Voting in 140 characters

Written by Nandagopal Rajan | Updated: May 21 2014, 02:16am hrs
The quinquennial battle of wits we like to call the General Elections has finally come to an end. While most of us would like to look at the process as a test of our democratic institutions and credentials, I could not overlook the influence technology has had on this particular edition. We would have had a very different election, maybe with very different results, had there been no mobile phones, internet or the micro-blogging platform called Twitter.

For me one incident during a recent flight from Chennai to Delhi sums up this side-story of Elections 2014. The seatbelt sign has just been switched off on the late evening flight and a group of middle-aged men, obviously working for the same company, start discussing the elections crowing over the front rows. One of them has a lot of hot rumours about a particular politician and most of the seats around him are listening in rapt attention. How do you know all this someone asks. WhatsApp pe aaya hai bhai (It came on WhatsApp), he replies, sure of his little nuggets of information as well as its source.

While most of us would look at WhatsApp as a tool to keep in touch with friends and family at a relatively lower cost, this instant messaging app has over the past few elections become a popular tool to reach out to the electorate. These groups can range from large national ones run by the social media wings of parties to block-level communities created on the initiative of some tech-savvy neta. Either way, the app does its job of reaching out to the masses pretty well. Other messaging apps like WeChat, ChatON and the BlackBerry Messenger have all played their part in this elections, though not always in quantifiable ways.

The influence of the elections on the apps was not limited to chatting. In fact, there was a burst of seasonal gaming apps that tried to cash in on the popularity of Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi. While there are well over 3,000 apps related to election keywords on the Google Play store, I could count at least 20 Modi Run games on the store. It is anybodys guess if the people who actually made Modi run through the states collecting votes finally ended up pushing the button in his favour.

Twitter created the biggest buzz for all the stakeholders this time. While all parties ran their campaigns on the platform, many others picked up thousands of micro-battles to push forward their agenda. As per data provided by Twitter India, over 58 million elections-related Tweets were posted between January 1 and May 16, over 2 million of them just on the day results were announced. There were a total of 11.85 million tweets mentioning @NarendraModi during the entire period, with 0.75 million being added just over the counting day. In hindsight, the Indian Twitterati had pretty much got their polls right.

Instead of bringing people to an election site, we brought the elections to the people. We formed mobile, TV and news partnerships to distribute elections-related Tweets on and off Twitter, so that every Indian voter can make an informed decision in real time. Thats why it felt like the entire elections were being played out on Twittereveryone could see Tweets from the main parties, politicians and voters on their mobile devices, on their TV screens or in their daily news reports, or follow key political and media accounts via a missed call to consume their tweets as text messages, explains Rishi Jaitly, Twitter India Market Director.

For the 180-million-odd internet users in India, the drums on the street and pamphlets on their doorsteps did not make much of a difference in how they voted. For them, the elections were pretty much being fought online.

In fact, Google too played its part, right from organising Hangouts for candidates and top leaders to reach out to their voters, to setting up a site that helped voters understand their candidates better. They along with a lot of other players were crucial in ensuring that the 150 million first-time voters exercised their right to suffrage. The Election Commission of India also made life simpler for this lot, providing information and even accepting voter registration forms online.

In fact, at an Indian Express Idea Exchange function, Election Commissioner HS Brahma seemed to suggest that the day when we would be able to vote from a phone or a computer does not seem all that far away.

Yes, this was an historic election in many ways. Initially, it was estimated that social media will have a say in 160 constituencies. But with the results going so decisively in favour of the BJP, which right from the outset used technology as an effective campaign tool, I am pretty certain their online message became viral offline too.