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The websites of India's 'e-election'

Games on Indiavoting.com website
Political games are a big draw on the internet

By Prachi Pinglay
BBC News, Mumbai

Hip hop and pop songs, magic shows, online games, opportunities to form your own cabinet, political cartoons, e-books, candidates' blogs, surveys and opinion polls.

A plethora of websites has sprung up to grab the attention of potential voters in India.

The Indian election has seen hugely increased online activity, not just from the contesting political parties, but also from voters and corporate groups.

The trigger for many was the Mumbai attacks of last November, which had a massive impact on urban India.

On the one hand, it drove citizens like former banker Meera Sanyal to contest elections; on the other it sparked many citizens into starting online forums to urge people to vote.

Corporate groups put out "edutainment" websites - to educate and entertain - mostly targeting the youth vote.

Soon after the attacks, online groups like the Black Badge movement were started to protest against the failure of intelligence and security services.

"We started as a reaction to the terror attack on Mumbai. It was more like a protest," says founder Somshekhar Sundaresan.

"We demanded concrete steps to prevent any such attacks and protested against the completely unprepared systems. We wanted to get a fair deal for the city."

'Concrete steps'

As the campaign took hold, the organisers felt it was time to extend it to the elections.

Jaago re campaign
The Jaago re campaign has been a big success

"Voting patterns are not really representative of the people as most people do not vote. There is a need to make people aware and conscious," Mr Sundaresan says.

"The internet is a platform where you can go ahead and put out ideas. It is far more effective than other tools of communication. We are happy as long as we can ignite something. We will continue to do our bit."

One of the initial - and perhaps the most popular - campaigns about the elections was an advertising campaign for Tata Tea.

Jaago re - or wake up - is perceived widely as a social awareness campaign that tries to stir the multiplex-going, well-earning youth out of their complacency and spur them to vote.

"The Jaago re campaign started in 2007. It is a campaign to promote four brands of tea but tea cuts across all boundaries and acts as a wake-up call and rejuvenates," says Tata Tea official Sushant Dash.

So the company decided to use tea to talk about social awakening.

"So the campaign said, 'Don't just wake up, awaken!'," Mr Dash says.

'A success'

The campaign later joined hands with a non-governmental organisation, Janagrahaa, to include education on the voting process.

With over 16m visitors and 5m registrations, Jaago re is a success.

The election websites also seem to have grabbed the attention of many non-resident Indians (NRIs) who are getting involved, participating and even funding these websites.

Somshekhar Sundaresan
Mr Sundaresan says there is a need to make people aware

Websites like engagevoter.com, indiagoes2vote.com have NRI participation at all levels.

Sulina Menon of engagevoter says it was conceived by an Indian based in the US.

"After 26/11 (the Mumbai attacks on 26 November) we felt something had to be done about the accountability of politicians. There is no dialogue between the politician and voter. So this website is a platform for the two to interact.

"Politicians can post their pages as well. We do not want this to be a politician-bashing website. It is important to find solutions. We are presenting serious matter in a fun, interactive way."

If it is a corporate campaign, then packaging and presentation are as important as content.

So a website like indiavoting.com has games and songs and magic shows.

"We have features like an e-book about Indian politics, games like the Indian Political League, and Snakes and Ladders adapted to the political scene," Amit Tripathi from indiavoting.com says.

Of the 100,000 visitors the site has had so far, 75,000 have visited for the "politicking" game, he says.

'Commendable'

But in India, where internet penetration is just about 7%, these net campaigns are expected to reach only a miniscule fraction of the 714m voters.

The internet facilities are mostly restricted to big cities and towns which discounts the large numbers of rural voters.

A campaign by Delhi election authorities urging people to come out and vote
Election authorities in Delhi are urging voters to come out to vote

However, activists say it is commendable for an otherwise indifferent youth population to be as involved as this.

Some of the volunteers from former banker Meera Sanyal's campaign say they approached her after spending some time on her Facebook group.

One of Sanyal's young volunteers, Radhika Ghose, 21, says: "I was in Bangalore when I first visited the Facebook group for Meera Sanyal.

"I heard her speech on YouTube and wanted to do something for her. So when I moved to Mumbai, I got in touch with her."

Leena Shah Karkhanis, a resident of a posh Mumbai suburb, says politicians can reach the urban voter through their websites and blogs.

"In Mumbai no-one has the time to go and attend a public meeting and all we get are reports in newspapers the next day. So, party websites or an online debate or the blog of BJP leader LK Advani are much better ways of reaching out to the people," she says.

Some, however, still doubt that the internet campaign will have an impact on polling day.

Dr Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist who works on youth issues, says the election is still not a "fun activity for the young".

"The young cannot identify with the [political leaders]. Election issues are still not coffee shop conversations. There is still indifference."



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