Among The Followers

Twitter is fickle and fun. But don’t confuse it with the real world.
Among The Followers
Illustration by Sorit
Among The Followers

Those who live by the tweet, die by the tweet. For some months now, Shashi Tharoor has been a Twitter phenomenon, tweeting several times a day to over seven lakh followers. Though the tweets have often got him into trouble (‘cattle class’, the visa issue etc), Tharoor has been unrepentant.

A few weeks ago—before the sweat equity controversy broke—he explained his position to me in an interview for CNBC. The advantage with Twitter, he suggested, was that it allowed him to reach over seven lakh people whenever he wanted, without relying on the filter of the media. His Twitter audience, he pointed out gently, was much greater than the number of people who would watch our interview. (True).

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At the time, many peopled regarded Tharoor’s Twitter following with awe. Twitter was the voice of a young, enthusiastic middle class, happy to have its say on a variety of issues and unburdened by the pressures of literacy. (You can use telegraphese on Twitter because tweets can only be 140 characters long.)

The seven lakh followers were Tharoor’s constituency. He reached them directly whenever he wanted. He did not have to care what journos said about him because rare is the newspaper that reaches seven lakh people. Eventually, some people predicted, it was Tharoor’s followers who would propel his rise as he became the symbol of a new India where citizens (middle-class citizens, at any rate) had the right to express their views and the technology to be heard.

As we now know, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. In fact, Twitter has actually led directly to Tharoor’s downfall. It was on Twitter that Lalit Modi (a much less popular tweeter than Tharoor) provided details of Sunanda Pushkar’s shareholding in the Kochi consortium and set off the events that resulted in Tharoor’s resignation.

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Nor has Modi been a Twitter winner. As far as I can tell, he hoped to create a controversy about the owners of the Kochi team, embarrass Tharoor (who was ‘mentoring’ the consortium) and then use the furore as an excuse to take away the franchise and give it to somebody else.

Instead, all he has achieved is Tharoor’s exit from the ministry. The Kochi consortium is still in place. And the taxmen are knocking at Modi’s own door. Now that the government can claim that its own hands are clean (following Tharoor’s departure), it will go for Modi and his BCCI colleagues—who clearly have much to hide—with such vigour that Modi’s own position will come under threat.

The episode teaches us several things. One: there is an instant rush to be derived from putting something on Twitter and getting immediate feedback. But once something is out there in the Twitter universe, you lose all control over it: there is no telling what form the controversy you have started will take. And it may well come back to bite you in the behind—as has happened with both Tharoor and now Modi.

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Two: no matter how much action you generate on Twitter, it really makes no difference to how you are perceived by the country as a whole. Tharoor wanted to be seen as the symbol of a new India. Instead, he was seen as a man who was too clever by half. Modi wanted to be perceived as a dynamic sports visionary. He ended up being seen a dodgy, sleazy character.

Three: never confuse following with loyalty. Many people regarded Tharoor’s followers as his loyalists. As the traffic on Twitter has demonstrated over the last week, fellow tweeters (even those who follow Tharoor) are as disparaging about him as anybody else. When I tweeted about this, I got many bemused responses from his followers. They said they followed him to read what he had to say, not because they had any special affection for him. And while they may be called ‘followers’, he was certainly not their leader.

And finally, the events of the last fortnight have reminded us of the wisdom of that old cliché of Indian politics: the worst constituency to have is the middle class. As much as they like supporting you, they love sitting in judgement over you even more. It makes them feel powerful and important. So yes, the middle class can be vocal. But it can also be fickle.

Twitter can be fun. I know because I tweet. I have 3.6 lakh followers. But it cannot be—and should not be—confused with the real world.

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