As India seeks to emerge upfront in today's knowledge economy, the national elections will give its verdict on whether information technology can help politicians reach out to their vote banks, as US President Barack Omaba did last year.
And Dataquest magazine, in its cover story on this aspect in its upcoming issue, feels it is the growing realisation of the power of IT that prompted the two main political parties the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress to give significant importance to it in their manifestoes.
The BJP, for one, found a differentiator in IT, besides Ram, to woo voters. The party is leveraging its IT-savvy image, firmed up five years back when it led the ruling coalition in New Delhi - to reach out to the younger electorate. This time, BJP's also had a separate IT vision document "Transforming Bharat" and it was the first time any major political party made a statement of achieving its developmental goals through IT, says the analysis in the magazine, the flagship of CyberMedia.
The promises include a bank account for all Indians, a smart phone for every family below poverty line, broadband facilities in every village and Internet education in each school - all with a level of detail, almost like a blueprint.
BJP also promises 12 million more jobs across sectors, including employment opportunities in rural outsourcing and content creation in local languages. The e-education agenda assures 10 million laptops for students with a price tag of Rs.10,000, with at least 2 GB RAM. Making broadband available has an additional promise of redefining its minimum speed from 256 Kbps to 2 Mbps with 1:1 contention ratio.
But Dataquest finds the document silent on India's business process outsourcing services exports, an industry whose direct and indirect impact on Indian economy has been acknowledged by all. The other significant miss is its silence on research and development, as well as intellectual capital creation.
This apart, while BJP has a stimulus package for driving India's economy in the next phase of growth, it is not fully endorsed by the larger National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Therefore, developmental goals such as low cost computers and telecom will not have too many hurdles to implement. But when it comes to issues like 1-800 numbers to contact MPs, or even implementation of a national identity system, it is bound to see new discussion, says Dataquest.
Dataquest also says that the manifesto of the Congress does not talk in detail of IT or its role in the development process. But it does mention national citizen identity cards, setting up of several new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIITs) and upgrade of polytechnics and similar institutes through public-private partnership. It also talks of using IT to strengthen local self-government institutions, like the panchayats.
Yet, to give the Congress it due, the Indian IT industry reached its zenith with a few nudges and a largely hands-off approach by the various Congress governments from early 1980s onwards, says the magazine. Former Congress prime minister Rajiv Gandhi ushered in the IT Policy, the Software Policy of 1986 and its later governments the National Telecom Policy.
However, the current Congress-led UPA government will leave behind an unfinished IT agenda including 3G spectrum policy, semiconductor policy and e-governance, even as e-governance has had a lot of traction and the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) has missed a number of deadlines.
The future of software technology parks scheme, set to expire in March 2010, is not clear. The government has been successful in pushing the private partnership model in various facets of governance quite well. But hardware manufacturing did not achieve much, with the government conveniently ignoring the industry's long-standing demand of bringing down the countervailing duty.
This apart, the Information Technology Act, introduced in 2000, never got the teeth it needed despite it being amended twice. And the Semiconductor Policy of March 2007 was expected to attract an investment of Rs.24,000 crore ($4.8 billion) by 2010, but has received lukewarm response.
The question, therefore, is: Will Indian politicians be able to leverage IT to reach out to their vote banks like Obama? New technologies like the Internet, mobile telephony, CD-ROMs and electronic kiosks, have brought about a tremendous change in the way politics is conducted in developed countries, says Dataquest.
Factoring the lag in the adoption of technologies between the West and India, there is a fairly good chance that IT would play a significant role in Indian politics as well, it concludes.
The BJP has a head start with a bi-lingual web portal of its prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani. But the question is whether average Indians who do not get even electricity for the greater part of their waking hours, and have low levels of literacy, use any IT tool.
Moreover, the lack of direct correlation between use of IT and winning elections has made its adoption in the Indian context slow, says the magazine.
On the other hand, there are success stories like ITC's e-Choupal project, Karnataka's Bhoomi project, and hundreds of other e-governance projects, where the end-user and beneficiary has been the nameless and faceless Indian.
This should be proof enough that IT can connect masses as the Internet moves from mere web-based services to the bulletin boards, mailing lists, and now the mobile.