Data-crunched, digital-driven: A watershed election in more ways than one

By Saroj Mohanty 
New Delhi, May 14 (IANS): People in India and many around the globe would be waiting with bated breath for the actual results of the 2014 general election, the world's biggest voting event with 815 million registered voters, which got over this Monday. The election to the Lok Sabha, the House of People in the Indian Parliament, termed as the largest peacetime exercise in living history, has been exceptional in many ways.

The polls were held in nine phases over six long weeks after an exhaustive one and a half month of high-voltage campaigning that saw the emergence of a 150 million first time voters as a decisive demographic, who have grown up in the post-liberalisation India and whose expectations are starkly different from their parents' and grandparents' generations. 

Also, what made this election different was an unprecedented use of technology and media, and money power. According to one estimate, parties could have spent 30,500 crore rupees ($5 billion) in fighting the elections. This was three times the amount spent in the previous election, and the world's second highest after the $7 billion spent on the 2012 US presidential election. The growing money power as well as aggressive use of technology, according to Election Commissioner H S Brahma, are "creating a non-level playing field for candiadates".

However, the 2014 election will stand out and be remembered more as a watershed in the history of elections for the use of digital technology and the sophisticated data-driven analyses of voters and electoral strategy. While traditional campaigning dominated, online campaigns were the exciting new developments, which drew the attention especially of the young and the urban elite who have access to smart phones and the Internet. A full-fledged virtual war was fought over desktops, laptops, tablets and mobile phones.

Top political parties tapped into social media platforms and partnered with disruptive, homegrown startups for solving "the last mile" problem of connecting with millions of voters. According to a study by the Internent and Mobile Association of India and the independent Iris Knowledge Foundation the results in 150 constituencies would be determined by Facebook users.

Also, well-heeled candidates relied on data, analytics and technology to parse constituents' concerns and connect with them. For example, the Congress candidate for Bangalore South, Nandan Nilekani, launched the "Ideas for Bengaluru" to seek suggestions for the city's development on Twitter.

"What's really new in politics today is not the data itself but how campaigns make sense of it. Cheaper and more plentiful computing power allows campaigns to process far more information than ever before to look for patterns, trends and correlations, " says Ethan Rodder, data director of Obama for America. And Indian political parties appropriated Obama's much-lauded campaign methods and tactics in the electoral race.

This "Obamafication" of political campaigns was most prominent in the campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which made the election a quasi-presidential one. The campaign team of its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi adopted several aspects the of Obama tactics. As veteran journalist and educator Mark Danner has pointed out, during the Obama campaign people were asked take out their cell phones and text Obama, and that put senders' details into campaign data base. The idea was to enlist the enthusiasts as cell soldiers in the electoral contest. Simlarly, Team Modi launched the "missed call" campaign and the "India 272 " initiative, which resembled the Obama Dashboard, to organize volunteers and events.

Earlier in the Gujarat assembly election, Modi had mounted a high-tech campaign, used holograms and transmitted his image to voters in small towns around the State.

Other Obama strategies like the "ground game" and "micro listening" were also adopted. Two years before Obama's victory, his campaign moved paid staffers to battleground states to persuade Obama supporters to vote on the polling day. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had launched a "Call Delhi" campaign and implemented a similar volunteer-driven campaign during the December 2013 Delhi election. The online volunteer campaign continued as a key communications strategy for the general election and its fundraising techniques resembled those of the Obama campaign.

Congress Vice Presesident Rahul Gandhi adopted the "micro-listening" approach offline to interact with small groups and "hearing them out".

As Mukulika Banerjee, social anthropologist and author of "How India Votes" points out, at independence, when India adopted universal franchise and the parliamentary system, many at home and abroad had doubted the prospect of democracy succeeding in a poor and mostly illiterate country. Contrary to their predictions, the democratic system in the country in over the last six decades has been vigorous and full-throated. And at the heart of this has been the regular election. 
Unlike some older democracies, voter turnout in India has been on an upward trend. And the most enthusiastic voters have been largely the poor and unwashed. This year more than 66 percent voted, shattering the previous record of 1984.

The country's bewildering diversity has led to the proliferation of several political styles and personalities. And over the years, there has been a substantial reduction in the state control of capital and labour in the organized economy which has resulted in the emergence of middle class politics as a significant aspect of national politics. Also, increased inter-regional migration and spread of education and communication tools like cell phones have unraveled some old myths about the rural-urban dichotomy, patronage politics and caste correlations in the voting behaviour. This is expected to get reflected in the outcome of the polls and have consequences for the parties and people and the country in general.

Opinion and exit polls have interpreted this year's high voter turnout as a strong anti-incumbency trend and that the main opposition BJP would gain massively, although historical data show there is no correlation between the voter turnout and electoral outcome. Opinion also differs on whether the election will prove a turning point in India's political history. Political scientists like Sumantra Bose of the London School of Economics believe India's true watershed election may be a few years ahead. 

And there is yet to be a true middle class party although the AAP mirrored some middle class interests like accountability and the BJP went the whole hog to champion middle class concern over faltering growth, diminished income opportunities and high inflation. As long time India watchers Llyod and Susanne Rudolph have pointed out, a middle class party "similar to what Clinton did for Democrats in the US, Blair did for the Labour in the UK and Schroeder did for the SDP in Germany" is yet to be seen in India. And the BJP, in their view, remains a regional, upper class than a natural middle class party.

Yet, political scientists and sociologists say the results on Friday could provide some answers to a set of very important questions such as these:

--What role rights-based social programmes played in the election?

--Are voters more concerned with governance and less susceptible to ethnic mobilization?

--How influential has been AAP's championing of transparency and accountability?

-- Is India's longstanding faith on "clientelist" politics being displaced as claimed by some, and if so with what?

Atul Kohli of Princeton University has referred to a longer term political problem in the making and which is still not obvious how it will play out --- a shift in power to wealthier states of western and southern India over the medium term. This, he says, will "pitch the power of numbers that favour the Hindi heartland in northern and central India against the power of resources and talent that favour the western and southern states".


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