Twitter Minister resigns. Can Twitter still change politics in the world's largest democracy?


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I was looking forward to writing a blog post on India's first Twitter Minister. The minister who's tweeted his way in and around the highest echelons of power in the world's largest democracy. But instead now there's another story to tell about the same person, Dr. Shashi Tharoor who very nearly became the Secretary General of the United Nations. He came in a close second but then went onto win Indian parliamentary elections in May 2009 after which he was promptly made the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. All good so far. 

During the election Tharoor opened a Twitter account that has grown to 720,000 followers now. In fact he became the first Indian celebrity to cross the 100,000 followers on Twitter. Many of his tweets were notorious ranging from criticisms of the government to which he belonged to controversial tweets about his life. This headline making one was about flying - "Traveling cattle class, in solidarity with all our holy cows." In a similar fashion, he tweeted about the new visa regulations for visitors to India. This tweet also caused an uproar as it appeared to go against official government policy. Here's what he said, "Making it more difficult 2 visit India, return here frequently or stay long hurts large nbrs of innocents, costs us millions of$ & alienates."
The tweets were insightful and provocative. But what made the tweeting all the more special was that Tharoor was talking to Indians online directly without the usual filter of the mainstream media. In fact, the mainstream media would report on his tweets. And furthermore, he had a cult like following online because he appeared to be truly transparent and honest with his tweets. Many other politicians began to wonder whether that was indeed the future of voter relations. Those of us who are Indian or of Indian origin working in social media could barely hide our glee - here was an Indian politician that was using new media to reach people everywhere and was having great success at doing so. This seemed the future of democracy. But it was all to come to an end rather suddenly.

Sadly, Tharoor was forced to resign today because he has apparently gotten mixed up in a scandal whereby he is accused of wrongly using his influence to help his girlfriend get an ownership stake in a cricket franchise. He's no more a minister in the Indian government though he is still a member of parliament. And in the gravest of all ironies, word of his involvement wit the cricket franchise scandal first broke on Twitter before reaching the mainstream media and eventually the Prime Minister of India.

So what does this all mean? Politicians around the world have realized that Twitter can be an extremely powerful communication tool for them. They're also discovering that speaking on the record and off the record have different meanings now. Many are also discovering that when you're part of a government, you walk a fine line between telling people what you really think (which Twitter lends itself well to doing) or limiting yourself to what you're supposed to say. Politicians are realizing that their constituents love reading their tweets and getting their on the spot opinions. It makes politics and policy making more personal, real and engaging (maybe it'll increase civic engagement). But through the Shashi Tharoor example, the same politicians are also going to learn that social media platforms like Twitter can be extremely dangerous for them when it is used as a way to expose scandals or poke holes in their promises.

Follow Shashi Tharoor on Twitter. I don't know whether he's at fault and it certainly is a pity that he had to resigned. One thing is for certain, he's going to continue to tweet and we are all going to be thankful for that.

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Follow me on Twitter (@shivsingh) for more insights on digital strategy and social media.

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