New Delhi: In an attempt to use communication and computing technology to gain an edge in next year’s elections to India’s Lok Sabha and beyond, the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP is deploying an ambitious technology plan, built on a foundation of free and open-source software, which will bring video conferencing, Internet telephony and unified communication to around four million party workers by 2011.
Before elections, which is to be held latest by May 2009, the technology will connect 35 party state offices through a virtual private network, enabling information sharing and communication. The network will eventually grow to nearly 500 local party offices in districts throughout India, and to individual party members through mobile phones. A national data centre, which will include a central database of active party members, will be set up in New Delhi.
The party did not elaborate on its investment in the network. “We are looking to optimize both party-to-member and party-to-public communication,” says Prodyut Bora, convenor of BJP’s information technology (IT) cell. “For example, in three years, any party member, after authentication, will be able to call a number from any PCO (public call office), and have his email read out to him through an automated system.”
The decision to use open-source software across the board, the party’s IT cell says, offers the party a number of significant advantages.
“Open-source software gives you a greater flexibility and allows for very precise customization,” says Sidharth Gupta, Troop Software, an open-source solutions provider working with BJP on its internal communication system.
“This wide-ranging use of open source is significant because most organizations who look for open-source solutions tend to go piece by piece. They are reluctant to put, at once, all their eggs in the open-source basket, even though they eventually realize that they work on par with proprietary solutions,” says Sitaram Chamarty, a senior IT professional and open-source expert based in Hyderabad.
There is also a significant cost benefit.
“The cost advantage open-source software enjoys over most proprietary solutions is that it has no incremental cost per user for software.” For most proprietary software, adding additional users to a system would require additional licences. “But here, whether it’s 500 users or 50,000, that cost does not increase,” says Chamarty.
“Our costs are largely the purchase of hardware. At the scale at which this systemwill operate, the zero software cost dramatically lowers the per user deployment cost,” says Bora.
When it is ready, the network will allow the BJP to reach its party members in a cost-effective manner. “The technology will allow for any party member to receive messages sent out from the party office, including, say, (those on) the party’s stand on issues, or information on events,” says Vijay Shukla, CEO, ValueFirst, a mobile data services firm that is working with the BJP on its distributed mobile messaging model.
The BJP's plan also includes an “emergency response system” with direct links to district and local offices from the party’s central headquarters. “This makes communication nearly instantaneous, and allows for immediate unfiltered feedback from the field in the event of an emergency,” says Bora.
The BJP was among the first political parties to adopt technology for electioneering purposes and actually set up a technology-heavy war-room for the 2004 polls, which it lost.
It also used telemarketing in those polls with voters across the country receiving calls on their phones. Those that answered heard a pre-recorded message from then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.