You are here: Home / News & Media / India ‘tea parties’ enable politicians to woo urban youth with technology

India ‘tea parties’ enable politicians to woo urban youth with technology

by Prasad Krishna last modified Mar 06, 2014 12:13 PM
Babalal Patel’s tiny tea stall in southern 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 the Financial Times on February 26, 2014. Sunil Abraham is quoted.

But one night this month this ramshackle shop became the venue for a social media experiment that highlights the high-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 Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for the opposition Bharatiya Janata party, as he answered questions the audience submitted by text message.

Similar “tea parties” were held across the country, designed to ram home Mr Modi’s humble background as a tea seller and his technological credentials. But the nationwide event, organised using mobile technology more commonly seen in US presidential campaigns, also 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 mobile phones mean the 2014 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 IT and social media for the 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 northern Africa, are an increasingly important part of communication strategy ahead of a national election, which must be held in the next three months, and which many believe will be close.

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

India’s internet user base reached a point of inflection last year, passing 200m. While that is a fraction of the 1.3bn 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 this year.

“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 is very much glued into the election and showing interest,” says Rajeeva Karandikar, a statistician and election analyst.

Mr 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 3.4m Twitter followers and more than 10.6m “likes” on his Facebook page, thanks in part to a slick social media team led by high-profile technology entrepreneurs. Meanwhile 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 importantly in a country where newspaper readership remains high, grabbed column inches in local media. The audience could speak directly to Mr Modi at venues with a two-way video link and the footage was immediately available on YouTube.

“While answering each question Mr Modi has a point of view,” says Pratik Patel, 28, a chartered accountant who organised the event at his grand- father’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 also provides swaths of information to India’s political parties, as they copy the sophisticated data analytics used by US president Barack Obama’s campaigns.

From its offices in suburban Mumbai, the digital marketing group Pinstorm tracks what social media users are discussing at the 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 has insufficient traction in India to affect results of the forthcoming poll. But the size of the user base does not reflect its full power. It is educated influential Indians who 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.”

An adviser to the Obama campaign warns, however, that, given differences in funding and the local 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 mobile phone.

“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, of course, 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 Mr Patel, who helped organise Mr Modi’s nationwide “tea party”.

“If people want to connect with me they need to connect with me on social media or via email.”

Modi’s digital army

The team building the digital campaign for India’s opposition Bharatiya Janata party mixes entrepreneurs and veterans from the technology industry, rather than individuals with experience of electioneering alone.

Rajesh Jain, working on electoral technology, is well known in the industry since setting up successful businesses in online news and digital marketing. These include IndiaWorld Communications, a collection of websites which was bought in 1999 by Satyam Infoway, then India’s largest internet service provider.

He has the archetypal curriculum vitae, with a degree from one of the eminent Indian institutes of technology followed by a master’s degree from Columbia University in New York.

Arvind Gupta, who heads the BJP’s IT and social media cell, has a remarkably similar educational background - with an added stint in Silicon Valley to his name.

At the last count, the party had recruited more than 2m volunteers, who are organised online and will provide support in different ways. But there is also a younger generation of advocates who have given up good jobs to join the digital effort. Citizens for Accountable Governance is a non-profit youth organisation co-ordinating nationwide “tea parties” ahead of this year’s national election, where Narendra Modi, the party’s prime ministerial candidate, interacts with audiences at tea stalls via video link.

About 100 young professionals lead the operation and all come with impressive credentials, including jobs at prominent global consulting groups such as McKinsey, and banks such as JPMorgan.

Beyond that, Mr Modi has had a team working for him personally since he took over as chief minister of Gujarat more than a decade ago.

It is a discreet IT set-up that still functions independently of the party’s operations.

ASPI-CIS Partnership


Donate to support our works.


In Flux: a technology and policy podcast by the Centre for Internet and Society