Mumbai: Using an opponent’s strength to one’s advantage is a politician’s dream and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Lal Krishna Advani, 81, is living out this dream—online.
Over the past few weeks, Google searches for the Congress, Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati, even Obama, show sponsored links (the ones that appear on the right of the Google search result screen) to Advani’s website, www.lkadvani.in.
A few weeks after he launched his blog, as reported by Mint on 10 January, it is clear that the veteran politician’s digital strategy is in place—much ahead of everyone else’s. On 22 January, for instance, Advani did a 90-minute-long live chat on Rediff.com.
A screenshot of Google searches for the Congress that shows a sponsored link (the one that appears on the right of the result screen) to L.K. Advani’s website, www.lkadvani.in.
Advani’s digital offensive comes as India prepares for a general election that promises to be different in two very significant ways: it will be the first time that as much as 40% of the electorate will be first-time voters—young people who have just crossed the voting age of 18; and it will the first time in the country’s independent history that the urban areas have a representation in the Lok Sabha that is proportionate to their population (the country’s rural areas have usually enjoyed more representation).
Both these, and an Internet population of 57 million claimed users (people who claim to use the Internet), according to the Internet and Moblie Association of India, a not-for-profit industry body, could encourage more parties to emulate the BJP, and more politicians to do an Advani.
The polls also come in the wake of the historic US election where an online strategy was a key part of Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign.
The opportunities-in-the-making are significant enough for the world’s largest Internet company to look at them. “We are focused on this space and have set up a team to look into opportunities. We do see increasing interest in political advertising,” said a spokesperson for Google India Pvt. Ltd.
During elections to five states late last year, the Congress party had put out campaign videos and information on popular sites such YouTube well as social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. All of these focused on the party, its ideology and electoral promise rather than individual candidates, said Atul Hegde, chief executive of Ignitee India Pvt. Ltd, which handled the party’s online campaign.
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Hegde added that the online campaigns of political parties would go beyond banner ads and search advertising in the run-up to the general election. “A lot more parties will come on board, so there will be a lot of stuff online as (well as) on mobile (phones),” he said.
As on 31 December, the country had 342 million mobile phone subscribers.
“We are trying all kinds of things online,” said a person involved in the BJP’s electoral campaign, who did not wish to be identified. “The idea is to draw traffic to the site and the page…the Net is one of the fastest growing mediums and has managed to bridge various divides of age, strata, demographics, etc…. Mr Advani is the senior most active politician across parties and this was a good way to make him more accessible, approachable, and more familiar.”
It is also a cost-effective medium, added Prasanth Mohanachandran, executive director (digital services) at OgilvyOne Worldwide. According to him, the search ads would cost less than Rs3-4 per click.
Others say the online campaign could be an effort by Advani’s supporters to make him be seen as the BJP’s No. 1 choice for prime minister’s post. In recent weeks, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, also of the BJP, has been projected as a possible prime ministerial candidate, although not by the party (and Modi himself has stayed silent on the subject). Earlier this month, during an investment meet in Gujarat, several Indian chief executive officers said Modi had what it took to head the country.
“It (Advani’s online campaign) really is a brand-building movement to counter Narendra Modi’s meteoric rise,” said Mahesh Murthy, founder and chief executive officer of Pinstorm, a Mumbai-based digital marketing firm.
“Has Mr Advani lost out in stature and political recognition? Well, the answer is a resounding, yes,” added Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.
Google reports shared by Pinstorm show that Modi generates four times as many searches as Advani.
Still, an online presence or a digital campaign is no guarantee of success. “All political parties, including the BJP, have tech-savvy experts who will come up with these things. But really don’t know how it’s going to go down…it may backfire,” said Mehta.
In the recent Delhi elections, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate V.K. Malhotra’s campaign was supported by an online initiative to build his individual brand—his grandchildren created a group on social networking site Facebook. The BJP lost the elections.