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Reaping the benefits of Digital Age

Reaping the benefits of Digital Age
Highlights

Reaping the Benefits of Digital Age, The extra time she devotes is not to her office work or to send SMSes to her mobile friends; nor has her social circle enlarged with WhatsApp.

Ever since the election campaign began, my niece has added a few minutes to the time she spends on her smart phone. The extra time she devotes is not to her office work or to send SMSes to her mobile friends; nor has her social circle enlarged with WhatsApp. For reasons unknown to her, her cell phone has become a receiving centre for messages sent by different political parties. For the first few days, she read them diligently; but once the frequency of messages has turned into a torrent, she started deleting them as quickly as they arrive.

She is not the lonely target for political parties to bombard her with messages seeking her vote. Lakhs of young techies and office-goers whose aversion to politics and its practitioners is well known have been brought under an umbrella called cell phone campaigning. It costs less compared to traditional methods of road shows, public meetings, rallies, posters and banners and such other traditional ways of influencing and pulling voters to the polling booths.

Despite its limitations in reaching out to each and everybody, mobile phone as an instrument of motivating voters has succeeded where conventional ways have failed. Coupled with the spread of social media like YouTube, Twitter and WhatsApp, smart phones and Internet have changed the 2014 election complexion. It is more technical savvy than earlier polls and the electronic media is savoring it. So too is the public which has not seen such an explosion of views and news, instantly brought into the viewers’ homes. Even the last general election in 2009 was relatively quiet. In a short span of five years, there is new churning and a new awakening, thanks to the info overload.

One reason is the young generation’s penchant for electronic gadgets and their ever increasing thirst for new applications that are usually associated with the users’ technical savvies. More importantly, use and non-use of social media defines the generational gap and draws a line between the two. Like haves and have-nots in the world, the digital divide between traditionalists and modernists is marked by their approach to capture a significant segment of new and young voters.

A look at the YouTube Election Hub will illustrate this: Congress, BJP and BSP have their sites, obviously launched with high hopes of making their presence felt in the cyber world. Congress has clips –that are also featured in TV ads – stressing development, equality and social justice while the BJP site opens with a message from the party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. The monologue is brief, the script is crisp and its delivery is cinematic. No surprise, the number of visitors to see a beaming Modi in cyber avatar runs into lakhs, leaving Congress supporters gasping.

When it comes to utilisation of social media to project Modi as The Leader, no other party comes anywhere near BJP and the way it is going about tapping the new technologies to the hilt has prompted The Washington Post to say that the Indian political parties are pursuing US-style campaign strategies. According to Post, Modi has 3.66 million followers on Twitter and has drawn more than a million volunteers to his campaign. Some of his followers run war rooms in three cities, with social media and speech writing teams fine-tuning his message for specific groups.

Modi’s efforts to occupy the prime ministerial chair cover only one third of the total population. The rest lives in villages without the knowledge of Twitter or micro-blogging and with little access to the Internet. This is the area where parties with support at grassroots level and deploy the time-tested methods of personal contact score.

Nevertheless, with high penetration of cell phones, the scene is changing and messages like those my niece gets may leave an impact on the voters. But the Net users get maximum exposure with dozens of official sites and thousands of blogs satisfying the surfers’ hunger for info on 2014 elections. For instance, Go Vote, India! where Bollywood biggies and beauties implore surfers to “Pledge to vote with India.” The pack is led by none other than the tinsel world’s Shahenshah Amitabh Bachchan.

Others such as “Empowering India” want the visitors to the site to make democracy meaningful, while “I for India.org” seeks “one vote for a better India.” There is, of course, the official site of the Election Commission of India where one could get all the information about the 2014 parliamentary polls.

What is missing is candidates’ own web sites where they could post everything about themselves. In a nutshell, why do they want to stand as a candidate? Do they believe in their party manifestos? What are their educational and professional qualifications and public service record? Do they have any criminal cases pending against them? What are their assets and liabilities? If they were already sitting members of a legislature, their property details and direct and indirect business interests, etc. Going online is transparency. How many members of the political class are prepared to do it?

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