India's BJP Chases Obama's Online Election Magic

Supporters of party leader L.K. Advani are blogging away and perfecting his Web site. Their inspiration: the U.S. Presidential campaign

To the résumé of L.K. Advani, the 81-year-old leader of India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), add an unlikely moniker: Internet superstar. Do a Web search for his Congress Party opponent, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and the first sponsored result is Advani's blog. View any online newspaper article from a computer in India, and Advani looks out at you from an ad, caught in an action pose, presumably demonstrating strength and decisiveness to highlight his slogan: "A Strong Leader, a Decisive Government." Watch India-related clips on YouTube and you run the risk of being distracted by Advani's image on a bright saffron-and-orange poster.

Overkill, maybe. But while the results of India's elections will remain a mystery until early June, Advani is already the winner in the race to dominate India's Internet. Staffers at the BJP's old-school headquarters on a leafy lane in New Delhi are taking a page from Barack Obama's 2008 Presidential campaign in a quest to capture the most elusive of Indian voters: the urban elite. "The BJP is obviously inspired by the Obama campaign," says Ramachandra Guha, a historian and author who has written extensively on Indian politics.

Voting in India started Apr. 16, and with voting staggered throughout the country until mid-May, the entire country is gripped by election fever. The ruling Congress-led coalition government hopes to hold on to its meager majority, while the BJP is aiming to win voters angry with a 5-year Congress reign that included major terrorist attacks, double-digit inflation (only recently tamed), and a growing sense of economic disenfranchisement among the rural poor. With opinion surveys of such a large and diverse population untrustworthy, the results are unpredictable. That has political parties turning to previously unexplored venues to get voter attention, especially the Internet and mobile phones.

Of the 712 million registered voters in India, few have ever used the Internet. And of the demographic most likely to vote—the poor—it's a pretty sure bet that even fewer have used it. But in urban India, where English is often the lingua franca of the educated, and the Web is ubiquitous in offices, homes, and cell phones, Advani has an edge. "They are trying to appeal to a middle class that is not defined by caste or language identities," says Guha. "These 15 million to 20 million people can't be captured through the lens of language and caste—they are a more cosmopolitan group."

New Source of Overseas Inspiration

The strategy is certainly new to India, but it also reveals an evolution of the way Indian political groups look overseas for inspiration. In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi, then the leader of the Congress Party (and the husband of current Congress leader Sonia Gandhi), ran for Prime Minister after his mother's assassination. He hired an Indian ad agency to repeat what Saatchi & Saatchi had done for Margaret Thatcher in Britain.

The BJP is tight-lipped about this campaign. On BusinessWeek's third visit to the party's office, one BJP worker agrees to show a reporter around—on the condition that neither he nor the people working for the campaign be named. "Can you imagine what would happen if Congress hired them away?" the staffer asks, referring to the BJP's main rival, which is running a smaller online campaign.

There isn't much to see anyway because most of the work is done by volunteers across the country who blog constantly, track news reports, and update Advani's Web site. In an air-conditioned room in a shed-like office building, four tech engineers huddle around laptops, watching Internet traffic from around the world and the country, making quick changes to e-mail alerts being sent to reporters and supporters. Elsewhere in India, the BJP has paid companies to set up kiosks in malls and movie theaters, where messages are beamed wirelessly or via Bluetooth to people with cell phones.

The party has also worked on developing SMS-based contests and targeted ads on Indian social networking sites.

Not Worth It?

Big money is in play here, at least by Indian electoral standards. Two analysts predict that the total financial outlay could be $12 million to $14 million. But there is no real way to know. Indian political groups don't have to reveal either the sources of their fundraising or what they spend their cash on. Most of the money is spent on large-scale political rallies, with politicians helicoptering from one to the other throughout the month-long voting process.

In spite of so much online effort, some say the BJP's Internet push may not be worth much in the end. "What's the harm, I suppose?" muses Dipanka Gupta, a professor of sociology at the Center for the Study of Social Systems at New Delhi's JNU University. "But if they think that it will change how people will vote, they are going to be very mistaken." Experts such as Gupta note that Indian voters are more swayed by local issues than by national themes, and beyond an ingrained distaste for incumbents, they are tough to pin down. Party manifestos and platforms are largely irrelevant.

The best target for this kind of campaign is probably the 25 million Indians living overseas. While the voting procedure is complicated—embassies have to process their absentee ballots—they give money to political parties back home. "Our job is to portray the correct image of the BJP to the American public and the American Administration," says Adapa Prasad, a resident of Columbia, Md., and a leader of the U.S. chapter of the Friends of the BJP. A large percentage of Indians living in the U.S. come from Gujarat, an Indian state that has been a BJP stronghold for almost a decade.

But back in India, another American influence is apparent: Obama's online campaign. At the BJP office, staffers speak constantly of Obama and of how responsive and targeted the Internet can be. "We have three times the population, so it is that much more difficult for us to communicate exactly what we have to say," says one campaign worker. "You people in the media manipulate everything we say, so we have to go directly to the people."

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