Political parties of all hues and contours are jumping on to the online bandwagon in pursuit of the Indian voter. Will they succeed or not is the big question on everyone’s mind. Here is a primer.
“Power comes from the barrel of a gun,” is what Chinese dictator Mao Tse Tung had proclaimed many decades back. The Chinese revolution in the 1950s, became the sort of template for almost all the revolutionaries across the globe, be it Fidel Castro in Cuba to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, from Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan to Prachanda in Nepal. Despotic governments propped up by Kalashnikovs popped up across different continents and regions. Apparently, gun and government complimented each other beatifically.
Then in 2009, to be precise, another revolution took shape, a black man with mixed heritage ascended the most powerful position in the world by being elected as President of the United States beating all the odds. A year earlier, no one would have given Barrack Obama even a sniffing chance of winning the election but that is what he did in a manner that took most of the world by surprise. His strategy was similar to the ones used by all the dictators (a promise of change that roused the populace) except for one crucial difference: instead of gun, Obama relied on copper wire. His message of change was not spread by gunshots but by telephone and cable lines across the 50 states of the US.
Medium became almost as powerful as the message itself. By winning over the White House, black Obama engendered a new template for all the politicians (usually the democratic ones) to follow, namely the use of Internet and Telephony to spread the message.
Come May 2009, this Obama template will be put to its most rigorous test in the largest democratic election of the world: when the 15th Lok Sabha elections take place. With over 8,00,000 polling stations and nearly 700 million people eligible to cast their votes the battle royale for the PM’s seat has begun for the various political parties.
The coming of Cyber Politics
Since, this election promises to be a closely fought one, no party is leaving any stone unturned in its pursuit of the voter, with much attention and time being given to the first-time voters and the tech-savvy middle class. Impressed by the way Obama spread the message of change, political parties are using every means at their disposal to spread their word, be it television, print or hoardings. From roadside walls plastered with posters to fancy adverts on television. The battle for the ballot has now spilled on to the cyberspace, with each party looking at making gains by hosting websites, blogs, or sending emails.
It is not as if that political parties have suddenly discovered the Internet as a medium, both the Congress and the BJP have had online presence for a long time. For instance, years back Congress Leader Jagdish Tytler had launched an online forum while for BJP it was their tech savvy leader Pramod Mahajan. In fact, BJP had launched its own website and formed an IT cell way back in 1997. The rest, like the Communist Party of India (CPI), Telugu Desam party, Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and the rest, all have a web presence.
Nonetheless, the parties are now moving to the next stage, from static website to interactive Internet strategies. Again, the Obama template comes into play. According to reports, the biggest game changer for Obama was his community building exercise, which included an impressive 13 million e-mail addresses and some 2 million friends on his social networking site. Not surprisingly, parties are trying to emulate the same in India by actively using technology to reach out to the electorate.
The Saffron winner
In this Cyber race, without an iota of doubt it is the saffron party that has taken a lead over its competitors. In the days gone by, there have been numerous announcements that have emanated from the IT Cell headquarters in Delhi, like the revamping of its party website (BJP.org) and the launch of a blog by the prime ministerial candidate LK Advani (blogs.lkadvani.in). Going by the figures, septuagenarian Advani would be the most tech-active leader right now in India, posting blogs, chatting online, videos, images, and the works. Not only that there is a user group, named Friends of the BJP, that religiously updates videos and blogs on different websites like Youtube and Orkut. According to BJP, its website www.lkadvani.com which was launched on Nov 8, 2008 is getting 20 thousand unique hits every day. The site boasts of some 150 archives, 300 photos, and some 700 pages of textual content.
The Cyber Chanakya for BJP is Prodyut Bora, the convener of the party’s IT cell. The IIM-Ahemedabad Alumni has a robust gameplan for the party and plans to tie-up the Advani website with social networking sites like Facebook, Orkut, etc. “Even though, the penetration of Internet is still miniscule which is around 4 crores, but of these around 60% lives in top eight cities impacting around 50 Loksabha seats, so it’s a medium worth considering”. The party has also signed up the help of Google, and little wonder any search that is around elections throws up results pertaining to Advani or the BJP. Not only that, the party has also put in a very impressive infrastructure that is both modern and complex.
The waking giant?
Congress (I) has been slow to respond to the online onslaught but there is no doubt that it is waking up to the challenge. Till some days back, even its party website was not updated. But thankfully that has changed over the past few days with the portal projecting a clean and revamped look. Biswajeet Prithvi Singh, chairman, computer department, Congress, “We are in the process of giving cleaner and liner look to our five year old website and there is a team that is updating the content frequently,” he says.
The party recently launched and online video community on Youtube and there are scores and scores of Rahul fanclubs on Facebook and Orkut. And yet, for some very strange reasons, the party has yet to launch an individual blog or website for its youth mascot Rahul Gandhi. “We are not going to have any individualistic website,” emphasises Singh.
Nonetheless there are talks doing the rounds that the grand old party would soon be coming out with a media blitzkrieg. According to rumour mills, Mediaturf, one of the agencies that will be working with the party is working overtime chalking out the strategy for the same.
And the followers…
So, where are the rest of the political parties when it comes to cyberspace, one might wonder. Another technocrat that seems to be doing well is Chandrababu Naidu and his Telugu Desam Party. In fact there is one party website for the United Kingdom-based Non-Resident Indians (which has an image of Naidu morphed onto a photograph of Obama with the White House in the background). The website also has an online contribution campaign wherein the people are asked to contribute through credit card, Internet Enabled Bank Account, PayMate(Mobile payment), ITZ cash cards, Debit cards, etc. The Comrades too seem to have woken up to the power of the Web, they recently launched a video community on Youtube to spread their message and their website (cpim.org) is being updated frequently. But even so there is some amount of scepticism in the minds of the comrades when it comes to using technology. “In a poor land like ours, canvassing and public meetings will be the mainstay for political parties. Such online campaigns can be a successful model for the US where internet penetration is 100%, I have my doubts about India,” says Prasanjeet Bose, convenor, research unit, CPM.
Beyond that, there is not much action in terms of political parties. Though prime ministerial wannabe Mayawati is supposedly going to launch her own blog soon, the party website (bahujansamajp.com) has not been updated for a long long time, the last time it was done was in August, 2008. Samajwadi Party (samajwadipartyindia.com) and RJD also seem to be oblivious to the power of the Net, having rudimentary websites put up. That is much the case with the rest of the regional parties, like Shiv Sena, NCP, etc. In fact, firebrand Mamata Banerjee’s website (trinamoolcongress.com) is not working at all.
In a way, all major political parties are trying to reach mass and class and the use of online medium and it has become an inseparable part of their election campaign this year. The biggest motivator is the cost factor. “It makes good sense as well,” says Mrutunjoy Mishra, Co-founder, juxtconsult.com, adding, “By spending some Rs. 3-4 lakhs, one can get around four million impression which is far cheaper when compared to other media channels like television or outdoor.”
The big question that seems to be on everyone’s mind right is, whether the Obama template could be replicated out here in India. There are lot of advantages that the parties can draw from the Internet, for instance, the election code of conduct is still not clear on how the promotion on Internet can be effected. For instance, all campaigning in other mediums has to end 24 hours before the polling, but candidates can still reach out to their communities through online websites even with the last minute. This advantage can be exploited by the parties till there is an explicit direction given by the Election Commission.
But will this entire Web push result in gains on the ground, remains to be seen. It did work in the US, could it in India? The Obama template has little relevance to the bulk of the voters that actually elect MPs in India on the basis of caste, creed and Rs. 2 rice promises. Nonetheless, this is a preliminary round and surely by 2014, the Internet will be a powerful medium without doubt. As more and more Indians log on to the Internet it is inevitable. So while Mao’s gunpowder brought revolutions and power till some decades back; it will be copper in the future. And May 16, 2009 might just give an indication of just the same.
(This article of mine had been recently published in Dataquest)