Next to the Gavi Gangadhara Temple in a traditional south Bangalore neighbourhood, hundreds of Congress party workers waved flags and loudspeakers attached to an auto-rickshaw blared announcements. The Congress candidate for the Bangalore South Lok Sabha seat, Krishna Byre Gowda, was on his way there. And soon enough, Gowda, a two-time Karnataka state lawmaker, arrived on the scene, straining under the weight of garlands.
Almost at the same time, real-time social messaging website Twitter registered an update that read: "Krishna is on his way over to the Gavi Gangadhara temple."
"Methods of campaigning are constantly involving and cannot be static," says Gowda, 36, who has a masters degree in international affairs from American University, Washington, DC. "I have two kinds of voter categories to cater to—those with access to the Internet and those without. The strategy just has to be two-pronged."
Gowda’s team of 15 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 25 years update his Facebook, Orkut and Twitter profiles every couple of hours. But while the Congress party’s presence on the Internet and mobile airwaves seems restricted to Net-savvy politicians such as Gowda and south Mumbai contestant Milind Deora, the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has gone all out in a countrywide mobile and Internet campaign to promote its prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani, other contestants and the party’s ideology.
The party sends four text messages to mobile users across the country every day and has stepped up the onslaught in tech-savvy states. In Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa, mobile users receive auto-dialler calls that play recorded voice messages from candidates when a call is answered.
If you walk into a shopping mall in Mumbai or Bangalore with your Bluetooth reception turned on, don’t be surprised if you receive a request to download a message from the BJP. The party has now strategically placed Bluetooth pushers in high footfall areas such as malls, so people can download messages, pictures and caller tunes from the BJP on their mobile phones.
"We are positioned in 15 areas like malls and areas like Nariman Point in Mumbai, and send out up to 15 lakh messages in a day," says Vinit Goenka, convenor of the BJP’s information technology (IT) cell in Maharashtra. Mobile solutions provider TELiBrahma Convergent Communications Pvt. Ltd says it has started pushing Bluetooth downloads, or bluecasting, for the BJP in Delhi and Mumbai as a pilot project.
The company is talking to numerous parties such as the Congress, the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Akali Dal, and independents such as G.R. Gopinath, Bangalore-based founder of erstwhile low-cost airline Air Deccan, to bluecast local language party manifestos, profiles and messages of candidates.
"We plan to air the messages across 100 urban, semi-urban and rural locations in the country and expect at least 1 million people to download (them)," says Suresh Narasimha, chief executive of TELiBrahma, which runs about 10 Bluetooth-based mobile advertising campaigns for several brands every month in popular malls and shopping areas.
"It is not that political parties are using technology for the sake of using it," says Narasimha, who was surprised with the knowledge that political parties and candidates have on the use and applicability of technology. "We never knew that we will get into so many arguments or we will have to answer so many questions about applicability of the media."
Narasimha thinks that with a few more elections, Indian poll campaigning, which already uses short-messaging service, interactive voice response, emails, blogs and social networking sites, will be on par —technology-wise—with those in the West.
The BJP recently organized a bloggers’ meet in Mumbai where bloggers interacted with party leaders. In Goa, the party’s IT cell has gone the extra mile by making a mention of a short code in all its advertisements calling supporters of the party to register by texting "JOIN" to 56010.
The independent candidate from south Mumbai, Meera Sanyal, has also positioned a short code across her online campaigns to get an idea of the extent of her support. Those who register with Sanyal on 560700 get regular updates on her events for the day and where voters can meet her in person.
BuzzGain, a company that has been tracking traffic and monitoring Web pages, points out that the active campaigning is creating an increased amount of traffic to political websites, with the more popular ones such as Advani’s website registering up to 25,000 hits every day.
"In fact, a state like Gujarat, which accounts for just around the 2% of the 52 million Internet users in India in usual times, has shot up to 6% in the past month, with users registering several election-related searches on Google" says Mukund Mohan, CEO of BuzzGain.
But he quickly adds that although several users are logging on to Advani’s website, he is still not the most talked about candidate on blogs and Twitter feeds.
"Rahul Gandhi and P. Chidambaram (both Congress politicians) feature amongst the most mentioned names in various blogs," says Mohan. And that is a point that should be noted, he believes, because India at the moment has 1.2 million bloggers, of which close to 70% have made a mention or have been talking about the general election and associated candidates.
"India still has a long way to go as far as online campaigning is concerned," says Mohan, who also designs the online publicity campaigns for several IT companies and is open to doing so as well for political parties just like ElectionMall Inc. did for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. "We have had a few parties approaching us to handle their online presence, but they want us to do it free of cost," he adds.
With 43 million first-time voters in this general election, campaign coordinator for non-profit Jaago Re One Billion Votes, Jasmine Shah says, "Just 30% of the urban youth have registered to vote and this kind of active online information will make that number grow."
Poornima Mohandas contributed to this story.