For 2014 polls,parties net techies as ‘backroom boys’https://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/print/for-2014-polls-parties-net-techies-as-backroom-boys/

For 2014 polls,parties net techies as ‘backroom boys’

Firms crunch data to study voting patterns,make campaigns more effective.

In several discrete locations in Bangalore,India’s hi-tech capital,huddles of techies are stooped over their computers,working on big data and cloud computing,data analytics and digital marketing. Intriguingly though,they are not executing projects for a multinational customer in a distant country. These are the “back offices” of leading political parties drawing on the latest technologies to gain a competitive edge in the 2014 elections.

In a changing India,where orthodox methods of preparing for an election are becoming less significant,technology offers parties a new advantage in what is likely to be a closely-fought election in 2014. “Technology is an important piece of poll strategy and a vital tool in a party and candidate’s arsenal,” said Nandan Nilekani,chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI),India’s digital ID programme.

The technology billionaire,who co-founded and ran the IT services firm Infosys,should know. After heading UIDAI for the last five years,Nilekani is preparing to leap into politics as the Congress party’s candidate from Bangalore South in the 2014 elections. At the core of his campaign is a hi-tech “back office” which is already in place although the official announcement of his candidature is yet to come. “Data analytics is gaining salience as an election tactic,” Nilekani said.

Technology’s prominence in Indian electoral politics has come on the back of the intersection of one or two prominent trends. The field of data analytics has matured. “Hard government data such as census statistics and booth-wise election polling numbers were always available but in scattered,hard-to-digest format. This election will mark the first such where parties are gathering raw data,refining it and understanding voting patterns by age,gender,caste,religion and so on,” said B G Mahesh,founder and MD of OneIndia.in,a mentor at Niti Digital which works on media,data and volunteer-driven campaigns for Narendra Modi’s bid for prime ministership.

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Also,significantly and for the first time,vast hordes of techies have jumped in to contribute their professional skills to the campaigns of various parties — whether the Congress,BJP or Aam Aadmi Party. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s primary data-cruncher is Anand Adkoli,Union Minister Veerappa Moily’s son-in-law,who worked with Oracle Corp in the United States and returned to India to set up e-learning company,Liqwid Krystal. Adkoli and his team run their operations in north Bangalore’s Raj Mahal Vilas neighbourhood. At the other end of the city,Infosys product strategy head Shashi Shekhar quit in April to take over as Niti Digital’s chief digital officer. He now drives a small army of fellow techies to further the BJP’s election campaign.

Nearly every party’s back office has a database of candidates’ dossiers which tracks and records their every significant political and personal move. Aside from such databases,as the techies crunch numbers,parties are taking serious note of the hard-to-ignore patterns that objective data throws up. All this is being factored into their 2014 decision-making.

Many old-time politicians,however,are neither aware nor interested in the new technologies. Railways Minister Mallikarjuna Kharge,who has won 10 consecutive elections and currently represents the Gulbarga constituency of northern Karnataka in the Lok Sabha,is one of them. “For 45 years,I have been fighting elections on party programmes,principles and ideologies. I don’t know much about the use of data analytics,” Kharge told The Indian Express. In the Gulbarga constituency,most of which is underdeveloped and rural,Kharge said that villagers did not use gadgets and sought the personal touch. “My election campaign is always one-to-one and personal,I don’t want to adopt technology,” he said.

But parties are finding data analytics inescapable during the upcoming campaign. “The big difference is that for 2014,parties are no longer relying on intuition or local knowledge but on hard data,” said Shashi Shekhar of Niti Digital. It helps parties focus on particular constituencies,prioritise their energies and target resources efficiently. It helps them understand patterns so that the ground-level campaign can be more effective.

For many parties,the ongoing election campaign is a jump up the technology learning curve. “For instance,slicing voting patterns by constituency and looking at who voted more — men or women — can tell a candidate or party who to target,” said Mahesh of OneIndia.

There is another,equally critical manoeuvre that the parties’ and candidates’ back offices are engaged in: a digital marketing blitz targeting India’s 100 million young,first-time voters. The parties’ digital strategy is being honed at a time when India’s internet base has crossed 200 million users and the country is on its way to become the world’s second-largest pool of internet users (after China,overtaking the United States). Many of the first-time voters are smartphone users who are social network-savvy.

“It is the first time digital marketing is playing a role in politics to target India’s youth which is a huge,involved political force. Every party and every serious politician wants to connect with the young,” said Mahesh.

Nilekani said he sees technology as a strong enabler in the 2014 campaign. “Of course,a strong candidate,a sound manifesto,large gatherings,a personal door-to-door campaign — none of that goes away,” he said.