This piece was also published on Times of India (Nov 11, 2013)
Elections have always been an extravagant event where money flows like water in both urban and rural India; more so in recent decades, where a large number of wealthy people are joining politics, either to multiply or save their existing wealth. The amount being spent, be it elections for municipal corporation, assembly or parliament, is becoming mind-numbingly huge. Some news reports predicted that as much as rupees 10 crore were spent in one Bangalore constituency in recent Karnataka assembly elections. The annual local area development fund provided to an elected MLA is only Rs1 crore per year (recently doubled to Rs 2 crore by thenew government), that is a total of Rs 5 crore during their entire 5-year term. Why someone is willing to spend Rs 10 crore to get elected to a position where the maximum power (money) at one’s disposal is only Rs 5 crore is anyone’s guess.
Money power is the prime reason why newer/smaller parties are not able to effectively fight the grand old parties during elections. Muscle power comes to those with more money and thus the two bad wolves in the electoral politics ensure the power equation always favors the big guns. The small parties get buried in the money thrown by the other campaigns including television and newspapers advertisements, apart from prominent advertisement space in the streets.
The only choice the smaller parties have is to think of new campaign methods and get creative with the little money they have in hand. As they say, necessity is the mother of all inventions and technology is proving to be that invention for politics. With the ever increasing use of internet in urban cities combined with the high popularity of social media sites and comfort in online fund transactions, they can run effective campaigns and give the bigger parties a run for their money.
Recent campaign of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi is an example of this. The national capital has primarily been a two-party contest, Congress and BJP, with others mostly ending up a distant third. It is a major surprise that it is now a three-way contest and most recently, a new survey poll has put AAP in the second place in the race, just ahead of congress in vote share and closely behind the BJP. A year ago, no one would have believed even a hypothetical situation like this would be possible. I would attribute this to the emergence of technology as a major political player in a largely urban state like Delhi.
AAP, just a year old baby, is fighting toe-to-toe with two behemoths, Congress and BJP, who have a few thousand crores worth of bank balance and a national network of supporters, including many deep pockets. It is only due to AAP’s vibrant volunteer community, mostly distributed around the world, and their shrewd use of technology that they have become a contender in this race.
Here is a look at some of their innovative online campaigns:
Social media: With not much money to invest in traditional advertising, social media became the primary way for AAP to connect and communicate with supporters. Despite the fact that Congress and BJP have invested huge amount of money in propping up their presence in social media sites and to recruit new supporters, AAP grew its presence organically with a motley of enthusiastic team of volunteers. With no tech gurus to lead, social media team of AAP slowly put their pieces together and grew their presence in Facebook and Twitter and was able to connect with global supporters extensively in a short span. This proved to be very useful later as one-third of their donations came from global supporters and more than two-thirds are online donations. The AAP social media team went a step further by integrating various platforms by creating new Facebook/ Android apps and using popular ones to get donations, connect to YouTube channels, mobile apps to follow AAP news, donate etc. Most importantly an app was published to get suggestions from Delhi residents to create party manifestos. Getting suggestions for manifestos in social media is certainly path-breaking, though limited to urban constituencies only. Also, the Twitter team was able to successfully trend various topics related to AAP such as “#Vote4AAP”, “#AAPSweepingDelhi” to keep the buzz around AAP.
Turning the supporters into fundraisers is indeed a great way to reach out to new donors / donation source. AAP’s ‘My Ripple’ campaign encouraged all volunteers and supporters to enroll and create their own unique fundraising link through which they can appeal to their friends to donate and can track who responded to their appeals. With 600 plus supporters signing up for this campaign, AAP was able to raise over Rs25 lakh through this crowdsourced funding model so far and is going strong.
Wikipedia explains this as “a concept to support a candidate for election by dramatically increasing, concentrating, and publicizing fundraising activity during a specific hour or day”. The term was first applied to a supporter-led fundraiser on behalf of US presidential candidate Ron Paul, in which context the Mercury News described a ‘moneybomb’ as being “a one-day fundraising frenzy”. AAP used this model to channelize the collective enthusiasm or anger of their volunteers into contributing to the party. When their favorite fiery leader SantoshKoli, now no more, was recovering in the hospital after a freakish hit-and-run accident, the team decided to run “I am Santosh” day where all volunteers donated to cover the total campaign cost for her constituency as a show of support to her. The target set was at Rs14 lakh but the donation team was able to raise as much as Rs35 lakh in one day. AAP repeated the same model a few other times, with varying degree of success. This works well only for those with extremely passionate set of supporters who respond quickly to a call for action.
E=MC3 – Citizen Calling Campaign
One of the strengths of AAP is their large global volunteer pool. A campaign was designed: ‘Citizen Calling Campaign’ to tap into their support fully. While some NRIs left their job or took a break to campaign in Delhi, the realization that many others may not be able to do so but would still like to contribute, lead to this campaign, touted as ‘Tele door-to-door’ campaign. In this, volunteers from around the world would call citizens in Delhi and ask for their vote to AAP. The website describes E=MC3 as E= Energy for AAP, M = Mission and C3 = ‘Citizen Calling Campaign’. It is a slick campaign where a volunteer signs-up to start making calls to Delhi, the website flashes one phone number at a time from the AAP’s database and the caller completes the call and enters the feedback. There is a team which analyzes the feedback and also checks the quality. Yes, it is similar to call-center operation but only geographically reversed. India is a hub of call-centers for Western companies whereas AAP volunteers have turned it the other way around for Delhi elections. To many Delhi residents, a techie from UK, US or Singapore calling them to vote in Delhi elections is a surprise and an amusement of sorts.
Many of AAP’s campaign ideas were borrowed from successful models around the world while some are new innovations. These are open for any parties to take it up; however, it is the enthusiastic implementation of these ideas that sets AAP apart. Otherwise, this largely volunteer-run technology team cannot be running alongside big giants with deep pockets and sometimes even out-running them.
Many political pundits have called AAP’s political campaign and their bid to dethrone big parties in Delhi as a great experiment in democracy. Their use of technology and online applications is no less. It bodes well for smaller parties in other states and gives them a successful working model to follow. However, this won’t bode well for those parties which solely depend on money and muscle power to carry the day for them.