Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

e-Lections 2014: How Political Parties Turned Tech-Savvy

In varying degrees—of intensity and success—political parties have embraced technology to spread the V-word. Forbes India goes behind the scenes

Published: Apr 11, 2014 06:20:33 AM IST
Updated: Apr 17, 2014 11:08:07 AM IST
e-Lections 2014: How Political Parties Turned Tech-Savvy
Image: Mallikarjun Katakol for Forbes India
Nandan Nilekani in a huddle with the team that handles the technology backbone of his campaign

It’s a hot day in Bangalore. At an Odiya association’s medical camp in a small school, under a shamiana, a small group is listening to a man extol the virtues of the chief guest. When, finally, he cedes the microphone, the chief guest speaks, briefly, succinctly, mentions his past encounters with Odisha, then takes questions. An audience member begins a detailed, loaded query. An official interrupts to say there should be no political questions—mystifying, since the chief guest is a political candidate on the campaign trail—but he answers gamely. After he is whisked away to his car, one of his team SMSes, apologising for not being able to arrange interview time, and invites us to another event that afternoon. There, the candidate is addressing a conference of chartered accountants. He speaks knowledgeably, without notes, about taxation and wins a round of applause. Afterwards, he is mobbed: People ask him questions, ask to take pictures with him. He smiles a greeting. I ask him, “How’s it going?” Nandan Nilekani shrugs, chuckles wryly, and says, “Different game, different rules!”

The former co-chair and CEO of Infosys, former convenor of the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF), former chair of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), Padma Bhushan awardee, bestselling author and billionaire is, once more, striding into unfamiliar territory: Electoral politics.

When we eventually do get a chance to talk, I ask, why politics? “Infosys went from just an idea to one of the world’s most respected companies. Aadhaar went from an idea to 60 crore Aadhaars in four-and-a-half years. For five years [with BATF], I worked on the nitty-gritty of urban governance: Toilets, solid-waste management, roads, traffic, accounting systems, the whole thing. Mainstream politics is the final route by which I can bring change in our society,” he says.

Between appearances, he’s also working within the Congress system, and on outreach. “We have a very strong presence on social media. We have hoardings throughout the city, television, print, radio; we have sent a direct mailer to every voter in Bangalore South. The idea is to improve my awareness and recall among all the voters, and giving them a visibility into who I am and what I’ve done.” And, naturally, “All of that is using technology, data analytics and all the things that we are familiar with.”

Later, Naman Pugalia, Viral Shah and Shankar Maruwada, who handle the technology backbone of his campaign, share insights into the nuts and bolts. All three are ex-UIDAI and call Nilekani their mentor. (Pugalia is the son of Sanjay Pugalia, editor-in-chief of CNBC Awaaz, a TV channel owned by Network18, which also publishes Forbes India. The senior Pugalia played no role in this story; he was unaware of Forbes India approaching his son until after the event.)
Pugalia talks about the print mailer which outlined Nilekani’s credentials and asked for the recipients’ support. Each mailer, addressed to the senior-most person in the house, listed the members who were eligible, and told them which polling station they should go to. To do this, the team had to work with the confusing and frequently misspelled information in the Election Commission’s publicly available data, and correlate them with information from other public data. Public data, they say, are not very high quality; they must be converted into analysable datasets, a complex task. They are pleased at having pulled it off. “Nandan is very keen on the ‘I to I’ contact,” Shah says, “and this is a demo of how he will function as an MP.” They, and Nilekani, are insistent that everything they do must be legal, ethical and transparent. They don’t want to reveal too much of what they’re doing right away, but they plan to make their methods public after Nandan wins. Yes, they’re pretty sure he’ll win: The data tells them so.

e-Lections 2014: How Political Parties Turned Tech-Savvy
Image: Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters
Supporters of TMC chief Mamata Banerjee at a campaign rally ahead of Lok Sabha elections in Kolkata

Derek O’Brien, former advertising professional and originally famous as a television quizmaster, would seem like a natural apostle for technology. No, says the Rajya Sabha MP, and national spokesperson of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) party.

“Trinamool has a 360° approach to communication. There are twelve 30° arcs, each equally important: Nomination procedures; electoral roll management; wall paintings; flex boards; meetings with party workers; processions; door-to-door canvassing; booth management; day of polling publicity; star campaigner meetings; Porichoy Patro direct mailings; and yes, social media.” “Trinamool means grassroots,” he says. “We uprooted the Left after 35 years. They are a cadre-base party. You can’t hope to beat them at their own game. And we don’t have the budgets to create advertising. From my 10 years in Ogilvy, one learnt that ‘word of mouth’ is great to have, and that even more powerful than advertising is editorial. So, our strategy is, do development work... editors pick up these stories.”

But, data! we say, Analytics! Understanding patterns and trends!

“Absolutely not!” O’Brien says. And he explains. “Mamatadi [Banerjee, the TMC founder and head, and West Bengal CM] has instinct. We believe in that instinct. (And yes, instinct can also be wrong, like research can be.) We don’t do opinion polls, but we do follow those done by others. We don’t even study the electoral rolls; we look at our performance, we know where we did well, where we didn’t; it’s all instinct.”

And that 30° arc for social media? “We use social media more for listening than talking. No ‘regional’ parties are big on social media except Trinamool. On Facebook, Mamatadi is very popular; I’m very active on Twitter. Our website is updated every hour, from 6 am to 11 pm. We’ve been on Google+ Hangouts. I think we’re way ahead of everyone else, barring the BJP and the Congress.”

And speaking of the Big Two: “I think the Narendra Modi campaign was internal communication. Its objective was not to pitch Modi to the country, but to pitch him to the BJP. That objective has been met. I don’t know about anything else. The Congress campaign has an unbelievable proposition; it’s like saying, you smoke this cigarette, it will give you more lung power. If you have a bad product, no amount of technology and communication can create a credible proposition.”

The BJP’s national head for information and technology, Arvind Gupta, shares at least one view with O’Brien: “Bharatiya Janata Party has got the first mover advantage with usage of technology.”

Gupta, an MBA from the University of Illinois and an IIT (BHU) grad, has been hard at work for a while now. In reply to a questionnaire, he wrote, “An average day lasts up to 18 hours of continuous work. We are working on ‘Mission 272+’ for the last four years.”

He outlined the various efforts: Yuva Internet TV, a voice-call channel, a Whatsapp Channel, Blackberry channels. “We follow the principle of ‘organise online, success offline’.” How well has this succeeded? “Our database has crossed 50 million.” And the groundswell of volunteers has been immense. Some have committed to as much as six months full-time; they’ve even had people leaving jobs abroad to pitch in.

Like Rahul Gupta, a volunteer for Citizens for Accountable Governance’s (CAG) Chai Pe Charcha, where Modi interacts with people all over the country via a variety of screens. Gupta, an IIT-K and IIM-B alumnus, has worked for JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. He now gets a stipend, expenses, and works “more hours here than I did with Goldman Sachs!” Chai… is a Herculean undertaking—1,500 sites in 500 towns and cities, broadcast vans, backpack-carried transmitters, set-top boxes and flat-screen monitors being lugged to the remotest locations—born of Modi’s desire to ‘move beyond Facebook to face-to-face interaction’, Gupta says. Plus wherever Modi is has to have multiple redundant equipment: That was one place there can be no glitches. Gupta laughs: “I could start a TV channel tomorrow with what I’ve learned.”

One of AAP’s volunteers told us in an informal chat, “We are doing everything the others are, with less money.” Abhinav Budhiraja, 25, an entrepreneur whose company was bought over by the Times Group, is the volunteer in charge of social media, and confirmed this. “Ours is a new party. We are really short on funds, so we use social media day in and day out to reach out to voters. The growth trajectory has been great.”

“On Twitter, we get a good sense of what people think,” he continued. “In semi-urban and rural areas, Twitter reach is negligible, so we invest a lot of time and resources in Facebook. We have mobile-friendly pages; desktops are not priority anymore because in rural areas people use Facebook on mobile—30-40 percent of people use Facebook on mobile.”

And the team is international: “We have an IT team in the US—50-60 percent of videos are edited in the US. Half of the team hasn’t met the other half because we are all volunteers. It surprises me that things still roll!”

Charanjeet Singh, a 24-year-old B Tech grad who manages the back-end of the AAP website, says, “We manage member and volunteer data through software from a private company. The owner of the company is a volunteer as well. Door-to-door campaigning is managed by a vote module, which has voter data bifurcated up to booth level.”

Then there are surveys and polls, which “help us in identifying our support base and weak areas. We use SMS, voice messages, mails for campaigning and our donation drive,” Singh says. “We have separate social media and IT teams at the national and state level. And we have a volunteer co-ordination team.”

Ankur Shrivastav’s day job is as a director at a digital marketing and technology firm. He volunteered all his spare time to AAP soon after it was formed. “There are some tools and processes that we built in the Delhi elections; they have been made available to all states and candidates. The candidates’ teams (either on their own or with the state teams) augment these as required. These systems talk to each other through loose coupling principles.”

And the volunteers are pouring in: “We are humbled by the number of tech volunteers coming to us. And the best part is that their emails start with ‘I am a PHP developer and I want to contribute to AAP as a volunteer’!”

While Congress MP Shashi Tharoor was famously an early adopter of Twitter, it has taken time for others in his party to take to social media; notably, Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi haven’t made their appearance yet. We tried to reach out to the party, but were only able to talk with spokespersons for individual candidates, like Milind Deora’s team.

We did chat with Gaurav Pandhi, a volunteer who works on the party’s Whatsapp outreach. The party, he says, advertises its Whatsapp number and urges people to register. “Every week to ten days, we send a message to 15,000 people to spread our number on their Whatsapp networks. Leaders like Mr Sibal and Mr Maken tweet our number, urging supporters to register.”
The party is also running campaigns on social media, he says.

“If Rahul Gandhi is visiting Chandni Chowk [in Delhi], we want people to know, and that it will be webcast live and we tell them the hashtag they can use. It becomes viral because people then forward this message to their friends. We have a volunteer team which makes posters, videos, texts.”

“Whatsapp’s Neeraj Arora contacted us on the same number… and gave us tips on how we can use this medium better: We were using a tablet, and he suggested that we should move to a computer. It is easier to send messages from a computer.”

Is this the election where social media will play a decisive role? Perhaps in a few constituencies, especially in urban areas.

The feeling we got was that while most political parties are taking technology seriously, we’re still nowhere near it playing as big a part as it did in the Obama re-election campaign. The media, most of us heavy users and consumers of social media and technology, tends to give them more weight than is justified. That said, though digital may not define the electoral battleground, it has undeniably added to its frenzy and thrill.

We’re waiting for May 16 as keenly as you are.

To test the digital preparedness of our political class, we initially used only the tools publicly available online to contact them: Phone numbers, email addresses and contact forms on their sites and, sometimes social media. But phones went unanswered, emails bounced, and social media queries were ignored. We then switched to decidedly ‘old media’ channels: Friends and colleagues familiar with the political world. Even then, not enough responses were forthcoming. If replies do come in after this issue has gone into print, we will carry those responses in the online version of this article.

(Additional reporting by Sohini Mitter & Shabana Hussain)

(This story appears in the 18 April, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)