Mobile Phones and Elections: A Turning Point for Democracy?

Robin Jeffrey on the role of the mobile phone in Indian elections, holograms in Gujarat, and how the key to their success still lies with the people using them.

This article originally appeared as an op-ed in The Hindu.

In a world where elections and information and communication technologies (ICT) lead to big theories about the future of democracy, India is teaching it some important lessons.

From President Obama’s successful campaign to Narendra Modi’s sumptuous holograms in the Gujarat elections in December, there’s speculation that democratic politics are now changed utterly. There’s a sense that technology will win elections, just as some soldiers want to believe drones will win wars.

“Cyber-utopians” see the “flash mobs” of the Arab Spring and their precursors as heralding a new birth of human freedom. High tech will make you free.

In 2008, the Obama campaign was sleek and technical; but it was even more finely turned in 2012. “At every rally,” Mark Danner wrote in The New York Review of Books, the crowd was told to “get out your cell phones” and text “Obama.” That action put each sender’s details into the campaign database. The aim was to enlist these enthusiasts as the cell-soldiers of a movement.

The Virtual Modi Campaign

The Modi campaign in Gujarat earned notoriety for its use of “big tech” — spectacular demonstrations aiming to impress voters with the achievements of the government. The grand gesture was on November 18 when Modi gave a speech in Gandhinagar that was transmitted as holograms into venues in Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Rajkot and Surat. A larger-than-life, virtual Modi spoke to spell-bound audiences in five places simultaneously.

Later, the Modi campaign transmitted a 3D image of the Chief Minister to more than 50 venues in small towns around the State. “No serials today,” a captivated matron on her way to the event told a reporter. “We will watch Modi.” The high-tech electioneering was “a matter of pride for Gujarat,” said another.

But what India teaches — and the Obama campaigns realised — is that Small Tech, not Big Tech, makes a genuine difference in electoral politics, and Small Tech depends on individuals. The success of the Obama campaign required tens of thousands of committed supporters to ensure that hundreds of thousands of wishy-washy sympathisers were energised to vote. “This is a United States with a permanently high turnout of blacks, Latinos and young people,” a conservative commentator concluded ruefully. In the past, large segments of such groups had not voted or had been prevented from voting. The Small Tech strategy pulled far larger numbers to the elections.

Strategy in U.P.

In a system of voluntary voting, a party has to identify its potential supporters and get them to the ballot box, regardless of snow, rain, heat, gloom of night or obstructive opponents who pull dirty tricks to prevent them.

Does any of this U.S. scenario sound familiar? It should, because similar circumstances confronted Ms Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh before the 2007 Assembly elections. By 2007, Mayawati had had three short stints as Chief Minister, but always in fragile coalitions. The BSP vote in U.P. seemed unlikely ever to rise above the 23 per cent it reached in the 2002 elections, and that translated into only about 100 seats in a house of 403. Her Dalit constituency was poor, oppressed and not highly literate; she and her party were ridiculed by mainstream media. What the BSP did have was a large, committed cadre of workers, followers of Mayawati’s mentor, the late Kanshi Ram, and old members of his The All India Backward (S.C., ST., O.B.C.) and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF).

Leading up to the 2007 poll, the BSP devised a strategy for a Brahmin-Dalit alliance. Remarkably, they sold the idea to a significant number of Dalit and Brahmin voters.

As the most populous State in India, U.P. has about 1,20,000 polling booths, and the BSP had hard-working booth captains at a great many of them. These true-believers got regular instructions about how to tell the story of Brahmin-Dalit unity and of the sins of the Mulayam Singh government. They also got instructions about how to identify supporters, ensure they were on the rolls and motivate them to vote.

A senior Dalit politician explained: “Before the election, it is easy to appoint a booth-level worker, but it’s very difficult to keep them activated.” But “that is what I did through the mobile phone.” Workers not only got instructions; they also got encouragement and contact with higher-ups in the party. The cheap mobile phone changed the capacity of not-very-wealthy people to communicate quickly, freely and regularly. It also allowed them to report misconduct and enable the Election Commission to run a notably fair election. The BSP won more than 200 seats and a surprising majority in its own right, though the voter turnout was one of the lowest in U.P. history.

Other parties quickly took note. By the 2012 elections in U.P., Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party had taken the old BAMCEF picture of the dedicated worker on a bicycle and put himself on a bicycle with a mobile phone clapped to his ear. The 2012 election produced the highest turnout in U.P. history, partly because all the parties had workers being told to get supporters to the polls.

The Indian case is instructive. Phones and technology alone are not enough. There have to be people — enthusiasts, true-believers — at the end of the phones. The Congress in U.P. in 2012 had plenty of money and plenty of phones. What it did not have was tens of thousands of motivated booth captains. In the case of the BSP, a lot of the old BAMCEF zeal had vanished, alienated by Mayawati’s strange and selfish ways.

The U.P. case underlines a few lessons. Fancy technologies alone don’t win elections. But cheap, easy-to-use technology gives people with common interests a powerful new weapon. The Obama campaign in 2012 created — “a tenacious network that would track and coax” hesitant sympathisers and their friends and get them to the polls, as Mark Danner wrote. Motivated people are the key. It’s a lesson some Indian politicians intuitively understood before just about anyone else.

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