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Twitter is not a substitute for the real world. Garrulous India -- especially its politicians -- should not forget that. It is a mistake to believe numbers of followers are a reflection of electoral popularity. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Jul 04, 2013 13:29 IST

"@rahulkanwal You promised the interview would appear in full as recorded. You changed your questions and edited my answers. This is a disgrace.”

Instant reactions in 140 characters or less frequently make you say something you might later regret.

On Tuesday morning, peeved Congress Member of Parliament and minister of state Shashi Tharoor — who lost his ministerial position to some incautious tweeting — quickly deleted his tweet to Rahul Kanwal, managing editor of the television news channel Headlines Today.

Those who frequent the world’s leading microblogging site, the twitterverse, as it is called, know it’s impossible to completely erase anything online — unless you are a US government spook with direct access to the great banks of computers that hoard Internet data.

About the time Tharoor was fulminating against Kanwal for what he considered a doctored interview, on the other side of the world, Gautam Singhania, managing director of the Raymond Group, found solace and some remedy in twitter.

“W hotel in Miami…Stands for Worst hotel in the world!! Pathetic beyond imagination,” Singhania tweeted, complaining — among other things — of a coffee that arrived after five-and-a-half hours and “30 reminders”. After a series of tweets, someone at the hotel finally listened to him.

Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian writer, said of these 140-character exchanges: “Twitter is my bar. I sit at the counter and listen to the conversations, starting others, feeling the atmosphere.”

Someone else said it lets us navel gaze like never before. I know what they mean. I was a late, cynical and slow adopter of Twitter, logging in only because my wife — given to sharp retort to snappy comment — did. Eventually, I found twitter particularly useful to me, a fulltime father in the news business.

It breaks news quicker than television channels and aggregates comments and analysis like no other media. Twitter connects you to people you might not know but want to — and, of course, to those you do not want to.

Though twitter does not reveal user numbers, one estimate (Global Web Index) says India has 42.2 million active users, as on March 2013.

A study by IMRB, a research firm, and the Internet and Mobile Association of India put the figure at around 20 million in December 2012.

Either way, the number is substantial, probably among the world’s top five or 10. As literacy and the number of smartphones increases, expect that number to exceed 100 million over the next two years — unless, of course, a new fad displaces Twitter.

Immensely savvy but traditionally sceptical of technology, India’s politicians realise they cannot ignore twitter’s growing heft.

Lately, they have plunged in enthusiastically, waiting for an event of national importance to express themselves. That, unfortunately, was the great deluge of Uttarakhand.

An unseemly twitter-war has broken out between the BJP and the Congress over the disaster, which, according to the United Nations, may have claimed more than 10,000 lives. Twitter has made their indecorum more indecorous than it would otherwise be.

One of the government’s chief twitter warriors over #Uttarakhand, information minister Manish Tewari, explained to the Hindu that though he was 50 km from civilisation, deep in his constituency in Punjab, an iPad and a network connection allowed him to fire off his tweets. This is well and good, but it does little that is useful for Uttarakhand, which must endure his government’s bumbling.

One of the things that Narendra Modi’s twitter cohorts like to flaunt about the man they see as India’s great hope is his twitterverse following.

Modi, who frequently talks the language of youth aspirations, has a twitter following of 18,22,806. Modi would beat, not Rahul Gandhi, but scrape pass Tharoor who has 18,21,066 followers, a count Modi just exceeded as this column went to press.

It is a mistake to believe numbers of followers are a reflection of electoral popularity.

Twitter is great at connecting people and keeping “breaking news” in focus. It is also good at obscuring our priorities.

Do not expect to be acquainted with India’s unfolding water, health or job crises; understand the changes sweeping the country; and where it is failing. You might argue that this is true with old media as well. Indeed, but twitter makes events and issues more urgent, personal and seemingly all-important.

This can work to personal benefit, as it did with my father, fighting an absurd month-long battle with Airtel over a cellphone connection. After a ponderous verification process, the company somehow converted his name from Halarnkar to Rajewadi, demanding fresh verification for Rajewadi, which is his place of birth. The absurdity was sorted out within a day after just one angry tweet from his daughter-in-law.

Government-controlled India — the controller of a billion destinies — is immune to twitter power. Politicians flock to twitter because they know it has a multiplier effect and that, in this age of coalition governments, every vote counts. Having the voluble and expanding urban middle-class on your side is no bad idea.

But it would be particularly beneficial for India if its politicians tweeted about the things that matter — from the reasons for public misery and crumbling public services. Imagine @narendramodi saying: “Gujarat’s malnutrition figures unacceptable. Making sweeping changes.” Let’s hear this from @PMOIndia: “Rural household employment declining under national jobs scheme. Revamp ordered.”

For four months, I have been trying to get BSNL, the loss-making State-run telephone company, to connect me to their long-distance services. Daily phone calls and protests have not helped.

Friends asked: didn’t you tweet about it? I did. BSNL, like most government services, is not on Twitter. Getting closer to its customers is not a priority. Twitter isn’t — yet — the real world.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist

The views expressed by the author are personal

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