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On the cyber campaign trail

In the coming general election, Internet campaigning could prove decisive in determining the outcome

india Updated: Apr 07, 2009 22:37 IST

The campaign for the general election has gathered steam and the first phase is slated to begin next week. Direct campaigning is just picking up to reach the 700-million-plus voters, although much indirect campaigning has already happened—and will continue to happen. But what is different in the campaign trail this time is the greater presence of the cyberspace medium. The last general election saw the use of information communication technology (ICT) in campaigning for the first time; the most prominent medium used was SMS and the not-so-active website. At that time, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the dominant party in the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), took the lead in this. However, the response was not very encouraging and came up for criticism from party leaders after its defeat.

This time, political parties and many prospective leaders have already displayed redesigned and improved websites and blogs. The possibility of the parties using ICT this time is much more pronounced in the SMS, email and website forms. There is also the use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Orkut, not to mention the tremendous use of the video sharing site YouTube. Also, the occasional SMSes have already started doing the rounds—they will increase in frequency closer to the polls. So far, the contents are not derogatory and no negative campaigning has been witnessed in cyberspace. While expectations are that mostly the content will be positive, mud-slinging cannot be ruled out as campaigning intensifies.
The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, L.K. Advani, happens to be, by far, the most active politician in cyberspace. His website has been up for months, and he has covered most national issues with his viewpoints; he also has links for alerts on breaking news, and the site is updated very frequently.
The revamped website of the BJP has put up the manifesto and a separate information technology vision. The Congress, not to be left behind, has also put up a redesigned website, with a lot of new content such as the achievements of the United Progressive Alliance government. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is the only Left party which has a Web presence. Its website dwells at length on various national issues, primarily the economic ones. However, a number of regional parties have yet to take cyberspace campaigning more seriously.
There are various reasons for the more active usage of ICT in campaigns this time. Such technology has penetrated the country in the last five years. It appeals directly to young voters in the 18-35 age group, who constitute almost 60% of the 46 million or so Internet users in India. The Internet is influencing India’s urban belt and the campaigns cannot ignore it.
The experiences of a few other countries have also had an impact—the most prominent case being the last presidential elections in the US where the extensive use of cyberspace by both candidates and the wealth of information on the policies and the candidates’ track records made comparisons easy for the common voter. In hindsight, the more active online campaigner, US President Barack Obama, clearly gained an advantage through this. A recent study in Australia of the impact of online campaigns in voting showed that Web campaigning had a positive role in the success of a candidate.
While it will be interesting to see the extent of content being loaded in cyberspace related to the elections, it will not be possible for the Election Commission (EC) to monitor all such content, that would generally cater to the urban middle class. After all, efforts to globally regulate the content on the Internet have met with debatable success.
So far, EC has done a good job and it would be best for EC to sensitize candidates to regulating content in cyberspace. EC should only step in when the candidates refer to it cases of slander or harmful and abusive content, which, in any case, can be dealt with the now revised and stringent provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Similarly, derogatory emails and SMSes can be dealt with strictly through the provisions of existing laws. Likewise, EC should take strong notice of reports of email viruses being spread in the guise of campaign emails as such a trend has been seen in other parts of the world.
While it remains to be seen how much of an advantage political parties will have in using cyberspace, the fact remains that the medium cannot be ignored. That is why both the major parties have promised to do more to improve the reach of ICT if voted to power.
Subimal Bhattacharjee is country head in India for General Dynamics. These are his personal views.