Obama’s leverage of technology was key to his bagging the Democratic nomination and the presidency. His campaign coordinated ward-by-ward efforts of volunteers to reach millions of first-time voters. Both the 2000 and 2004 US elections generated terabytes of cyber coverage. But the quality of new media coverage improved in US-2008.
Especially impressive was fivethirtyeight.com, a site devoted to statistical analysis of electoral trends. Fivethirtyeight (the number of votes in the US electoral college) accessed every opinion poll, linked to every major news report, modelled hundreds of alternative scenarios. It delivered predictions eerily close to the actual results.
Given that, one hoped the 15th Lok Sabha Elections would spark critical mass in Indian new media. India has enormous numbers of first-time voters. Many, especially in urban constituencies, are cyber-savvy, bloggers and users of social networks. India has over 350 million cellphone users, who can hit the mobile net or send/ receive SMS/MMS.
Unfortunately, none of the political parties has a clue about the utilisation of cyberspace and its strengths as a medium. Except for a handful of independents, no political entity put together a social network worth mentioning.
Search engine exploitation was pathetic. The BJP shot-gunned LK Advani into “contextual” ads for all India-specific content. It didn’t matter if you were looking for Yusuf Pathan, DV Paluskar, beef bhuna, rhino poaching, or kundalini yoga. You got LK Advani duly bundled with search results.
Every major political party put up a website of course. Most are designed by chaps who have just discovered flash and not yet learnt about the existence of site architecture. None are mobile-friendly. The standard-issue party site includes many mugshots of the supremo and other ranks, thumbnails of late icons, a manifesto and some quotes. The CPI-M is out of step; the website is sternly textual in its approach.
In contrast, the Election Commission website is as good as ever. There’s detailed data and statistics about candidates, constituencies, schedules, archives of previous results, FAQs, feedback mechanisms, etc. It’s also a very robust site mirrored solidly to handle massive traffic surges.
A review of citizen media is equally depressing. There are lots of rants and counter-rants. There’s little useful information and no coherent scenario-building whatsoever. This latter is understandably hobbled by restrictions on opinion polls.
One of the few exceptions to generally poor cyber-coverage is Vote Report India (http://votereport.in/). This uses an open-source platform and a collaborative model to aggregate information. It’s run by eMoksha and backed by a rainbow coalition of organisations like the Liberty Institute, National Network for India, Citizens for Justice and Peace, and Women’s Political Forum. The intention is to provide a platform for citizens to monitor and report news about elections and irregularities. It’s quite impressive in its use of communication channels, social networks, blogger tools, etc.
Why is the political establishment so determined to under-utilise new media? Part of the problem is that political decisions are made by the geriatric who simply don’t understand a key chunk of potential voters is comfortable with cyberspace.
Most dismiss new media as a fad that doesn’t affect the aam aadmi. The runaway success of Jaagore (http://jaagore.com/), which helped many voters to sign up and understand the processes of voting, suggests otherwise. So does the mass success of e-ticketing platforms, e-choupals and computerised municipal systems. But never mind.
The other problem is, cyberspace is cheap. Parties are structured in concentric circles around the feeding trough. A new media focus means lower spends. Hence, there’s little enthusiasm on the part of party workers who benefit from higher spends. So the new media disconnect may be just another disfunctionality arising from a generally disfunctional political system.