The stately, tree-lined streets of this north Indian city are choked with flag-toting autorickshaws, mini flatbed trucks filled with screaming supporters and men sloganeering into megaphones hooked up to screeching speakers.
With roughly 815 million registered voters to draw out to the polls, this is precisely the type of boisterous mass campaigning that has long defined India’s elections.
A political march in support of Samajwadi Party, a powerful regional group in Uttar Pradesh, moves through the city, led by a local candidate garlanded with marigolds at its head. Ankit Mishra, who describes himself as a young professional, marches along with the crowd. But he knows his main impact won’t be felt here. In this pivotal election, his contribution to the political battle – along with that of thousands of other tech-savvy Indians – will be online, through Twitter and Facebook, and on mobile phones, through SMS texts and messaging applications such as WhatsApp.
“On WhatsApp, I would take a photo of a [new] road and send it out, saying ‘Do you know who built this?’” says Mr. Mishra, referring to the popular messaging application that has nearly 50 million users in India. The point was to show voters the credit should go to a local Samajwadi politician.
In an election in which voter allegiances can shift quickly over small kindnesses like a freshly built road, social media and mobile technology have become an important part of this political campaign. They have become critical tools – even though in a country as poor, populated and geographically vast as India, those new technologies will still need a hefty dose of old-school campaign tactics such as rallies and door-knocking if campaigns want to harness the masses that really make a different at the polls.
The explosion of new forms of social media – which also lets non-resident Indians witness the election drama – has largely happened since India held its last general elections in 2009. India will have roughly 80 million social-media users during this election, according to a survey last year by the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India. An additional 25 million more Indians abroad are following online and influencing opinions through social media.
“Indian democracy is on the cusp of a revolution led by social-media users,” the report said.
The survey analyzed data culled from Facebook and the Election Commission of India and said that of the 543 constituencies of India’s lower house, at least 150 races could be influenced by users posting on Facebook – to varying degrees, depending on the numbers and demographics in the riding.
In 256 ridings, the research showed, Facebook users would have no impact at all, which is not surprising given widespread illiteracy and poverty throughout much of rural India.
At a political rally in New Delhi, politicians from the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party climbed the makeshift stage to give speeches as Amit Kumar, 27, wove through the crowd with an iPad and and iPhone, tweeting pictures. An IT consultant with SAP AG, a German company, he had already set up a laptop nearby that was live-streaming the event on YouTube. The campaign has also sent out to cellphones tens of thousands of pre-recorded phone messages from the party’s leader, Arvind Kejriwal.
“We want to change the country,” Mr. Kumar yelled over the crowd. “The powerful people have all the rights in our country. I thought I needed to do something.”
India’s top politicians and sophisticated campaign teams have also moved at least some of their rhetorical jousting onto Twitter, although with some unexpected repercussions.
Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist opposition party’s prime ministerial candidate, got into trouble this week after he Tweeted a selfie of himself, his ink-stained finger – which proved he voted – and a white lotus, which is the symbol of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Doing that violated election laws on partisan campaigning during active voting, though he is unlikely to be punished.
He also regularly tweets about his political rivals in the Indian National Congress Party. “Congress’s situation across India is so bad that we will not need CCTV cameras but high resolution cameras to find their MPs in Parliament,” Mr. Modi tweeted last month, as his party gained momentum in the polls.
Still, only a relatively small percentage of Indians are connected online, leaving many beyond the reach of high-tech campaign tools apart from cellphones. More than 750 million people are active mobile phone users. The Election Commission regularly sends out texts encouraging people to go and vote, noting the date and time, while reminding people to “exercise your right.”
At another rally in Lucknow, BJP campaigner Abhijat Mishra, 35, led a chanting crowd trying to draw attention to their party’s symbol on India’s electronic voting machines, which enable the illiterate to vote by choosing between the BJP’s lotus, a hand for Congress or a bicycle for Samajwadi, among many others.
“All brothers press the lotus button!” the crowd chants, as they march toward a neighbourhood populated by the Sonkars, a poorer class in the Hindu caste system that has traditionally sold vegetables in the marketplace.
“This was my idea,” Mr. Mishra said, adding that they also hold flag-bearing motorcycle rallies as well as street theatre performances that spoof the Congress party’s decade in power. “I’m a field worker. There’s another IT cell that does social media.”