It is tempting to see the Congress’ victory this election as a validation of the tried and tested methods of political campaigning. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ran an aggressive digital media campaign and focused on reaching out to the urban first-time voter, but failed. The Congress ran a traditional campaign, focused on movie songs, local rallies and the charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi family, and succeeded.
However, I would caution against reading too much into this coincidence and mistaking it for causality. It’s not the BJP’s campaign but its Hindutva ideology that has failed the party. The BJP has lost in spite of its brilliant campaign, not because of it.
Over the next few days, with 20/20 hindsight, pundits will argue that the strategy to project Lal Krishna Advani as a strong prime ministerial candidate was flawed, and his attempt to run a Barack Obama-like campaign focusing on the promise of change was laughable. They will point out that India’s 50 million Internet users are a negligible constituency, that the urban Indian youth was never going to step out to vote anyway, and the BJP’s focus on the youth vote was a sign that it was disconnected from the realities of Indian politics. Some will argue that the BJP’s digital campaign was badly designed and ineptly executed, that it tried to use the pull-based Internet and mobile mediums for push advertising, and ended up spamming citizens.
That the BJP’s election campaign failed doesn’t mean it was flawed. Given the ideological and budget constraints he had to work with, BJP strategist Sudheendra Kulkarni did a great job with the campaign.
The BJP ran an aggressive campaign, and tried to position itself as both strong in terms of national security and progressive in terms of economic development. The BJP’s election manifesto was the most well-thought of all political parties and its information technology vision document resonated with the country’s professional class. The BJP set a new precedent with Advani’s blog and ran India’s biggest-ever Google AdWords and short message service (SMS) outreach campaign. Not only that, it also embraced the Web 2.0 value system: It co-opted independent groups such as Friends of BJP into the campaign; reached out to first-time voters through the Advani@ Campus programme and built an army of online volunteers through the Bloggers for Advani initiative.
As a result, BJP supporters dominated online conversations about the elections in the Indian blogosphere and on social networking sites such as Facebook, Orkut and Twitter. One-fourth of the respondents to a recent IMRB survey visited the BJP website, compared with one-tenth for the Congress website.
Perhaps even more importantly, the BJP’s election campaign generated an extraordinarily high amount of interest in the Indian and international media—partly neutralizing the disadvantage of working with a budget of Rs60-75 crore against the Rs150 crore budget available to the Congress.
In retrospect, it’s easy to pretend that the BJP’s defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections was a foregone conclusion, but it wasn’t, and we would do well not to write off the BJP or its campaign strategy too easily. In 2004, an aggressive online campaign didn’t get the US Democratic Party nomination for Howard Dean or the presidency for John Kerry, but it set the foundation for the Netroots movement that Obama tapped into in 2008. I know that India isn’t the same as the US, the BJP isn’t the same as the Democratic Party, and Narendra Modi isn’t the same as Obama. But I also know that the BJP’s love affair with online election campaigning is far from over.
Gaurav Mishra leads research on social media and digital activism in emerging countries as the Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University, US. He is also co-founder of Vote Report India, an election-monitoring platform. Comment at email@example.com