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‘Mobile’ voters may sway polls

by Prasad Krishna last modified Mar 05, 2014 11:55 AM
BABALAL Patel’s tiny tea stall in Mumbai is a long way from Silicon Valley. It is not even that close to Bangalore, the Indian equivalent.

The article by Avantika Chilkoti was published in BDlive on March 5, 2014. Sunil Abraham is quoted.

But one night this month, this ramshackle shop became the venue for a social media experiment that highlights the hi-tech face of electioneering in India, the world’s largest democracy. A crowd gathered outside to watch two television screens showing a live broadcast with politician Narendra Modi as he answered questions the audience submitted by text message.

Similar "tea parties" were held across India, designed to ram home Modi’s humble background as a tea seller and his technological credentials. The nationwide event, organised by using mobile technology more commonly seen in US presidential campaigns, signals a shift in Indian politics.

For decades, political campaigns in India have centred around colossal rallies and billboard advertising. But a growing population of young people, rising internet use and the ubiquity of cellphones mean this year’s battle is playing out equally fiercely online.

"We are moving far ahead of saying that we are building ‘likes’ on social media," says Arvind Gupta, head of information technology and social media for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

"Organisation is being done using digital. So if I’m going to tell everybody there’s an event tomorrow, it can be posted on Facebook, websites, on SMS, on WhatsApp, though the real meeting is happening on the ground."

These techniques, which became familiar during the Arab uprisings of North Africa, are an increasingly important part of communication strategy ahead of a national election that must be held in the next three months, and of which the outcome many believe will be close.

Gupta believes parties are fighting what he calls a "postmodern election" for up to 160 — largely urban — seats out of a total of 543. More than half the 50-strong team working on communications for the BJP are dedicated to digital campaigning.

India’s internet user base reached a point of inflection last year, exceeded 200-million. While that is a fraction of the 1.3-billion population, prompting many to question the power of social media, use is far greater among urban and young voters, millions of whom will be eligible to vote for the first time.

"Social media is suddenly becoming important, not for all constituencies, but for urban constituencies, because for the first time the urban youth and the educated class are very much glued into the election and showing interest," says Rajeeva Karandikar, a statistician and election analyst.

Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, has adapted particularly quickly to the changing environment. He captured the public imagination by using holograms to address rallies and Google Hangouts to interact with the diaspora. He has 3.4-million Twitter followers and more than 10.6-million "likes" on his Facebook page, thanks in part to a slick social media team led by high-profile technology entrepreneurs.

By contrast, Rahul Gandhi, the reticent, undeclared candidate for the incumbent Congress party, does not even have a verified Twitter account.

Some were disappointed by low attendance at the national "tea parties", but the events were lauded for being interactive and, perhaps most important in a country where newspaper readership remains high, grabbed column inches in the press. The audience could speak directly to Modi at venues with a two-way video link and the footage was immediately available on YouTube.

"While answering each question, Modi has a point of view," says Pratik Patel, 28, a chartered accountant who organised the event at his grandfather’s tea shop. "He doesn’t have two ways of looking at the same thing — this helps him to be more decisive and forward thinking."

Social media provide swathes of information to India’s political parties, as they copy the sophisticated data analysis used by US President Barack Obama’s campaigns.

From its offices in suburban Mumbai, digital marketing group Pinstorm tracks social media discussions at constituency level and identifies significant supporters or critics. It describes the service as an early warning system or "social radar", which allows parties to mobilise workers rapidly to oppose or support a point of view.

Sceptics argue, however, that social media have insufficient traction in India to affect results of the coming poll. But the size of the user base does not reflect its full power. Educated, influential Indians use these digital networks and the online debate shapes views in traditional media that reach a wider audience.

"The theory is that since the elites are connected and have more time to spare on social media, let us use social media and the internet more generally to influence discourse through these elites," says Sunil Abraham, executive director for the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society. "It’s an indirect route to the vote."

However, an adviser to the Obama campaign warns that, given differences in funding and the environment, India’s politicians should be wary of using the US presidential race as a model. This year, a simpler technology may prove the best tool for campaigns in India: the cellphone.

"Folks look to the Obama campaign for this sort of stuff," says Ethan Roeder, who worked on data for the 2008 and 2012 US presidential campaigns. "But a lot of these international campaigns would do best looking elsewhere for a model.… No campaign in the history of the world has ever spent that much money to elect a single individual to a single office."

India’s version is markedly cheaper, thanks to the roadside chai wallahs and armies of volunteers, pulling in the new breed of voters.

"I have never attended a political rally in my entire life," says Patel, who helped to organise Modi’s nationwide "tea party". "If people want to connect with me they need to connect with me on social media or via e-mail."

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