pitched and hostile.
So it is with China. Many people believe that China will do everything to prevent India from rising. The anti-China stuff on the Net is usually motivated by this belief. There is no generalised criticism of China of the sort that you see on Western sites: human rights, treatment of Tibetans, etc.
Previous Prime Ministers: While TV and print concentrated on the Emergency in their assessments of Indira Gandhi’s reign on the 25th anniversary of her death, the Internet was less worried about the excesses of that period. For many bloggers, history began in 1980 so they regarded Operation Blue Star as being the most significant event of Mrs Gandhi’s prime ministership. Others referred to her image as a strong leader and praised her for standing up on India’s behalf.
Yet, there is much less enthusiasm for Rajiv Gandhi or Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A feeling that Narasimha Rao ended decades of socialism and put India on the path to modernity leads young people to regard him as a great PM.
And finally: The distinguishing features of this Internet generation? Well, I would say: a commitment to modernity, a strong nationalist streak and contempt for the ‘socialist’ past and those who represent it.
Perhaps these are the views of a whole new generation of affluent urban Indians, not just those who are on the Internet.
The views expressed by the author are personal