India's election campaigns get Net-savvy

Politicians take to cyberspace to campaign and rally voters for India's upcoming elections, but online reach will be limited in country, say market watchers.
Written by Swati Prasad, Contributor

news analysis INDIA -- Parties, candidates and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in the country are increasingly using Web 2.0 tools to campaign and raise awareness among voters. But, this medium has limited reach, say industry watchers.

Barack Obama effectively used online tools to rally supporters, campaign, defend attacks and communicate with constituents.

In India, the forthcoming general assembly elections have seen many local politicians follow Obama's footsteps, and the Internet is poised to play a larger role in these elections--to held in five phases on Apr. 16, 23 and 30, as well as May 7 and 13.

With nearly 700 million people eligible to cast their votes, political parties are busy wooing first-time voters and the country's tech-savvy middle class. Indian politicians have turned to YouTube, Facebook, Orkut, podcasts, live chats, Twitter and other Web 2.0 tools, to reach out to the electorate.

Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) octogenarian prime ministerial candidate, L. K. Advani, is reaching out to youths through live chats and his Web site. Advani is also on Facebook, Orkut and YouTube, while his colleague and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, uses tools such as podcasts, Twitter, Google SMS and widgets.

"Social networking is an innovative tool at the hands of some politicians," Abhijeet Saxena, CEO of Netcore Solutions, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail. "However, it does not influence as many people as it does in the West," he noted. A mobile marketing services company, Netcore is handling BJP's mobile campaign.

Several parties including left-wing Communist Party of India (Marxist), as well as politicians such as Advani and V. K. Malhotra, have created dedicated Web sites for their election campaign.

Supporters have also created groups on social networking sites such as Facebook and Orkut, to rally voters. Ruling party Indian National Congress' youth wing leader, Rahul Gandhi, for instance, currently has over 3,000 supporters on Facebook. Several politicians are also on Twitter, including Congress' S. M. Krishna and BJP's V K Malhotra.

The country's largest opposition party, BJP is undoubtedly the most active on cyberspace, and has banner ads--spouting "Advani for PM" messages--running on a plethora of Web sites.

"Their strategy is akin to carpet bombing," Santosh Desai, CEO of Future Brands said in a phone interview.

Wooing educated middle-class
According to Navin Khemka, senior vice president of media services company ZenithOptimedia, local politicians are "trying to ape Obama". The U.S. president raised half US$500 million online during his 21-month campaign for the White House, dramatically ushering in a new digital era in presidential funds-raising.

But, in India, the situation is quite different.

Khemka explained in a phone interview: "In the U.S., Internet penetration rate is nearly 80 percent. In India, there're only around 60 million Internet users, making up less than 6 percent of the total population."

Concurred Saxena: "Cyberspace is not a tool for the masses. Though the number of Internet users may have grown, it is still not very effective." While political parties are using the medium, they are not relying solely on the Internet, he noted.

The Internet, however, provides a way to appeal to the youth. Over half of India's 1.15 billion population is younger than 25 years, and 50 million new voters are estimated to have entered the electorate since 2004. Many first-time voters are likely to be connected via Internet and mobile phones.

Khemka said: "Politicians like Modi and Advani, want to project themselves as progressive, and the Internet is a great medium to do that. [These politicians] are investing [in the medium] ahead of the curve."

"BJP has capable strategists managing their Internet campaign, [but] mass media plays no role in Indian elections," Desai said. What matters more is the politicians' performance during their previous term, and other factors such as money and goodies, doled out to voters as part of a host of other populist measures undertaken to increase the vote bank.

Likening India's online campaigning to "buying an insurance policy", Desai said the Web is the first tool deployed to capture political rhetoric. For instance, the Pink Chaddi Campaign against the Sri Ram Sene took birth on social networking sites.

Spreading awareness through Web
Using the Internet as leverage is a strategy also used by a host of NGOs and non-profit organizations, such as the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy and Public Interest Foundation, These entities have used the Web, alongside traditional media including radio and television, to launch initiatives geared toward raising awareness among the electorate.

For instance, Janaagraha and Tata Tea's Jaago Re! One Billion Votes is a nation-wide campaign to urge Indian citizens, especially the youth, to register to vote. Jaago Re also has an active social media presence with over 16,000 members on Facebook and 13,000 members on Orkut.

Similarly, National Election Watch (NEW) is a nationwide campaign comprising more than 1,200 NGOs and other citizen-led organizations, working on electoral reforms to improve democracy and governance in India.

Some organizations are also helping the electorate better know their candidates. According to figures released by the ADR, 222 candidates--or 16 percent of 1,425 candidates--running in the election's first phase have criminal records.

Several of these organizations are active on social networking Web sites, where the Public Interest Foundation's No Criminals in Politics campaign, for instance, has over 5,000 supporters on Facebook.

Most of these campaigns are targeted at India's middle-class, which has turned increasingly apathetic toward polls. "In cities, nearly 50 percent of people do not vote," Khemka said.

Because voters in this segment of the population "can make very educated choices" Saxena noted that several organizations and groups are trying to get the middle and upper classes to vote." Such attempts can help pave the way to a more responsible government, he said.

But a better medium, Saxena said, is mobile telephony. "Mobile has 10 times more reach than the Internet, and SMS is the most common medium after voice," he said.

Swati Prasad is a freelance IT writer based in India.

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