A Google India survey, Urban Indian Voters, released in October found that 37% of registered voters in urban areas spend as much time reading online media sources as they do offline. Of the total surveyed, 68% were in the 18-35 age group.
The survey, which was carried out in 108 constituencies and covered over 41,000 people, found that 42% of the respondents were undecided about whom to vote for. This huge chunk was picking up information from the Web, and it could influence whom they voted for.
Google India’s managing director Rajan Anandan says that while searches related to politics go up by over 500% three-four months before an election, many of the queries reveal a basic lack of familiarity with the voting process.
“A significant population of registered voters are now online, and the Internet will play an important role in influencing this population,” says Anandan. Among the search terms that Google revealed, the top search is “How to get an election card”, followed by “How to vote”, he says.
Answering these questions, and providing information on the people you can vote for, is a shortcoming many websites are starting to address.
For instance, MumbaiVotes.com is a not-for-profit website with a single aim—to create well-informed voters in Mumbai. At MumbaiVotes, volunteers interview members of Parliament (MPs) and the legislative assembly (MLAs) as well as candidates contesting elections. “It is essentially about assessing and communicating the promises and performance of elected representatives in India to incentivise progressive politics,” explains the founder, Vivek Gilani.
Not everyone is convinced that this kind of initiative will have an impact on the 2014 general election. Social media analysts Blogworks have been studying politics and social media and CEO Rajesh Lalwani says the Internet’s impact will take some time to be seen. “Indian politics and the Internet have only recently started to intersect meaningfully. People need to recognize that trending on Twitter is not the same thing as winning votes. We’ll hopefully see more discussions about policy and not just pappu and feku,” he says.
These discussions, which the site calls Sankalps, can be browsed and shared on social networks, and users can also vote for or against a Sankalp.
Many user-created posts on VoteIndia.in are anonymous, including ones like: “I will vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party if they state their intent to lower costs through infrastructure development”; and “I will vote for Indian National Congress if Rahul Gandhi is made prime ministerial candidate”.
Shrivastava, who now works in Dubai and spoke to Mint on phone, said his friends and he came up with the idea while he was an engineering student at IIT, Delhi.
They wanted to do something to help answer the kind of problems they saw around the country, and they believed the solution lay in the political system itself. The goal of the site was to educate and inform people, and despite studies and jobs over the years, the friends have remained involved in the project. Shrivastava, for instance, works in Dubai for HCL, but thanks to the Internet, still runs a project that’s aimed at Indian audiences. And with the help of volunteers, VoteIndia continues to grow.
“We’re not trying to make money from this, but we take donations, and volunteers help maintain and update the pages. Since it’s all Web-based, you can make the updates from anywhere, and people in India can see the change,” he says.
After a high in 2009, when there was a lot of interest, there was a drop in attention; it’s increased again now. “The time around the election is obviously when most people are also visiting the site, and so for us it was a little disheartening to update the site in between and not get visitors. But it’s important to keep the information up-to-date so that when people do come, it’s useful,” says Shrivastava, adding, “Volunteers help with updating the text and even running the site, which makes it possible to keep things running for this long, from around the world.”
More recently, IIT, Mumbai saw the formation of Netapedia.in. The site went live in 2011, and their goal is to be the Wikipedia of politicians. The site was created by students from various fields in IIT—most of them connected through their participation in the organization of Techfest, the institute’s annual science and technology festival.
The site has a simple interface; you can use it to either search for a politician by name, or browse by state. There are also links to the Constitution, the latest Union budget, and a Things You Must Know section talks about the Unique Identification Authority (UID) and Right to Information (RTI) Act. But the main goal, according to Sidharth Mishra, one of the founders, is to build authentic, verified profiles. The information comes from the affidavits filed by candidates before an election.
Mishra, a mechanical engineer who graduated in 2011 and now works for Flipkart in Mumbai, was the event manager of Techfest in 2008-09, and overall coordinator in 2010. He met others like Hitesh Lalwani (now with Procter and Gamble in Hyderabad). “If you’re working, or even if you’re a college student about to vote for the first time, you won’t be up-to-date with all that’s been happening in politics. I can find out everything there is to know about Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi but where do I learn about the work my local candidate has done?” he asks.
The site is run entirely by IIT students, but Hitesh isn’t worried. “We’ve involved our juniors and the site will stay alive. There is a lot of work to do, in getting state-level data and keeping the site updated, but we’ve been lucky to find volunteers all around India who help with those parts,” Hitesh says.
“We haven’t updated for six months but after December we’re going to ramp up in a big way. All the data has to be entered by hand, so there’s a lot of work,” he adds.
With the general election coming closer, the traffic on these sites is only going to increase, but only the really committed will continue to grow and build information even after the election. The more they succeed, though, the better informed voters will be.