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360m voters are just a call away

Cut to 2009, when the number of cellphone subscribers has grown more than 10 times — to 360 million — offering political parties a massive new medium to communicate directly with voters, reports Kamayani Singh.
Hindustan Times | By Kamayani Singh, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAR 07, 2009 12:39 AM IST

In the last general election, Atal Behari Vajpayee didn't get his biggest audience addressing a rally from a podium — it came via cellphones, and a recorded appeal for votes from the then prime minister.

In 2004, the country had 35 million cellphone subscribers.

Cut to 2009, when the number has grown more than 10 times — to 360 million — offering political parties a massive new medium to communicate directly with voters.

This explosive growth, driven by a sharp drop in call rates and handset prices, is just one of the changes technology has wrought in the way the business of politics is done, especially in the countryside.

Radio has made a comeback too, with FM channels and direct-to-home (DTH) television generating new viewers and listeners in remote villages.

And while the ease of access is great, politicians must also deal with the growing awareness that goes with the increased exposure to news, views and analysis.

In a little village in Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, it was through their TV sets that residents learnt that the government could not just take their land to build a road or a plant.

When a local court rejected their plea against the acquisition of 900 acres of farmland by the government for a highway, they reached out over the phone to Inspector General of Prisons Kiran Bedi.

They discussed their predicament on a special, rural radio show and figured out how to file an appeal and claim compensation.

Brand consultant Santosh Sood said FM radio could work even better as a campaigning tool than cellphones, because it is a tested method and reaches the most remote areas.

"In urban areas, new technology like cellphones can prove effective with voters. Such campaigning could be tricky in rural India, though, because there's no saying how the rural population would respond to new media," he added.

The aspirations are different too," added Piyush Pandey, executive chairman of advertising giants Ogilvy India.

"Political parties will have to be innovative while using channels like cellphones and FM radio," he cautioned.

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