New Delhi: Campaigns that are aimed at goading reluctant Indian voters to exercise their fundamental right are increasingly gaining in popularity, giving rise to hope that the turnout in this general election could see a significant rise from the 58% recorded in the 2004 polls.
Such well-organized campaigns are focusing largely on new voters. In the past five years, the number of voters has risen by 43 million to 714 million from 671 million.
Some such prominent campaigns are Jaago Re! (wake up), Lead India, VoteIndia, Let’s Vote, as well as a voter awareness campaign by the Association for Democratic Reforms, or ADR, a non-governmental organization (NGO).
The ADR campaign, "Sachche ko Chune, Achche ko Chune" (vote for the honest, vote for good people), was launched earlier this month. The campaign, which comprises three ad films, print advertisements, Internet and mobile phone messages, is being supported by actor Aamir Khan. The ads have been made by the actor’s production company, Aamir Khan Productions Pvt. Ltd, free of cost.
"ADR is attempting to get the youth involved as much as possible. Most of our volunteers are youngsters," says Jagdeep Chhokar, a founder-member of ADR. "Aamir Khan himself offered to do that campaign, and we gladly accepted it. Now these films are being aired on all TV channels and FM radio stations. They were all, in fact, made free of cost. The Election Commission also has them on its website...the idea is to influence people to come and vote, and vote intelligently and carefully."
"We also have an SMS campaign where you can send in a text with your zip code and you would get the latest information about your constituency—the candidate, etc... All this is also being provided free of cost by all service providers...these are our sustained initiatives till elections get over."
Another campaign gaining in popularity is Jaago Re! One Billion Votes, which claims to be "a non-profit, non-partisan campaign". One of the first campaigns to be launched, Jaago Re! is unique because it marks the coming together of an NGO and a corporate house—Janaagraha and Tata Tea Ltd.
Launched in September, before the six assembly elections late last year, the campaign facilitates voter registration apart from spreading awareness through its ad films splashed across TV channels.
For Janaagraha, the idea came up when it decided to check the voters’ list at a constituency in Bangalore and found an error rate of up to 60%. It then decided to take up the issue of voter registration, with special emphasis on youth.
"Only 9% of the total youth population voted in the 2004 election... We thought this was a dangerous trend and tried to look at ways of reversing it," says Swati Ramanathan, co-founder of Janaagraha.
"The youth have two basic concerns about voting. One, that all politicians are the same and they do not know whom to vote for. Two, they find the entire process of registration difficult and opaque. We decided to start with the latter and make it simple and convenient for the youth to register."
"However, we realized that we would need a lot of investment in order to do this and, hence, we would need a corporate tie-up...we wanted them (Tata Tea) to look at it not as CSR (corporate social responsibility) but as a branding strategy around a social cause, and after Tata Tea’s first such advertisement (where a young person asks the politician seeking his vote for his qualifications), we thought it would need a follow-up," says Ramanathan.
"It has turned out to be a win-win exercise for both of us... We have around 550,000 people (involved)." She adds that 30% of the people visiting the website end up registering.
Says Sushant Dash, head of marketing at Tata Tea: "The campaign was conceived in 2007, and it is a Tata Tea brand initiative. We did the politician spin (what is your qualification?) and the punchline (don’t just wake up, but awaken). The campaign was done to make the Tata Tea brand move away from the physical and mental rejuvenation space to a social awakening space. In 2008, we wanted to take our campaign one step forward, wherein we wanted to facilitate the process of awakening. We tied up with Janaagraha for the same and launched the JaagoRe! One Billion Votes campaign."
The Lead India campaign by Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd, which publishes The Times of India and The Economic Times, comprises a website and a short film that is aired on TV channels as well as in movie theatres. The film shows a number of people taking a vow to vote this year against all injustices and corruption.
Apart from these national campaigns, several local level initiatives are also making an impact.
The Let’s Vote campaign was launched in December by a group of people in Hyderabad. The campaign, organized by The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), Hyderabad chapter, was aimed at raising awareness among citizens to realize how important it is for each one of them to vote. It was supported by businessmen, professionals and citizens from other walks of life.
VoteIndia.in is another such campaign that seeks to make citizens aware of the urgent need for reforms in our current political system and emphasizes the need to come out and vote.
Some of these campaigns are also trying to reach out to voters through social networking sites such as Orkut and Facebook as well as Twitter by establishing their presence on these websites.
Is such a large number of sustained campaigns to sensitize voters unique to this election?
"There are certainly more campaigns this time, and I attribute it to largely two reasons. One, people have become more aware and sensitive to elections and politics. Two, what happened in Mumbai in November last year has made people more sensitive to the situation in the country. I would like to believe these campaigns have an impact," says ADR’s Chhokar.
Agrees Ramanathan of Janaagraha. "I think the kind of activity we are seeing this time is amazing...the moment is ripe, and we are seeing how we can push everyone to vote and make the right choice."
Some experts, however, don’t think such campaigns can make any significant difference to voter turnout.
"This is not the first time (that such campaigns are being run). In fact, we saw them in the last election as well as the previous one. However, the difference is that this time, it is more organized and these campaigns are being run more systematically," says N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman, Centre for Media Studies, or CMS.
"These campaigns are not only about asking people to vote but also about telling the voter not to accept money or liquor from candidates or not to be lured by manifesto promises... However, they (such campaigns) don’t really lead to a significant difference in the voter turnout...the youth are being targeted because their number has increased. There has been a demographic transition and, hence, everyone is concerned about the youth now. It is a natural phenomenon," adds Rao.