Can Politics and Technology Mix?

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By now, the words ‘Shashi Tharoor’ and ‘Twitter’ seem to have become synonymous with each other. As news media goes into frenzy every time the Minister of External Affairs posts something newly controversial on his Twitter account, his party has a visibly less enthusiastic reaction and scrambles to cover up the latest political faux pas. Even as Tharoor tweets away and Congress sweats bullets, there is a larger issue that is brought into light- how Indian politicians are adapting to a country that now wants roti, kapada, makaan and mobile.

As India entered another decade with the advent of 2010, it seemed different…more empowered, more connected. Not surprising, considering the number of mobile and internet users had increased from 26 million (in 2004) to 365 million and from 16 million to 80 million respectively. This boom could also be explained by the fact that more than half of the Indian population is below 25 years of age and that technology has become the vehicle through which most of them can express an opinion or interact with one another. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for politicians to pounce.

Strangely the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) thought the same. Allotting almost 5-10% of their funding for web and mobile campaigning, the party set out to woo the nation’s youngsters in the 2009 general elections. Suddenly, the BJP morphed from what was largely considered an idealistic and ‘old’ party to one that was accessible and very much ‘with the times’.  Suddenly, one couldn’t google anything without L.K.Advani popping up on the screen declaring that he was the best man for the job-he had search ads for as many as 2,00,000 keywords. There was no accessing Orkut or Facebook without the prime ministerial candidate making yet another appearance, yet another plea.

To give them credit, the party really went whole hogs at the web campaign. Advaniji even started a blog and the forum on his website (which, ironically-or significantly so- was separate from the official BJP site) had a healthy 6586 members and a host of topics and posts. He even began an [email protected] forum to recruit supporters for his cause. They weren’t far behind in the mobile campaigning either. During the campaign, the party reportedly sent out almost 1 billion text messages to around 250 million users. Of course, the campaign failed magnificently as it focused more on one man’s ambitions than issues concerning the country but it was an admirable effort-one that possibly showed us a glimpse of the future of Indian campaign.

Or maybe not. The truth is, an overwhelming majority of the politicians in the country consider giving a few minutes of their time to the web a waste. It is possible that the accessibility and freedom of the medium frightens them. Its puts them out in the open for public assessment, something many of them might not be ready for.  It allows the people who vote for them to ask them uncomfortable questions which, if ignored, could turn ugly keeping in mind the country’s news-hungry media.

Take the ruling party for instance. Even though the Youth Congress was led by the so-called ‘progressive’ Rahul Gandhi, their presence on the web was almost non-existent. Even their official website was not updated frequently, and was no more than just a party brochure. There was some mobile campaigning which involved sending out wallpapers, ringtones etc. of the party and they were prominently present on the television. But the party won, not because of its campaigning-which was nothing to boast about- but because the voters did not have any other choice.

There is an important lesson to take from all of this. Maybe not right now, but web campaigning is going to pay off in a few years for sure. India is only getting smaller in terms of connectivity and as 3G comes in and the internet become accessible on phones more easily, it is going to become a major communication medium. It may be true that most of the vote-banks are in the small towns and villages in the country but technology is spreading fast and one of its most charming qualities is that it is all-inclusive. It is time that politicians take stock of the trends and plan for the future accordingly. Shashi Tharoor has brought a new wave to Indian politics and with ministers like S.M.Krishna, who has a Twitter account, and younger politicos like Sachin Pilot, Priya Dutt and Milind Deora (all of whom have their own websites)showing the way forward, it might be interesting to see how our policy makers take to technology.

So can politicians and technology mix? The answer might be as elusive as ever. But just imagine the number of followers that Sonia Gandhi, Lalu Prasad Yadav or even Raj Thackeray would have if they decide to open a twitter account!

Prerna Vohra

[Image courtesy: http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/files/2009/04/advani-waves.jpg]

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