Tucked away in a corner of Jharkhand is a sleepy district with overcrowded streets and a slow-moving lifestyle. The district’s primary source of revenue is from mines. But the mines are not enough to employ the whole town. Many migrate. And most stay unemployed. The unemployed find temporary reprieve in their phones. “Even if I don’t have a job, Facebook and WhatsApp keep me busy all day. I can travel the world through my phone and see what others are doing,” a 21-year-old fresh graduate from the district told me half-jokingly. He knew that it could be a real possibility.
Beyond the economics of being an increasingly digital economy, where cell phone penetration has reached incredible numbers and network connectivity has rapidly improved, lies the reality of how a digital age has also brought an information revolution through the smart phones in our pocket. This information revolution has changed the way voters approach their rights and opportunities. People aspire to have a better life and expect more from their government.
In this election season, a quickly digitalising India is unafraid to express its many expectations from the government. A more prosperous life, a safer community and a more accountable and responsive government are a few of the many demands that are surfacing in rural India in this digital age. Political leadership has to think more critically about how the digital age has brought information and this information has changed voter approaches.
People in rural India who remained disconnected to the city life now see what their counterparts are doing. Pictures of fancy holidays and big homes have exposed citizens to the possibilities. And now, a young India is increasingly seeking out a better life. Multiple media houses have reported that unemployment remains the largest election issue. This is not just the effect of demonetisation or GST, but also because young people have been exposed to the possibilities of a better life and they are unwilling to return to less. The digital age has changed how young people think about economic opportunity and they are looking for a government who will be able to fulfill this ambition.
But other than prosperity, much of rural India is using the platform to seek out a more basic need. The digital age has prompted alternative sources for people to manage law and order conditions. Policing in many parts of rural India remains weak. States like Assam and Uttar Pradesh have significantly understaffed police force. In this context, cell phones have become the primary source of information and protection. WhatsApp messages about local issues have gone viral within hours. Much of this have been rumors and people have lost lives in these panicked moments. The use of digital media in technology in this context however points to how communities who feel unsafe are responding. Digital media has taken the role of being information providers and rural communities are taking matters of law and order into their own hands.
Finally, digital media has also increased demands of accountability. Last week, a sitting MP visited her constituency in Delhi, seeking out votes. A young voter raised his hand and asked: “Why is it that I see on news that you are busier with your international travels rather than visiting your own constituency? This is the first time I am seeing you in our neighborhood.” The opening up of the digital world means a more informed voter who is asking more questions to his elected representatives. No longer is word of mouth the only source of information. And access to information has opened up a new world for voters. The electorate is demanding more accountability from their political representatives.
A digital India requires political leaders to think creatively. The demands and expectations of the older India are a thing of the past. Elected representatives need to be mindful that Indians have become more aspirational, well informed and proactive, with the help of digital media. Policies and programmes that are to be launched, need to reflect this sentiment. No longer are people demanding just the basic facilities of roads and houses but more meaningful and long-term employment, opportunity for growth and so much more.
The seemingly slow-moving towns across India now have access to information that is brewing a new culture and expectation. If parties and leaders want to develop more effective policies, they have to understand this shift in rural India. Whoever comes into office in 2019 will have a major task in gauging these new shifts.
Rwitwika Bhattacharya is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) of the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at CSIS, and is the CEO for Swaniti Initiative.
Breaking Down Elections 2019 is a series of articles by experts of Center For Strategic and International Studies that will go beyond the headlines to provide a deeper look into what the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections means for the Indian polity and electorate.