Polling goes hi-fi: digital media and India’s election

Polling goes hi-fi: digital media and India’s election

Much has been written about US President-elect Barack Obama’s use of digital campaigning and fund-raising that involved YouTube, blogs, social networking sites, online petitions, Google and Yahoo groups and more conventional email lists to build and sustain support.

Telugu Desam Party supremo and former Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu was known as India’s most “tech-savvy chief minister" and has used both text messaging (SMS) and the Internet for campaigning.

Others who have extensively used technologies, especially cellphones, include Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, and former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party during the 2004 Lok Sabha campaign.

I still vividly recall his voice messages as well as the fact that all of that fancy campaigning didn’t stop the BJP from losing power as its “India Shining" campaign missed connecting with many voters.

Also See The Indian Story (Graphic)

Despite the surge in mobile phone usage, so-called hi-tech campaigns are now important but not sufficient in winning elections. This is primarily because the so-called information revolution in India still has a small voter base.

Also Read P N Vasanti’s earlier columns

While India is estimated to have some 12 million Internet subscribers, I suspect that there are easily some 40 million people online of which 25 million are active on a weekly basis. And some 325 million mobile phone users.

While only about 20% of the Internet user base in India is from non-urban areas, mobile phones are making fast inroads into rural India.

However, access to the Internet and its advantages are still largely restricted to the educated and the elite in urban areas, a group that doesn’t yet represent the majority of India’s electorate.

Looking back to the last Lok Sabha elections in 2004, one of the reasons that cost the BJP dearly was an urban–rural divide.

A similar fate was in store for Naidu’s technology-led campaign in Andhra Pradesh that didn’t go down well with the “real India" that was focused on realities such as rising farmer suicides.

But the limited impact of the Web in the campaigning, nothwithstanding BJP chief ministerial candidate V.K. Malhotra’s much-touted website in Delhi elections, doesn’t mean that the Internet won’t become a political tool for elections and help in raising political participation in the near future.

While the technology is still new, especially to many of India’s geriatric politicians, as well as to most of the Indian voters, it is important to keep in mind that a very large percentage, nearly 70%, of the Indian population is under 35.

It is this critical group of young voters, combined with sustained Internet growth and increased connectivity in India, that points to the Web, be it through computers or through mobile phones, coming to play a much greater role in future elections.

Realizing this trend, some of these avenues are already being explored as parties and the media prepare for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

Significant campaign budgets are being allocated for the Internet and phone-based promotions, including those that use cellphones to mobilize both voters and party faithfuls.

What made Obama’s campaign unique wasn’t just the use of such technology, but how online tools were used to coordinate offline action and how precise and persistent messages with clear calls for action, be it fund-raising or mobilizing activities, got significant results.

India’s politicians are still just about getting their arms and heads around using television effectively and, in recent weeks, radio where political ads have been approved.

Notions of interactivity through social networking and informal discussions using blogs could, over time, provide a compelling platform to involve voters, especially young voters, in the political discourse.

There is already a nascent effort by non-partisan groups with initiatives such as Jaago re! One Billion Votes and India Banao! are visible.

These initiatives are using the Internet and mobile technologies for increasing voter registration, raising awareness about voting rules and procedures, providing periodic checks on electoral rolls, and acting as the source of election related news, providing both online and offline opportunities for young people to get involved.

The vital role of the Internet and mobile technologies in the 2008 US election has further endorsed the interest and relevance of these technologies in India’s own election processes and dialogue. Hopefully, this e-democracy will emerge as a channel to enhance political accessibility, increase citizen dialogue and build more expansive participation in our political processes.

Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint

P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization, Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome atfineprint@livemint.com