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November 30, 2000

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DECEMBER 3, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 48 The Indian e-lections
As the campaign trail and the information superhighway collide, India's politicians navigate a new path to voters

On the 52nd anniversary of Indian Independence last August, a local daily published a cartoon about Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of southern Andhra Pradesh state and the country's top technocratic modernizer. He was shown sitting at home, finger on the keyboard of his laptop, hoisting the national flag through remote control. The image captured the dynamism of Naidu, 49, the chief minister who would rather be known as the CEO of his state. But the cartoon also symbolized a new fusion between politics and information technology in the world's largest democracy.

The trend was not lost on politicians campaigning in the recent national elections. There was, of course, no dearth of the usual campaign color on the streets. But what made these elections different was that millions of Indians participated in live Internet chats with politicians. As virtually every major party had a website, voters were able to grill candidates on issues ranging from sanitation to the fiscal deficit.

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Among the contestants who benefited from the "netmania," as one newspaper described the new interface between politics and the Web, was Sahib Singh Verma. A former chief minister of New Delhi from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Verma is credited with being the first politician to launch a personal website during the race. His electoral victory confounded critics who predicted that his largely rural constituency would be unmoved by an online campaign. Verma attributes his victory partly to the fact that the kind of spontaneous interaction that is possible over the Internet just does not occur during rallies or even door-to-door campaigning. But Verma benefited in another way from the online interaction with voters. As he puts it: "I think the message that went across was that here is a candidate who believes in high technology."

Victorious like Verma, Naidu won the assembly elections in predominantly rural Andhra Pradesh. What's more, he was the only incumbent chief minister to be returned in the several states that went to the polls. Naidu's victory is even more baffling than Verma's because he had been slashing government subsidies across the board in such staples as rice, irrigation water and power. Commentators are unanimous that Naidu's Telugu Desam party, which is an ally of the BJP in the federal government, returned to power because of his high-tech image and his achievements. Naidu regularly holds videoconferences with officials across his state and is a ceaseless promoter of computer-related investments in the state capital of Hyderabad, which has been nicknamed "Cyberabad."

Others are not so enthusiastic about India's small but growing segment of logged-on voters. "I switched off and stopped going for [Internet] chat-shows half-way through the elections," says Jairam Ramesh, a spokesman for the Congress Party. "There is a lot of pizzazz in this medium but you certainly don't reach voters through net campaigns."

That's not what the BJP found. During the 1998 elections, the party was forced to shut down its site after it was flooded with hate mail. It was reaching voters all right, but not in the way it wanted. This time around the party launched its campaign in April, immediately after losing a parliamentary vote of confidence. It entrusted the task of building its high-tech image to a team of computer whiz kids, election consultants, market researchers and advertisers. For a start, the old website was vastly improved by adding attractive screen-savers emblazoned with patriotic messages about India's victory against Pakistan in Kargil, plus chat sites and real-time campaign speeches. Voters could see and hear senior BJP leaders on audio/video attachments as well as download their pictures.

The new features, say the BJP's image-makers, helped create the "feel-good" factor, which, aided by a stable economy, also drove up stock markets during the election period. This feel-good approach was targeted at undecided voters -- mostly young, English-speaking urbanites. They tend to support no party in particular, but they play a vital role in forming Indian public opinion, which reaches the masses through the vernacular press or by word of mouth.

Kanchan Gupta, a BJP media adviser, estimates the BJP site got 5 million hits during the campaign, two-thirds of them from within the country. "The personal interface was a wonderful thing," he says. The BJP still failed to improve its 182-seat mark from the previous polls. But Gupta reckons the online electioneering boosted the party's image. And in India's fiercely competitive political arena, ultimately that can be enough to spell victory or defeat.

With reporting by Ritu Sarin/New Delhi

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