Next week, Ravi Singh, the 35-year-old Indian American who has managed the online campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, will be in Delhi to give yet another push to get Indian politicians on the web. “I will be able to give you some names next week,” he says over the phone, en route to Europe, adding “there’s a lot of interest from politicians in Bangalore to move their campaign to the Internet. Many of them are young, have BlackBerrys and understand that it’s time Indian politicos used these tools.”
Singh, who ran 634 online campaigns in the recently concluded American elections, set up a $2 million research and development lab in Delhi last year. But the going hasn’t been easy, he says. “There is no conflict of interest in sharing the same technology. In America, both the Democrats and Republicans understand that.” What he is having to contend with here is somewhat different. In short, tradition and mindset.
Ravi Singh is not the only one. In 1991, Achal Paul, an advertising professional with Megacorp had handled the Congress election campaign — the first time in Indian elections that a child was used in an ad campaign. “Rajiv Gandhi was actively involved in that. I cast my daughter as the child holding a doll upside down,” says Paul, “and we ran a text, ‘Chacha, have you found a job?’ It was Mr Gandhi’s suggestion that we use handwriting to ask this question with spelling errors, rather than a cold typeface to reflect a child’s point of view…Rajiv Gandhi was ahead of his time. Young turks in the Congress may now understand the need to move ahead with technology, but unlike Rajiv they are not the ones taking the call — a lot of dead wood like Arjun Singh are.”
Indian politicians, feels Singh, are coy of technology and cautious. “They are not trailblazers. They would rather follow what the party tells them.” Indian Idol, argues Singh, has phone-ins, a website, “Why not engage politicians in the same way? The Internet is a boon for Independents. See how it gave a chance to underdogs like Barack Hussein Obama, especially with a name like that in America.”
There is however a problem in India’s limited Internet access. So who will e-campaigns target? “Indian politicians don’t know how to get a return on votes. A web campaign is not just about receiving and texting messages. Moreover, the Indian countryside is changing. My feeling is that web campaigns will soon be people driven. Indian politicians will be pushed to it because people will demand it of them.”