SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Election 2.0 – Behind the hype

LImited Reach: The youth turnout has been lower than expected this time.

LImited Reach: The youth turnout has been lower than expected this time.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Arunangsu roy chowdhury

ANANTH KRISHNAN

Blogs and social networking have become part of the public vocabulary, particularly in the context of elections, this year. How influential are they in real life? Do blogs present attractive business models? Our writers take a look...

Where the Internet can make a difference is in starting a long-overdue discussion to engage young apathetic Indians to the political process.

Blogs are still new to the Indian political discourse, which is defined and dominated by print media and television.





The media, always looking for easy catchphrases to capture usually complex trends, have dubbed this election “Election 2.0” — the first Indian election where the Internet would seemingly play a defining role. This election campaign has seen political parties across the board take to cyberspace in different ways — almost every national party launched new websites for this campaign, political leaders for the first time started blogs to communicate with voters and some candidates opened Facebook pages to appeal to young, urban voters.

Have these online campaigns made much impact this election? If voter turnouts in Mumbai and Bangalore — two cities with demographics most likely to be impacted by the Internet — are anything to go by, the answer is a resounding no. In Bangalore, the home of the much-celebrated Jaago Re campaign which sought to register young voters online, the turnout barely touched 50 per cent. Mumbai was even worse, with a turnout of 43 per cent — even lower than 2004 — in spite of a number of high-profile awareness campaigns, and only five months after the November 26 terror attacks that stirred Mumbai’s elite.

It is plainly obvious that the media in India grossly exaggerated the short-term impact of the Internet, in part because it made a good story for an urban middle-class audience. The United States election demonstrated how the Internet and social networking sites like Facebook can be useful tools in organising grassroots political campaigns. Barack Obama’s brilliantly-organised Presidential campaign raised millions of dollars through online fund-raising and also brought in thousands of young Americans into the political process for the first time. And if Obama could, so could we — or so went the flawed logic.

There are important differences in context, particularly demographically, that are usually ignored in the conversation about the Internet’s potential in Indian politics. The Internet is an effective way to reach out to urban middle-class voters, and within this demographic, especially younger voters. In the scheme of Indian politics, we are talking about a relatively small constituency here — and one with a history of abysmal political engagement.



A case study

Nevertheless, this election provided an interesting test for this new medium of mobilisation, even within this small demographic. The Milind Deora campaign in South Mumbai, India’s most elite constituency, is an interesting case study. The Congress MP’s campaign had a three-pronged strategy to reach young voters: first, for the poorer sections of the electorate, through the traditional forms of mobilisation through the party machinery, through rallies and on-the-street functions; second, through college recruitment drives and campus visits, and third — and a new addition to his usual campaign strategy — through the Internet.

Besides a new website and blog launched for this campaign, Deora used social networking sites Orkut and Facebook to enlist volunteers who would help with his campaign by going door-to-door. His campaign received a lot of publicity in Mumbai (the launch of his Facebook page made front-page news in every Mumbai newspaper). “We are going to see a lot of young first-time voters this election, more so than ever before,” Deora, who is 32, said in an interview before Mumbai went to vote. “So it is important to find new ways to reach out to them. There is also a lot of interest in urban middle class youth as well, which is a very healthy sign that more people are getting registered to vote and getting involved in the political process.”

Deora in the interview agreed with the narrative that the urban middle class had “woken up” after 26/11 and would play a defining role in the electoral race in his constituency. But the voting on April 30 showed they were still fast-asleep. Mumbai-based political analyst B. Venkatesh Kumar says the reason online campaigning made little impact here was it did not address the issue at the heart of middle-class apathy — middle-class India’s disengagement with politics and failure to relate with the issues at the heart of India’s political discourse. In other words, asking someone to simply go out and “vote for change” makes little sense when the voter in question is in the first place either completely uninterested, or worse, unaware of the political process to relate to any “change”.

Rajesh Jain, the founder of the Friends of BJP, a group of young professionals who have used the Internet in a big way to rally young voters, agrees. “There is no question that we’ve exaggerated the short-term impact of the Internet,” he says. “We’re missing the point. What is really important is we’ve taken the first steps to start a two-way dialogue with people, and given people a voice they otherwise wouldn’t have.”



Long-term prospects

Perhaps here’s where the Internet can make a difference. While focusing on the short-term potential of the medium to mobilise urban voters, we are ignoring its other strengths – chiefly, providing a platform for discussion and debate that can engage apathetic young voters in a way no other medium can. The Friends of BJP blog, Jain says, has had over 50,000 visitors and receives 100 comments a day, reflecting the demand in cyberspace for such platforms.

Blogs are still new to the Indian political discourse, which is defined and dominated by print media and television. India is still waiting for its Drudge Report — the hugely popular blog in the U.S. that started out as a group email sent by one man to his friends but grew to become one of the most influential conservative voices in U.S. politics. Social networking sites too, in less obvious ways, can initiate the two-way dialogue Jain refers too. Signs are that is slowly beginning, with a proliferation of politics-oriented groups on Facebook and Orkut, users pinging Op-ed articles to each other with increasing vigour and airing their political grievances in “notes” and “status messages”. We may still be far away from “Election 2.0” — and in India’s context we may never get there — but as Internet penetration grows, and the debate grows louder, it can only be good for Indian politics.



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