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21 February 2024

India goes online to tackle apathetic middle class voters

An election officer (C) demonstrates how to use an Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) during an awareness programme at a market in Agartala. India will hold a general election between April 16 and May 13, election officials said on Monday, kicking off a mammoth process in which 714 million people will be able to cast their votes. (REUTERS)

Hot on the heels of a US presidential election that saw Barack Obama sweep to victory with the help of a high-tech campaign, India is also turning to the Internet as general elections approach. But it is not political parties or the main candidates in the world's biggest democracy that are embracing the likes of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube to swell coffers and boost support.

While the ruling Congress and main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party stick to largely traditional campaigning for now, tech-savvy groups are targeting the growing - and potentially influential - middle classes on the worldwide web. "A lot of people have seen the change in the US since the elections and made them realise that they can actually do something," said Shridhar Jagannathan, a 30-year-old copywriter involved in the non-partisan www.voteindia.in website. "It was the literate middle class that brought the change. What happened in the US has inspired people in India to go out and make a difference."

India has some 714 million eligible voters, including 170 million under 35, but unlike in developed countries, it is the marginalised rural poor who vote in the biggest numbers, often along caste, regional or religious lines. In contrast, many of the English-speaking middle and upper classes readily admit to having never voted, yet still complain loudly about standards of leadership and governance.

Most Indians - 83 per cent - feel lawmakers are corrupt and 59 per cent think their main motivation is money, according to a recent Times of India survey. Nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) believe politicians are inefficient and 60 per cent blame them for all the country's ills. "Bad politicians are chosen by good people, who fail to vote," says Vote India. Its message is echoed by others like the Tata Tea-backed www.jaagore.com - all Indians need to take responsibility for their elected representatives.

For Jagannathan, campaigners can help improve standards by targeting the 60 per cent of Internet users who live in India's eight largest cities using cheap, easily-available technology. Their site has a blog, an application on social networking site Orkut and a Twitter feed (www.twitter.com/voteindia), while users can get details on candidates and constituencies using search facilities, text and email. Facebook groups, MySpace and YouTube applications and regional language versions to sit alongside the existing Hindi and English sites are in the pipeline.

The site's creators say they were shocked at the lack of awareness among educated urban dwellers about the democratic process, despite India's diverse, vocal media and growing 24-hour news culture. At the last nationwide vote in 2004, about a quarter of the 543 members elected to India's lower house of parliament faced criminal charges, including murder, kidnap and rape. "We're not criticising politicians, neither are we going to question them," Jagannathan told AFP. "What we do is we make sure that anyone who goes out to vote knows who he's voting for. Right now that information is not coming across to the general voter."

A 30 to 40 per cent increase in the number of middle and upper class voters at next month's election would be a success, they said. They are also hoping for a "bounce" from last year's deadly Mumbai attacks, which saw many middle class Indians take to the streets to denounce politicians for not doing enough to protect them. "We have actually seen statistics that people have won by margins of two to three per cent, so every vote does count," said software technician Nimish Inamdar, 24, another site volunteer. "That's one of our messages. Our concern is that good governance should come in by increasing the number of votes and more importantly, the quality of votes."

WHAT DO YOU THINK?  Will online networking help in encouraging more people to vote? Have your say by posting a comment below, or emailing us at online@business24-7.ae.