Ringing in the Vote: Mobile Phones in the 2009 Indian Elections

The world's largest democracy, India, is holding its general election this year. The month-long elections to the 15th Lok Sabha, the Indian Parliament, will be held in five phases between April 16th and May 16th when the final results will be announced. 

As India's 714 million voters prepare to elect their 543 representatives, they are witnessing a range of digital initiatives from political parties, civil society organizations, media houses and even corporations.  In fact, some observers are calling this India's first digital elections.

Leading the packed ballot is 82-year-old Lal Krishna Advani, the prime ministerial candidate of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, who has embarked on an Obama-style new media campaign. Part of the campaign are a blog, a blogger outreach program, one of the most aggressive online ad campaigns ever seen in India, and an ambitious SMS campaign that will reach 250 million of India's 400 million mobile subscribers.

Rajesh Jain's Netcore Solutions, which is running the SMS campaign for BJP, has bought an inventory of 1 billion SMSes for the campaign. Rajesh is also a part of the Friends of BJP group, which is running a social network and an opt-in MyToday-based SMS channel to support BJP's campaign (Indian Express).

Other parties are running similar mobile campaigns and, overall, telecom operators expect to make an additional revenue of $10 million from the extra traffic of 3-4 billion SMSs sent by all the political parties, in addition to revenue generated from multimedia messages, songs and wallpapers (Economic Times).

Civil society organizations are also using mobile technology in interesting ways. The Jaago Re campaign was launched by Tata Tea and Janaagraha in September 2008 to start a voter registration drive in colleges and corporates in 35 cities across the country and register four million voters. Voters go to aninteractive application on its website to identify their constituency, prepare a ready-to-print voter registration form, and find the nearest voter registration centert. Voters also get updated via SMS when their names are added to the voting list. Jaago Re has turned out to be a clever and successful campaign. Not only has it been the topic of a huge number of news stories and blog posts, and resulted in much goodwill for Tata Tea, but it has also managed to register 584,000 voters so far.

Idea Cellular's My Idea campaign is a continuation of its participatory democracy ad campaign where a politician, aided by her tech-savvy assistant Abhishek Bachchan, gathers the views of the citizens in her constituency using mobile phones.  The campaign asks people to submit an idea that can change India and vote on the ideas submitted by others. So far, more than 3,000 ideas have been submitted and more than 170,000 votes have been cast.

Vote Report India, a project I'm personally involved in, is a collaborative citizen-powered election monitoring platform for the 2009 elections. Users contribute direct SMS, email, Twitter and web reports on violations of the Election Commission's Code of Conduct. The platform aggregates these direct reports with news reports, blog posts, photos, videos and posts on Twitter related to the elections from relevant sources on an interactive map.

Vote Report India aims to not only increase transparency and accountability in the Indian election process, but also provide the most complete picture of public opinion in India during the month long elections. Vote Report India is built on the Ushahidi and Swift platforms and managed by eMoksha, a non-profit organization that aims to enable stronger democracies through increased citizen awareness and engagement.

Mobile technology is playing a small but important role in the Indian Lok Sabha elections. Even as the media focus is on the web 2.0 elements in the digital election-related initiatives, it's the lowly SMS that is likely to make a difference.


Gaurav Mishra leads research on internet and society in emerging countries as the 2008-09 Yahoo! Fellow at Georgetown University and writes about social media and social change.

Photo Credit:  Al Jazeera

Mobile campaigns

I am hoping that a politician here in New Jersey would embrace political text message campaigns. It seems like they are much slower over here

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