Sunday, April 25, 2010

Concept Paper How to use Social Media in Indian Elections. Focus - A Legislative Assembly constit

Concept Paper

How to use Social Media in Indian Elections.

Focus - A Legislative Assembly constituency (MLA)

Introduction: Growing awareness and melting boundaries make it difficult for the public managers, leaders and actors to connect, engage, and communicate with the voters and public to the level of satisfaction that they desire. For the politicians, voters are all-in-all who decide their fate on ‘election day’ and provide them the mandate to represent them at all forums. In this light, a voter plays the role of king maker (it’s like Bhagya Vidhata in Indian context). Two aspects are very important to be a successful politician. First, how a political leader/ manager can be in constant and effective touch with voters and public by using social media in addition to all existing tools, and second, how to provide free, fast, effective and satisfactory services to them.

The objective of this paper is to understand how the lessons of Mr. Obama’s social media use can be implemented and programmed in India. How voters, politicians and government officials can engage and communicate with each other effectively by using a new additional tool of social media during the election process and after election to gather feedback, share information, solve problem , seek opinions and suggestions from public and to meet the growing expectations and demands of public.

The US president Mr. Barack Obama did something unique by using social media tools, so, he is known as new-media president. But it’s not his nimble use of Facebook and Twitter that makes him so. It’s the fact that he is the first president who has grasped the possibilities of today’s high-velocity, high-density, highly variegated media landscape. He was very successful with this tool and it is now a model for other campaigns. His management skills and campaign methods are model for the politicians around the world1. Mr Obama hired the services of Blue State Digital (BSD) which utilized the potentials of this new tool in managing his election. In 2004, it was a teenage novelty; four years later it has become the main way friends and family communicate online2.

The BSD and Mr. Obama have set a precedent for using social media tools in elections. Inspired by Mr. Obama, UK PM Tony Blair has hired the BSD’s services as part of his effort to help Labor win a fourth term in office3. After election, President Obama is using this well-tested tool-- social media- for running his government, and here too he is successful like in the election.

Social media as a new tool in India is required for a number of reasons: Growing awareness among masses has increased many folds which have increased public demands and expectations from politicians. This requires a lot of patience, time and efforts and is difficult to do with existing tools and outdated procedures. The fast pace of increasing competition in politics is another big challenge for the public managers. Seeing the unfaithfulness of the middle stage actors, voters and public prefer personal communication with their representatives. In the present scenario, the public neither has time nor is willing to wait. This psychological change in public perception needs new methods to deal with the changing situations, challenges and demands. Organizing a public meeting and getting a large public gathering with the help of office bearers, authorized and designated people and party workers, is becoming increasingly tough. To prove this point, we can take the example of railways reservation in India. Is it possible to do it manually now like in the past? The answer is no. Similar is the situation for the current politicians, public managers and representatives from whom public is expecting more as compared to the past.

Furthermore, the Indian election process is time-bound with limited time and resources. In a limited time frame, a political actor has to manage all the activities to the satisfaction level of the public, government, election commission of India (ECI), and other stakeholders. This is a tough task to accomplish and manage now. Winning the election is the trailer; the real story begins after the election, how to run the government successfully to satisfy the public. How to be in touch with the constituents is a big issue, which must be addressed. Fund raising and its management during the election is also a great concern. Compliance to rules and regulations and furnishing of information required by the election authorities have increased considerably. It is in this context that the promotion of e-Governance in the political arena for achieving success becomes relevant. If our political actors wish to satisfy the public and get reelected, there is an urgent need to think seriously what that tool should be that could serve the purpose.

Current situation: Generally, most Indian elections are contested on local and regional issues, instead of big national issues. As a result door-to-door canvassing, election rallies supplemented by local hoardings and print ads in local languages are the traditional ways of election campaign. In 2004, the incumbent BJP broke away from this pattern with its aggressive nation-wide India Shining Campaign. First time it allocated 5% of campaign budget for e-campaign. Though BJP’s new approach didn’t fetch victory, but they took the lead in this new experiment. This set a new trend in Indian politics and resulted in allocation of 5-10% of election budget for e-campaign in later elections. Since then, internet and mobile penetration has increased from 26 to 365 million for mobile and from 16 to 80 million for internet4. In 2009 election, both Congress and BJP targeted urban youth. While congress focused on youthful appeal of Rahul Gandhi, BJP adopted 360 campaigns inspired by the Barack Obama campaign. At national level political leaders and political parties are trying to catch the benefits of social media, but they are not yet able to harness its benefits. Leaders have their own sites and accounts on different social media networks. Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh is active on Facebook (FB) with 21,000 fans5. Likewise Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi6 (55,000 fans to date) is also on FB. From BJP, Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee7, Mr. L. K. Advani and Mr. Rajnath Singh have unverified accounts on FB. Similarly, many national leaders have their personal and fan accounts on different social media locations. There is a strong inclination and increased involvement towards social media use, particularly among young leaders of the political parties and it is increasing every day. Journalists, citizens, opinion makers and NGOs are using facebook and other social media sites.

In the state of Uttar Pradesh the major parties BSP, SP, BJP and Congress are active and enjoying the confidences of public. Currently BSP, led by Ms Mayawati is the ruling party in UP. She has some unverified accounts on FB and Orkut. UP president of SP Mr. Akilesh Yadav is active on FB with 1,600 friends8. UP BJP ex-youth President Mr. Ashok Kataria is a social network beginner, and is on FB9. UP congress president Dr. Rita Bahuguna Joshi is active on FB10. There are two other official accounts of Congress on FB. One is Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee11(UPCC) and the other is Uttar Pradesh Youth Congress12. All the four major parties in UP have started using social media as an additional tool and youth wings of the political parties and their youth leaders are fond of this tool. Personally they are using different sites for social and political interaction and networking.

Stakeholders and their Benefits: There are a number of stakeholders who stand to benefit from the use of social media: The union government, state governments, local governments, Election Commission of India ( ECI)13, Chief Electoral Officers (CEOs)14, registered national and regional parties, their candidates along with their supporters, voters, workers, office bearers, and independent candidates, computer and IT industries, media, national and international NGOs (NASCOM)15, and different categories of internet users and public. These stakeholders can be broadly classified into four categories:

1) Governments and related offices engaged in election: Governments and its offices associated with election process need fast and mass communication frequently. ECI sends messages and directions to government of India (GoI), state governments and states’ CEOs. They in turn forward it to divisional commissioners and district magistrates/ District Election Officers (DEO). From there it is sent to the field officials,

Additional District Magistrates/Sub-Divisional Magistrates who are playing the statuary role of Returning Officer/ Assistant Returning Officers in different locations of the district. They are the real executor of the directions and orders. These field officials contact the party workers, candidates, government workers and voters to disseminate the information and gather the required and desired inputs, data and information. This information is rerouted to reach state capital and New Delhi. In past, it was easy and manageable as information was limited and infrequent. But now its frequency has increased many folds, and reply is demanded in a very short time. Any delay will invite severe punishment with wide publicity--social defamation. Therefore, public officials engaged in managing free, fair, fearless, and timely elections need this new tool to cope with the growing demands and challenging situations. Social media tools can fulfill this need of public officials.

2) IT and associated industries: IT and associated industry will get huge domestic business. If leaders and political parties benefit from the use of social media in elections then they will use it in running the governments as it is done in US by Mr. Obama, and in other areas of interest to them. As a result, this will penetrate into almost all government sectors. It is a large scale untapped domestic market for the IT industry. National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM)15 can play a catalytic role.

3) Political parties and politicians: It is a low cost and fast intervention tool. It is flexible and easy to handle. Young politicians are using this tool, so they don’t need to invest a huge amount in harnessing the benefits of this tool. It provides visual conversation so it is more effective and has greater impact as compared to other existing tools. Social media networks are fast, so coverage will be more in terms of areas and number of persons, and cost will be less.

4) Overall public and society: If not able to attend the event in person, the public are able to watch the entire political event, at home or at nearby homes that have net connectivity at their own convenience, and would feel as if they were a part of the event. It will save public money and time and will result in better impact. It will generate employment for IT people and increase digital literacy. It will remove the middle man who cheats and befools the voters and public. So the effect of asymmetric information and Principal-client will be reduced considerably. It is environmentally friendly. Hence, it will help in maintaining a healthy environment and will reduce harm to the public. It will increase transparency, accountability, and will result in reduction of public expenditure and corruption leading to good governance.

Constraints: 1) Cultural: Old and veteran politicians who are not using social media will not be of much help to promote this tool. Only about 3.8% of Indian population is using internet16 as compared to 58.1% of USA17. From this, we infer that we need a change in attitude and behavior of public and user. UN data says that USA is fourth after Sweden, Denmark and Norway in the 2008 e-Government Readiness Index18. Due to low penetration, coverage by internet is low in rural areas and limited in urban areas. There is a big gap in terms of internet use in rural and urban areas—the digital divide. Digital literacy is very low and internet user density is poor. Rumor mongers may create problems regarding these new tools. Spreading of false information is a great concern from a security angle as such information spreads very fast. There is lack of awareness regarding its benefit hence cultural change is needed for its acceptance in the society. Voters and supporters may often expect personalized email responses from candidates, or at least some level of email response. Given the number of voters involved in Indian elections, just handling email may need to be outsourced to a customer service firm! Further, online discussions often require monitoring to prevent abuse and flame wars. And passions, once expended online, may not result in voters trudging to the polling booth on Election Day19. To overcome this constraint, we need to engage voter, public, and politicians during the elections process by frequent exchange of ideas and information. To achieve this we need to make them aware about its benefits through NGOs, IT industry, media, and government officials as we did in case of EVM. We need to educate all stakeholders by applying different methods e.g. meetings, demonstrations and publicity through media and local methods. In these NGOs like NASCOM, ADR20, National Election Watch21 etc can play a vital role. Digital and social media education of students-digitally educating people with a focus on students- will be an effective step. Over time, public behavior will change as they will experience its benefit, and they will gradually adopt it by replacing existing tools.

2) Technological: There is lack of user friendly software for the digitally illiterate. Non availability of software in different Indian languages is another limitation. Unreliable electricity supply is the other main obstacle. Use of battery and electric generators as electric options will make it expensive. Paucity of IT personnel locally is also a constraint. Required legal framework is not in place to support this tool. In multilingual India, it would be imperative to maintain a web presence in at least two languages to avoid being characterized as elitist19.

Involvement of stakeholders and Implementation strategy: To harness the benefit of social media tools efficiently, effectively and successfully in a MLA constituency we need net-points data of each constituency. Survey and categorization of MLA needs to be done based on three types of general criteria: Least internet penetration- deep rural; medium penetration- mix of rural and urban area; high penetration- Urban area. In the survey for internet points, we need to enlist individuals, cyber caf├ęs, computer and internet training institutes and groups, institutions and companies having internet facilities, IT service providers, personnel and establishments. Most schools and colleges will have this facility as Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Government of India Kapil Sibal said, "We have now a policy. All schools will have an ICT (Information and Communications Technology) teacher. We will pay their salary, which is Rs 10,000 per month22.

As Deputy DEO Muzzafarnagar experienced in the 2007 UP assembly election, we need to do net mapping and make of small constituencies with respect to net facilities and points on the pattern of vulnerable mapping done then. In 2007election this new concept of vulnerable mapping was introduced. Concentrated efforts are required to mobilize the IT industry to associate and experiment with voters in this initiative in constituencies to demonstrate to the users as part of their marketing or R & D strategy. The involvement and mobilization of Youth wings/ morcha of all political parties is crucial for its success, as they are familiar with its uses, benefits and importance. The party functionaries play very important role in elections so their mobilization and motivations is very important for the promotion of this new tool. By connecting and making teams of NGOs with IT company personnel and fixing their responsibilities will help in demonstrating its impact in each constituency and will make the work systematic and easy to handle. NASSCOM can play a vital role here. National Informatics Centers (NIC)23 will train the trainers with the help of IT professionals and NGOs.

The role of NICs at center, state, and district level to act as focal point and nodal agency is vital. They will play the role of coordinator, facilitator and moderator at their respective levels. A monthly review and monitoring meetings at state by CEO and in district by DEO to watch progress are needed. All stakeholders will participate in the meetings including the youth heads of the parties. Aware of the benefits from this new concept they will actively participate, coordinate and cooperate with each other to accomplish the mission, vision and goal of the program. Each MP constituency in UP is made of five MLA segments. Initially, out of five MLA segments, one of the most densely internet populated MLA segments from each of the MP constituencies will be taken up for implementation. Thus there will be uniformity across the whole state and it will help the other four MLA segments in each MP seats to understand the methods of implementation.

We have experience of implementing such programs like switching over from paper ballot to Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) and providing Electoral Photo Identity Cards (EPIC). At the time of the election, DEO has the mandate to acquire needed services for the conduct of fair, free and fearless election. Under this provision, internet services will be acquired and, according to plan, it will be used during the elections. In each MLA constituency the carved out net constituencies will have the net points to which all candidates and recognized parties will appoint an IT savvy coordinator along with a government official- a revenue official. These Coordinators will act as link between the public/ voters of that area and the net points. These net points will be fed with information by respective candidates, parties, and government officials. The net operator/owner will manage the to and fro message during the elections. For example if a village has only one net point the entire village area will be carved into one net constituency. Villagers will collect to the net point or appointed coordinator will convey the message. This will help in fast flow of information, change in cultural resistance, and increased awareness. This net point will act as a turning point for social media use in politics and elections. At net point a local group for each candidate can be created on different social media sites. In case of individual net points, they will be directly in touch with their connections, candidates, and official information.

Costs: Social media provides costless space. The training, publicity and net owners cost is met by ECI as part of promoting social media in elections. The co-coordinators’ expenses will be met by respective political parties and candidates. With social media, more people can be contacted with lesser cost so overall cost will be less compared to use of traditional methods.


1. Jennifer Senior (2009) The Message Is the Message,


3. ( March31,2010)















18. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Public Administration and Development Management, United Nations, e-Government Survey 2008






Author and Researcher:

Heera Lal

EMPA -10, Maxwell School ofCitizenship and Public affairs

Of Syracuse University , Syracuse .

Apts-220, Building No. 2

121 Lafayette Road, Syracuse,NY,USA-13205

315-214-5558( landline); 315-395-0291( Mobile ) ;