In the 1990s or the early 2000s, political campaigning meant speeches that promised the earth (or sometimes just roti-kapda-makaan) and hard-copy manifestos that were unveiled early in the game. Technology was not a buzzword and the only tryst with it was through interviews in the electronic media and the occasional televised ad campaign. This was the age when the Internet had not taken over our lives, and terms like ‘social media analysis’ or ‘Google trends’ or ‘big data’ were unknown concepts when it came to elections.
It all changed in 2008, with the Obama campaign, when the extent of the possibilities was revealed. We saw a lot more at home, during the 2014 general election that catapulted Narendra Modi to power, convincing us that technology and the professionals who understood it were valuable resources. Then in the 2016 American election that saw Donald Trump win the American presidency, we knew that it was king. A multitude of tech startups and firms employing a mix of big data, analysis and research from the ground, delivered political success.
Enter the political tech startup
These are relatively new in the technology space, especially in India, and they cover things from both ends: the politician’s and the voters’. Preet Chandhoke, the founder of Ludhiana-based 01Synergy, is involved in creating apps that make the voting process less cumbersome and ensure that the general public is aware of the candidates in an election. He explains, “We developed the RONet suite of web and mobile apps for all stakeholders involved in the election process. This would help them monitor the assigned tasks at all levels for the smooth conduct of elections. We also developed ECI360 for the general public — which comprises signed and sworn affidavits of the contesting candidates, a list of rejected candidates, the final list of candidates, pickup requests for voters with disability, queue status (people waiting in line to cast votes), real-time poll booth-wise polling percentage, grievance redressal, and the results. The candidate app of ECI360 allows them to request permissions for rallies and is also mapped with redressal systems, which ensures that all the issues are sorted at the earliest.”
The company collects and collates the data made available by the State Election Commissioners. He adds, “We put it in the public domain so voters can learn about the candidates and their education, businesses and criminal history before deciding who to cast their vote for. The Internet and the information available at the click of a button make our elected representatives more accountable. I think the use of social media and technology tools makes the candidates answerable.” If 01Synergy is focussing on making data available to all participants in the political process, Delhi-based Political Edge is involved in the space of political consulting and providing political parties data to aid them in beating the anti-incumbency factor. Saurabh Vyas, one of the founders, points out, “We have been in the political consulting space since 2006. We started with conducting field research and preparing reports, before moving into the online space. We use multiple tools, such as constituency manager, e-VAL which provides a connect between the political leader and his constituents. It allows constituents to send SMSes and emails directly to those holding political office. We are also working on creating tools that will help organisations at the grassroot level get an online imprint.”
Additionally, the startup provides tools that help track the most active volunteers online. “We use the data from Facebook and Twitter to pinpoint the most avid supporters of various political leaders. It is used both in urban and rural areas. The assimilation of data ensures that development issues can be addressed very easily.”
However, Vyas does offer a word of caution. “To win an election, you need people on the ground and need the political leaders to be more accessible. People are more aware. The best technology can help pinpoint problem areas only.” Naman Pugalia is one of the co-founders of FourthLion Technologies, a company that conducts online surveys, and used a slew of tech tools in Nandan Nilekani’s political campaign for the Bengaluru South Lok Sabha seat in 2014.
They created tools that would help analyse the demographics of the wards in the constituency, the basic issues the people faced, and their expectations from the candidates, and created apps that allowed voters to get information about their polling stations online. He feels that political technology tools are yet to come of age. “It was very interesting, but political technology is still in the early stages in India. In the US, almost all data about the user is available in the public domain, from their voting preferences to their voting behaviour. That is not available in India yet. All the data is restricted to the booth level. Technology has helped in bringing the leaders closer to the public, and sending out a message, but for tangible change, a lot more needs to be done. I am optimistic that it will happen in the long run.”
Are these tools changing the way politics is practised in India? Policy wonk Nitin Pai weighs in, “Technology and its use is the new buzzword in Indian politics. It has ensured that Indian politics runs on steroids. I feel that from the viewpoint of the voters, technology does not help much. Most political startups use technology and the huge volumes of data to help political leaders focus on primary issues at the booth level. Most of them can help political leaders win an election, but it is yet to be seen how it changes things on the ground.”