New Delhi: Union railway minister Lalu Prasad joined the disgruntled, informed, stimulating, entertaining — and sometimes plain loquacious — world of bloggers in May this year. His first stint as a blogger lasted all of three months.
Prasad blogged on a range of issues — the Gujjar community’s agitation in Rajasthan, inflation, the Indo-US nuclear deal — but found that irrespective of his subject matter, the debate he sought to start would inevitably end up in complaints about the Indian Railways or the government.
“Dear Laluji, sadar pranam (salutations)!” read a comment on his post on the Gujjar agitation. “My husband Baba Sidhaye, (an) ex-western railway employee, is the first and only deaf and dumb by birth international cricketer in the world from India among 110 crore of Indian population. I would like to know: What your railway ministry has done to recognize his exemplary services to the nation and Indian Railways? I think that he is eligible for all the awards of government of India...”
On 25 July, Prasad wryly remarked, “I would like to thank all those who have posted their comments on my blog. It has come to my notice that most of the comments are related to the functioning of railways, where people have pointed out various deficiencies in the services. We are studying all the suggestions and will try to implement them.” He has not written since, though he may return to blogging later.
Prasad’s blog is a case in point about why Indian politicians and political parties are reluctant to tap the growing number of Indian Internet users to further their agenda. As of September 2007, India had 49 million Internet users, according to a study by the eTechnology Group of IMRB International, a South Asian market research firm.
Access to a politician lies at the root of this reluctance, says Sanjay Sharma, managing director of QuBitTechnologies Pvt. Ltd, which has been running the official website of Indian Olympic Association president and Congress politician Suresh Kalmadi (www.skalmadi.org), the unofficial website of minister of state for information technology and communications Jyotiraditya Scindia (www.jyotiraditya.com) and an unofficial Congress party website, www.congress4india.com.
“The problem comes up when there is a flood of small and big requests. When you open up access to a politician, this happens and it is difficult to manage. Politicians have a group of handlers who restrict access and act as filters,” Sharma says. “But when access is opened up, the equations get topsy-turvy and there is a fundamental conflict. The politician just wants to say things and find a way to filter access to him.”
Congress party’s computer department chairman Vishvjit P. Singh, agrees. “The problem with interactivity is not only the bandwidth requirement but also that anyone can say anything they want.”
National Conference member of Parliament Omar Abdullah stopped blogging on 10 August after posting for four months because of the abuse he received in the comments section. “We truly are a bunch of intolerant people. We want to be heard but do not have the strength to hear, we want to have an opinion but do not believe anyone else is entitled to one,” he wrote in his last post.
This attitude of politicians, of wanting to only speak out and not listen, has led political party websites to be static, non-interactive entities used for pushing information such as press releases.
Of the seven national political parties, five have official websites, the Bahujan Samaj Party and Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal being the exceptions.
“Our party site performs a function akin to corporate communication — it is a tool to disseminate the official party stance and policy,” says Prodyut Bora, convener of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, information technology cell. “Our focus is on getting the basics right. It may make great headlines to say we’re experimenting with social networking and online donations, but we want to follow a structured and systematic approach.”
About 36% of India’s Internet users, says Balendu Shrivastava, the business director of the eTech Group of IMRB International, are between the ages of 18 and 23.
As a result, online tools such as social networking, video and photo streams seem to have caught political parties’ attention, but at the moment they appear to be comfortable dealing with these only at arm’s length. “Something like social networking would imply informality, and therefore will not be on the main site,” says Bora.
Congress party general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s team has put up a site, www.pressbrief.in, to push information about the Gandhi family and about his visits to various parts of the country. The site includes audio, video and a Flickr photo stream, but has no interactive features, limiting it to “Please feel free to e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.”
Some smaller urban-centric parties, taking advantage of higher Internet penetration, are using the medium successfully. The Jago (wake up) party, which plans to contest legislative assembly elections in Delhi and Rajasthan, has a unique interactive feature that tracks “incidents” of corruption and crime. Users are invited to post complaints against authorities or private parties including companies. Deepak Mittal, president and founder of the Jago party, says, “People face different types of problems but never complain because the process of complaining is difficult. We want people to come forward and register their complaints.”
According to Alexa Internet Inc., the Internet information site which provides traffic rankings for websites, Jago ranked 25,420 among Indian sites, better than some national parties such as the Nationalist Congress Party (ranked 199,279) and the Communist Party of India (288,055).
Sharma of QuBitTechnologies says even larger parties may be able to take advantage of the Internet if they emulate parties abroad.
“The way the Web is being used abroad by politicians has something to teach us. Apart from the audience, which is young or has a technological bent of mind, the driving force is collection of money (for campaigns). Unlike India, they have to collect money within the limits set by law. The amount of money that can be collected from an individual is limited, so they have to reach out as far as possible. More than half a million people have contributed to (US presidential candidate Barack) Obama’s campaign,” he says.