Modi's extraordinary use of mobile technology

Narendra Modi with his Bharatiya Janata Party has used technology in an Indian election campaign at an unprecedented level, campaigning digitally in nine languages and changing the election process forever.

Assa Doron Robin Jeffrey
30 May 2014
Modi at a rally in Delhi

Modi at his Vikas rally in Delhi. Wikimedia/ Narendra Modi. Some rights reserved

Technology alone did not win India’s general election for the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi. But it played a huge part, and the surprisingly decisive results mark the country’s full-scale embrace of the digital age. Indian elections will never be the same.

Modi and his party used the spinal cord of India’s remarkable mobile phone network, with its more than 900 million connections, and added Facebook, Twitter, live 3D ‘hologram’ appearances in country towns and a troop of tech-savvy young enthusiasts. On top of this, they adopted a hard-edged strategy towards print and television, tacked onto the old-fashioned, irreplaceable asset of disciplined true-believers—the tens of thousands of ideologically fired-up workers of the Hindu nationalist group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

We forget how digitally switched on India has become. Of the country’s 250 million households, 60 per cent have a television. There is a working phone for every two Indians, from children to the elderly (if one accepts raw numbers, the ratio is lower still—900 million phone subscribers, but many are inactive—600 million is more likely accurate).

Even rural India is affected--there are an estimated 40 phone connections for every 100 people in the countryside. Ten years ago, messages came infrequently to rural India, usually as postcards, occasionally as a telegram delivered by a postman on a bicycle.

In the campaign that has just ended, however, Narendra Modi appeared in 700 localities in the state of Uttar Pradesh alone as a 3D hologram, beamed in by satellite. Modi spoke from a studio in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat; outside broadcast vans set up the technology in the target towns. People came from far and wide to see the show and become part of the momentum that the Modi campaign was building.

Modi has a reputation for being a quick learner, a man who likes a new idea, especially if he discovers that he thought of it first. He is said to have had a three-month course in public relations in the US in the 1990s when he worked as a party spokesman in the New Delhi headquarters of the BJP. He has been Tweeting since 2009, and although there is disagreement over how many of his Twitter followers are active, he can claim more than four million.

This was not India’s first election with mobile phones. Former BJP Prime Minister, Atul Bihari Vajpayee, sent recorded messages to thousands of mobile phone subscribers during the 2004 campaign, but there were no more than 20 million connections then.

And that seemed to backfire. People tried to reply to the Prime Minister, only to discover to their annoyance that the traffic was one way. In the current election, parties less imaginative than the BJP sent out streams of SMS messages, as many as five a day, and recipients were similarly irritated, not impressed. They were also concerned at how political parties got their numbers so easily.

Digital technology touched nearly every Indian in this campaign. A cheap 2G phone, available for as little as 10 USD with a cheap plan to match, are within the reach of even the very poor. A labourer on an urban building site in some states can nearly earn that in a day. The lowly wage from a week’s work in guaranteed-employment schemes adds up to about the same.

Even cheap phones come loaded with eight of the eleven scripts in which Indian newspapers are published and children are educated. If you want to send a SMS in Malayalam or Bengali, your 2G phone is ready to go. Modi and his helpers were well aware of this, campaigning digitally in nine languages.

Your phone also has a flashlight and an FM radio, and by spending only a little more, you can get one with a camera and start your own photo album. The cheap mobile is a marvellous device for poor people who may not be literate and who don’t have a lot in the way of safe storage space.

This omnipresence of the mobile helped to make this the highest-turnout election in Indian history. About two-thirds of the electorate voted—about 540 million people. With all their switched-on, energised electioneering, the BJP and their allies still got only about a third of the vote, but in a multi-party, first-past-the-post system, that translated into more than 60 per cent of the seats.

Discriminating use of the technology allowed the Modi campaign to connect with large segments of India’s hugely diverse electorate. Different levels of technology or ‘platforms’ connected with particular social classes; different appeals targeted varying wants, fears and aspirations.

Thousands of young computer-literate Modi workers had a splendid brand to project—Modi himself. Supremely confident in front of a camera or a microphone, happy to have tweets in his name sent throughout the day, he exuded energy and dynamism. His media-savvy personality enabled him to maintain a carefully cultivated image as a devout, vegetarian celibate, abstaining, as a spiritual man should, from indulgence, yet switched on to the latest solutions to the country’s problems.

The contrast with the languid efforts of Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia, and the public performances of the outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, were disastrous for the Congress Party. In the future, nobody campaigning for political office in India will be able to ignore the ever-expanding array of media formats that reach masses of people. Their sophistication and availability will only grow as 3G and 4G devices fall in price and bring increasing information options, even to India’s poor.

The BJP’s website earned praise from web developers and political operators. As Obama’s campaigns have famously done, it enabled party workers to connect with sympathisers in the community and involve them in the campaign.

However, whether the backroom boys picked the right US president on whom to model their triumphant home page after the victory remains open to question. It showed a cream-clad Modi lifting his eyes and hands in prayerful thanks, proclaiming ‘Mission Accomplished!’ At least, some observed, he was not wearing the gear of a fighter pilot or the khaki shorts of the RSS.

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