Mobiles and Politics – shifting power relations in India

Ive long argued that mobile phones represent a Gutenberg type shift in power relations, enabling people excluded from communication and debate to be part of the conversation. Owen Barder argues cheap communication reprepsents one of the four megatrends that will affect development, changing the relationship between citizens and states

Recent research by Australian researchers Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron are exploring how India’s mobile phone boom has helped parties representing the bottom rung of the caste system do well at the ballot box.

The Sydney Morning Herald has this:

“They say it is likely mobiles contributed to the electoral success of the Bahujan Samaj Party popular with India’s Dalits, previously the untouchables of the Hindu caste system.

The BSP won a resounding election victory in India’s biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, in 2007 that elevated Dalit hero Kumari Mayawati to the position of Chief Minister and entrenched her as a powerful player in national politics.

There is evidence that the effective use of mobiles by the BSP helped party activists to mobilise Dalit voters. The researchers suggest the mobile phone gave BSP organisers a new way to get round the power barriers that in the old days kept low-caste people down, under control of social superiors and confined to their villages.

They describe the mobile as the ”most disruptive device to come to India in modern times” and argue consumer and communication capitalism is posing new challenges for established structures of authority and power.”

But few development practitioners and even fewer donors recognize this, and take a strategic view of the implications. DFID has closed its Information and Communication for Development unit, focussing instead on its press relations team.

Its time for development practitioners to remember that development is about politics, and that politics is essentially a communicative act. And cellphones allow increasing numbers of people to be part of the political process.

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