Indian parties go online to woo voters

India's political parties are embracing the Internet in a big way to woo voters for next year's national elections.

And the reason is simple: Tech-savvy young voters who are less inclined to attend rallies than their elders will make up the biggest chunk of voters. There will be 378.6 million voters in the 18-35 age range or close to 50 per cent out of a total voting population of 762 million, of whom 150 million will be first-time voters.

India's voting age is 18.

"This election is different. For the first time in India, the youth constitute a large chunk of voters. They are not the types who want to come for rallies and therefore as a political party we have to reach out to them," said Mrs Nirmala Sitaraman, spokesman for the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which is going out of its way to woo young voters.

So whereas in the past political parties were content to pay for news in newspapers that put them in a good light, they are now setting up their own campaign websites, starting YouTube channels and using crowdsourcing to publicise their campaigns.

The Delhi-based Aam Admi party has set up a YouTube channel to highlight its campaign activities even as it is looking at a more traditional medium of publicity: launching an eight-page newspaper.

BJP has launched a website called India 272+ Towards Majority, in a reference to the number of parliamentary seats it needs to win the elections. It is also using crowdsourcing to get feedback from people on its campaign.

The BJP website has blogs, daily updates and articles on the party and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.

"We are also into crowdsourcing, where through a particular URL, we are collecting inputs to prepare a charge sheet (list of charges) against the Congress," said Mrs Sitaraman, referring to the ruling Congress party.

For this project, BJP has a team of 35 volunteers, including a professor and an IT expert to compile the list of the Congress' failings.

Indeed, for this general election, the big national parties are coming up with more sophisticated strategies than before as a result of new technology available to them but also in response to challenges that such technology poses.

"The communication model is becoming stronger and they need the expertise of technology experts and communication experts," said Mr Asheesh Raina, principal research analyst at Gartner, an information technology research and advisory firm.

"Due to social media, the entire campaign has also become real-time. The lag is not there. If a criticism comes up (against one party), you will see an immediate response," he added.

At the same time, political parties are also harnessing the power of social media, said Uttar Pradesh-based political analyst Sudhir Panwar.

"If something happens in social media, it also becomes news in the electronic and print media. If Mr Modi tweets, it finds a place in a newspaper," he added.

A study released by Internet and Mobile Association of India in April this year said 160 of the 543 constituencies are "likely to be highly" influenced by social media". In another 67 wards, social media will have moderate impact.

The ruling Congress may find itself a little disadvantaged in cyberspace campaigning, given that its core voters are the rural and urban poor, many of whom have no access to the Internet.

Undeterred, however, the party is also taking the fight there. Next month, sources said, the party will launch a website and use crowdsourcing to get ideas from people for its election manifesto.

And it is holding almost three dozen workshops to teach party workers how to use Facebook and Twitter to highlight Congress' achievements and slam the opposition parties. The first workshop for 500 party workers and leaders was held on Sept 7, when active social networkers like government minister Shashi Tharoor were asked to speak.

The Congress-led government has also unveiled an ad campaign, worth around one billion rupees (S$20 million), highlighting the achievements of the government in the last nine years.

Clearly, parties are leaving no stones unturned to reach out to voters in what is expected to be a hotly contested election.

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