India: Social media finally has its campaign in the sun

Arvind Kerjiwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, made great use of social media in his successful campaign for x. Pictured addressing auto drivers in June last year (Image: Rohit Gautam/Demotix)

Social media played a significant part in Arvind Kerjiwal’s successful campaign to become chief minister of New Dehli. He is pictured here addressing auto drivers at a protest in June last year (Image: Rohit Gautam/Demotix)

Much has been written about the influence of social media in the upcoming Indian national elections, expected to take place in mid 2014.

While the two major political parties, the Congress and BJP, have invested in social media cells, the larger consensus is that the internet is still largely an urban phenomenon, and therefore, somehow, not important. According to the latest TRAI figures, rural tele-density still stands at 42%. However, the flip side is that urban tele-density, currently at 144.28%, has allowed the cities to become a litmus test of what could happen if the population was able to access the internet, therefore social media, during election time.

Against the backdrop of social media giving the average citizen a voice to express often ignored opinions, came the anti-corruption protests of 2011, led by Gandhian Anna Hazare and his commander-in-chief, former bureaucrat Arvind Kejriwal. As the two spearheaded a campaign to fight against the injustices meted out to the common man through an oppressive political system, and fought for an anti-corruption law to be passed, they found an onslaught of support over social media by the middle class. Even the TV news channels got caught up in the noble theatrics, keeping the cameras live at Anna Hazare’s hunger strike in the capital, attracting more viewers, and also more supporters for their cause.

Two years later, the bill has been passed – but Team Anna, as it was popularly called, split into two factions The first remains under the leadership of Anna Hazare, and has dissipated into the background. The second, however, has only grown in size and stature. Arvind Kejriwal, in perhaps the most maverick of moves, sits in the capital of India today as its chief minister. This, with a groundswell of support not just from the haggard residents of New Delhi, but seemingly growing support from all over the country. Many factors have contributed to this rise; however, one can certainly identify the role of social and citizen media in shaping this particular election, especially when it comes to Delhi’s middle class.

Kejriwal formally formed the Aam Aadmi Party in November 2012, which translated means the ‘Common Man Party’. They decided to contest the 2013 Delhi elections, with Kejriwal directly taking on three time Congress Chief Minister, Sheila Dixshit, in her constituency. He defeated her.

The Aam Aadmi Party today has 1, 137, 873 likes on Facebook. People can donate to the party online, and follow its leaders on Twitter. What’s more, in a clear and concise website, AAP lists out its manifesto, explanations about its constitution and decisions and even an internal complaints committee. It has a video link, a blog, and even an events page so that people can join in. As it gears up for the 2014 national elections, AAP is also inviting nominations for candidates online. This is unheard of in Indian politics, where politicians are born out of birthright or bribes.

As elections in Delhi were underway, Indian media reported that Kejriwal had admitted to learning from Barack Obama’s social media strategy of 2008, which many believe helped him win the White House. Seven thousand dedicated volunteers consisting of students, workers, people on sabbatical from their jobs, and even retired government officials joined to help AAP rise to power. They collected roughly $1.8 million USD for the campaign in 2013. After the campaign was over, analysts revealed the success of AAP with first time voters: AAP’s online coordinators talk of reaching 3.5 million people just before voting day with an app called Thunderclap, which sits on your Facebook page and tells you to go vote. There seemed to be some sort of social media pressure to be trendy and go vote when it came to the youth of Delhi. However, when it came to its low-income group supporters, AAP did not rely on the power of social media, but implemented a door-to-door strategy which would work in that demographic.

AAP has not been without its share of controversies, the most recent of which was deftly handled through opinion polling over telephone and social media. Kejriwal had announced that in the cause of a hung election in Delhi, his party would absolutely not take the support of either the BJP or Congress to form government. The situation played out exactly as they hoped it wouldn’t. So as to not go back on his word, but still have the option of forming government, AAP decided to ask the people what to do. Suddenly, the people of Delhi could vote in various ways, advising Kejriwal on what he should do. After the polls closed, Kejriwal declared that overwhelmingly, AAP supporters wanted him to form government, which he did. As expected, the BJP has alleged that the “so-called referendum” was actually members of the Congress Party spamming the poll to ensure AAP took Congress support to form government, thereby letting the defeated Congress government regain a position of power.

The takeaway from Kejriwal’s success is that social media buzz, leading to (or perhaps caused by) the mainstream media coverage, has effectively resulted in a small time activist now sharing prime time space with Prime Ministerial candidates like the Congress’s scion Rahul Gandhi and the BJP’s Narendra Modi. In the virtual world, the scales are shifting. The Times of India reports that television channels and social media immediately latched on to AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal as the new ‘hero’ who has since then been eating into Modi’s turf – that of the ‘public mind space’. In this war for public attention, Kejriwal seems to be gaining ground at Modi’s cost.

The Aam Aadmi Party and Arvind Kejriwal have certainly cornered the market on becoming heroes for promises made, aided by a masterful communication strategy. But there is more to this. Indians – residents of New Delhi – finally were able to participate in the interactive social media political campaign that they had previously only read about. The promise of an active democracy where the political leaders don’t just dictate terms but actually solicit and respond to the common man is too tempting an offer to ignore. In his first few days in office, Delhi’s new chief minister was unable to come in to the office, and almost comically tweeted that he was held back because of “loose motions.” The joke goes that perhaps some filters are necessary on social media!

However, irrespective of whether AAP delivers on all its promises or is somehow muscled out of office in a few months, it has proven something to all Indian media watchers. Social media buzz has helped in shaping the agenda for India’s largest and most important city, making a newly formed political party into a serious player in just over a year. This is significant as India has over 360 political parties, and space is limited on the national stage. With a few months to go until the national elections, one can expect more articles in the newspapers, listing out how other politicians have suddenly found the value of interacting with the common man over Facebook and Twitter, helpfully answering questions and taking feedback.

This article was p0sted on 6 Jan 2013 at

The European Union’s commitments to freedom of expression


This article is part of a series based on our report, Time to Step Up: The EU and freedom of expression.

Since the entering into force of the Lisbon Treaty on 1 December 2009, which made the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights legally binding, the EU has gained an important tool to deal with breaches of fundamental rights.

The Lisbon Treaty also laid the foundation for the EU as a whole to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights. Amendments to the Treaty on European Union (TEU) introduced by the Lisbon Treaty (Article 7) gave new powers to the EU to deal with state who breach fundamental rights.

The EU’s accession to the ECHR, which is likely to take place prior to the European elections in June 2014, will help reinforce the power of the ECHR within the EU and in its external policy. Commission lawyers believe that the Lisbon Treaty has made little impact, as the Commission has always been required to assess whether legislation is compatible with the ECHR (through impact assessments and the fundamental rights checklist) and because all EU member states are also signatories to the Convention.[1] Yet external legal experts believe that accession could have a real and significant impact on human rights and freedom of expression internally within the EU as the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) will be able to rule on cases and apply European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence directly. Currently, CJEU cases take approximately one year to process, whereas cases submitted to the ECHR can take up to 12 years. Therefore, it is likely that a larger number of freedom of expression cases will be heard and resolved more quickly at the CJEU, with a potential positive impact on justice and the implementation of rights in the EU.[2]

The Commission will also build upon Council of Europe standards when drafting laws and agreements that apply to the 28 member states. Now that these rights are legally binding and are subject to formal assessment, this may serve to strengthen rights within the Union.[3] For the first time, a Commissioner assumes responsibility for the promotion of fundamental rights; all members of the European Commission must pledge before the Court of Justice of the European Union that they will uphold the Charter.

The Lisbon Treaty also provides for a mechanism that allows European Union institutions to take action, whether there is a clear risk of a “serious breach” or a “serious and persistent breach”, by a member state in their respect for human rights in Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union. This is an important step forward, which allows for the suspension of voting rights of any government representative found to be in breach of Article 7 at the Council of the European Union. The mechanism is described as a “last resort”, but does potentially provide leverage where states fail to uphold their duty to protect freedom of expression.

Yet within the EU, some remained concerned that the use of Article 7 of the Treaty, while a step forward, is limited in its effectiveness because it is only used as a last resort. Among those who argued this were Commissioner Reding, who called the mechanism the “nuclear option” during a speech addressing the “Copenhagen Dilemma” (the problem of holding states to the human rights commitments they make when they join). In March 2013, in a joint letter sent to Commission President Barroso, the foreign ministers of the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark and Germany called for the creation of a mechanism to safeguard principles such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The letter argued there should be an option to cut EU funding for countries that breach their human rights commitments.

It is clear that there is a fair amount of thinking going on internally within the Commission on what to do when member states fail to abide by “European values”. Commission President Barroso raised this in his State of the Union address in September 2012, explicitly calling for “a better developed set of instruments” to deal with threats to these rights.

This thinking has been triggered by recent events in Hungary and Italy, as well as the ongoing issue of corruption in Bulgaria and Romania, which points to a wider problem the EU faces through enlargement: new countries may easily fall short of both their European and international commitments.

Full report PDFTime to Step Up: The EU and freedom of expression


[1] Off-record interview with a European Commission lawyer, Brussels (February 2013).

[2] Interview with Prof. Andrea Biondi, King’s College London, 22 April 2013.

[3] Interview with lawyer, Brussels (February 2013).