It was just a little political advertisement on the internet. There was Hillary Clinton in an Orwellian Big Brother-lite persona, mesmerising a catatonic audience. The logo at the end was of Barack Obama’s campaign. It caused a frenzy. Who made this ad? And the answer was not surprising. It was made by an ordinary American, and then uploaded to Youtube.
The incident is important for three reasons. First, given the technology that exists today, it is not difficult to make a quality ad in the comfort of your own home. Second, politics can generate so much interest that a homemade ad on Youtube can make international headlines; and third, politics has become far more personal than anyone had bargained for. In the US, people participation just became easier, and the internet has proved to be a democratic tool no one imagined. The rules of politics have changed.
In contrast, India still seems to be the land of mass rallies and uninspired political posters. Although the country is touted as the next IT giant, there is a lack of awareness of the internet, and especially of its potential power.
Internet penetration is certainly higher in urban India. A study by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) put the figure as 37 million users — a sector dominated by youth under 35. IAMAI also found in November 2006 that within urban areas, Mumbai has the largest number of users — 3.24 million — followed by Delhi, 2.66 million; Chennai, 1.48 million; Kolkata, 1.34 million; Bangalore, 1.31 million; Hyderabad, 1.29 million; Pune, 1.02 million and Ahmedabad with 0.78 million users. Also, it was noticeable that the internet penetration share of the top eight metros had declined from 58 per cent in 2001 to 41 per cent in 2006, which means that smaller towns are also fast getting online. Though figures indicate that these internet users, mostly youth, are a minority, it is crucial to remember that they are a significant minority. Because they constitute a demographic section that is eligible to vote, but largely do not. In other words, they represent a largely untapped political constituency that could be accessed through the internet.
Over the last year, Indian youth have shown their activist genes. Candlelight vigils, SMS campaigns, even Bollywood films stand testament to this trend. That IIT is banning the internet because it is worried that students are becoming anti-social by spending too much time online is an indication of the affinity youth have to the net. Just walk into any cyber cafe, from Dehradun to Manipal, and it will be filled with teenagers browsing through a social networking website called Orkut. In fact, it’s the Orkut revolution that can tell the story of the desperate interest of young Indians to expand their horizons and connect with others. Some popular sites have active forums that discuss topics, ranging from creating a road map for peace in the Middle East to debating reservations in higher education in India.
One only needs to step into the blogosphere to really appreciate the political buzz the youth have created. Log on to blogs that keep comprehensive coverage on Nandigram updated, and then consider that they are manned by Indian post-graduate students studying at prestigious colleges in London. Websites that keep track of all the current debates on the Indian blogosphere reveal that topics range from cricket to the analysis of the impact of e-commerce in India. Hindi blogs are also very active, and regional language blogs are gaining ground. It becomes clear then that connecting politically with urban youth today requires non-traditional tools and strategies.
Conventional politics or the average political campaign lacks imagination. It’s important to remember GenNext does not like to be talked down to, but certainly likes to talk. And that is why Indian bloggers incessantly track and discuss political happenings among themselves — because on this forum they are the ones interpreting their world, where opinions are not being handed down. The Hillary Clinton Youtube ad in the US became popular precisely because it came without the stale air of authority.
But accessibility to information is the key — and that’s what makes the internet so appealing in the first place. So if a political party were to be internet-savvy, and keep a regular online newsletter, ask for opinions, or even start a forum for the discussion of national and international events (with a competent moderator), it would earn the respect of the online news hounds. If the party were to engage the youth on issues at a cerebral level, it would find itself pleasantly surprised.
And chances are, many of the former couch — now desktop — potatoes may then be more inclined to get up, come election day, and cast a vote for his or her party of choice.