New Delhi: Prodyut Bora calls himself a politician, but his office isn’t like a regular politician’s office. Instead of large portraits of his party’s leaders, images of L.K. Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Rajnath Singh flicker discreetly on a videophone’s LCD screen. Instead of thick binders of paper, stacks of Linux magazines anchor his desk at either end.
From this room in Advani’s communications office, and from another in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) headquarters, Bora runs his party’s newest unit, the information technology cell. Its most visible presence, over the last few months, has been Advani’s campaign website, including a blog that Advani updates roughly once every 10 days, calling in from his iPhone and dictating his posts. But Bora likes to compare the cell to an iceberg: “The blog is 1% of what we do. The rest of it is below the surface.”
The website, launched November, and the blog, launched in January, together draw 60,000 unique visitors daily, a number that Bora hopes to inflate to 100,000 by the time the general election ends in May. “In the BJP, if one lakh people attend a political rally, we consider it a superb rally,” he says. “So the aim is essentially to have one such rally every day online.”
Spreading the Web: Prodyut Bora aims to draw 100,000 visitors to the blog every day by mid-May. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
When Bora left the BJP’s media cell to start the information technology (IT) cell, he had a broad, tripartite mandate: to automate and network the party’s 550-odd district offices, attract IT professionals to the party, and advise his leaders on policy issues (the Congress party has no central IT cell as such, says All Indian Congress Committee secretary Tom Vadakkan; all IT matters are handled by the party’s publicity department).
The first of those tasks, Bora hopes, will be completed in two-and-a-half years; he envisions a party-wide ecosystem of virtual faxes, online documentation, Internet telephony, voicemail received over email, and unique member identification numbers. “It’s a way to keep track,” he says. “Suppose we have a good biotechnologist in the house. Do we even know that, when we need a good biotechnologist?”
The initial challenge proved to be financial; Bora refuses to discuss the operating budget of the IT cell, but he does say that he cut costs by using only open-source software. The biggest challenge now is to find appropriate IT staff for to operate and maintain the emerging network. “I can easily find an IT convener for south Delhi or south Mumbai,” he says. “But it’s not as easy in a small town. We need those local leaders.”
Bora, 34, joined the BJP in 2004, seven years after he graduated from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, and after five years of corporate life, including a stint at the management consultancy Hewitt Associates Inc. He calls himself the “only IIM graduate to be working full-time as a political activist,” and he says he is with the BJP only in a voluntary capacity. So are the other members of the IT cell, such as Robin Rappai.
Rappai, who quit a 20-year-career in IT to begin an organic farm in Coimbatore, temporarily relocated to Delhi a month-and-a-half ago to assist at the cell’s national headquarters until the elections. “I joined because of Prodyut’s vision,” Rappai, one of the cell’s 10 national-level members, says.
The Advani website, according to Rappai, is run as an overlap between the IT cell and the BJP’s campaign office. A Google search for Advani now brings with it a sponsored link to his website, but so does a Google search for Rahul Gandhi. Banner ads show up on the sites of not only Indian newspapers but also of publications abroad such as The Washington Post and Pakistan’s Dawn. “We just listed the most popular sites visited by Indians and served ads on all of those,” Bora says. That list now numbers at least 2,000.
The keyword-based system of serving these ads can sometimes make for incongruous appearances, such as next to a blog post that is critical of the Advani website. That blog’s author, Lakshmipathy Bhat, a Bangalore-based advertising professional and a new media enthusiast, thinks the online campaign insubstantial.
“This does seem to be a well-orchestrated effort, and although I haven’t seen anything from the Congress yet, I’m sure they’ll follow suit,” says Bhat. “But for Advani to try to appeal to the youth through new media is like HMT trying the same thing with a presence on (social networking sites such as) Facebook and Orkut. You can’t attract a Fastrack crowd using a watch from the 1980s.”
With Barack Obama’s new media campaign, Bhat points out, perception was key: It was a logical extension of a youthful, dynamic persona. “But in Advani’s case, it’s coming from somebody without the same kind of appeal to the Indian youth, who are anyway a little cynical now,” he says. The blitz of online advertising, he adds, “also seems like a bit too much too soon, from the point of view of the elections”.
Obama’s presence online is a clear inspiration for Advani’s. As early as July 2007, when the IT cell was constituted, Bora wrote an 8,000-word article, for internal circulation within the BJP, on the use of IT by political parties in the US, the UK and Australia. “It was what in management is called a benchmarking exercise,” he says.
The article, a copy of which was made available to Mint, shows a screengrab of an early version of the Obama ’08 campaign website, its various features tagged and analysed. “(S)ites such as Obama’s,” Bora wrote at the time, “combine the best of web and mobile technologies to provide a wide array of features and services.”
Previous blogging forays by Indian politicians have not gone well. Lalu Prasad’s blog, hosted on a confused potpourri of a website called myPopKorn, has not been updated since July. While it was alive, however, nearly every one of the posts—all too obviously ghostwritten—attracted 200 or more comments; Advani’s posts get an average of 120.
In that same month, and shortly before he became chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah stopped blogging on the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference website. Many of the comments on the posts degenerated into slanging matches, which discouraged Abdullah. “The abuse got so bad that they were attacking my wife, my mother, my sisters and my children,” Abdullah told Mint Lounge in January. “I decided to just shut it down.” That proved a valuable lesson for Bora; comments on Advani’s blog are screened—not for criticism but for rants, he says.
Despite these failures, blogging is likely to become more de rigueur rather than less; in late January, Murli Manohar Joshi, another BJP stalwart, launched his own blog. Even by an optimistic estimate, the Internet today reaches 45 million Indians, approximately as many as the BJP’s registered membership base, which Rappai puts at 40 million.
It’s a minuscule audience, Bhat says, and the trick will be to attract new people, not just preach to the converted. “The same people who are exposed to these blogs are also reading about tickets being given to mafia dons, for example, and they perceive that such veterans have a chequered political past,” he says. “This is simply changing the medium without changing the product.”