Electioneering: From Handbill to the Internet

January 7, 2009

Welcome, friends, to my blog. My young colleagues who have created this website told me that a political portal without a blog is like a letter without a signature. I quickly accepted this compelling logic.

I am excited by the idea of using the Internet as a platform for political communication and, especially, for election campaign. As someone who has had the good fortune of participating, either as a campaigner or as a candidate, in every single general election in India since the first one held in 1952, I have seen how the tools of communication have evolved. As far communication is concerned, I am technology-agnostic. My philosophy in this matter is simple: anything that works, deserves to be welcomed. In my own political life spanning six decades, I have enthusiastically embraced every new communication technology – from the early simple Casio digital diary to i-pod and i-phone.

In the first general election, when as a 25-year-old political activist I campaigned in Rajasthan for the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which had been founded in the previous year by Dr. Syama Prasad Mukherjee, even printing a rudimentary handbill was a novelty. Let me recount an interesting incident here. My party had entrusted me with the responsibility of managing the campaign in Kotputli. After studying the problems of the region, I prepared some literature explaining how the Jana Sangh would try to solve these problems if the people elected our candidate. I had also brought copies of the party’s manifesto for Rajasthan.

I reached the constituency about a month before the polling and resolved to remain there until the elections were over. As I began unloading the poll literature that I had brought from Jaipur, I saw our candidate standing at a distance and watching me bemusedly. I was half his age at the time, but he addressed me very respectfully and said, “Advaniji, would you like me and my workers to distribute this literature in the constituency? But where is the need for it? This manifesto and these pamphlets are totally useless in our election strategy. We would have to spend a lot of time and energy in distributing them. If you insist, we will do it. But that will not fetch us even a single additional vote.”

He then added: “Let me tell you one thing, Advaniji. No one can defeat me in this election. This is a predominantly Gujar constituency. And I am the only Gujar in the contest.” His next statement opened my eyes even further regarding the reality of elections in India. “Firstly, every single Gujar who goes to the polling booth is going to vote for me simply because I am a Gujar. Secondly, a majority of non-Gujars will also cast their votes for me because they know that in this constituency I am the most likely winner. They would not like to waste their vote by giving it to a losing candidate!”

For many years, almost until the end of the 1980s, newspapers, magazines and All India Radio were the only means of political communication. The print media, since the government did not own them, were free and could be depended upon to carry news and views about the non-Congress parties. However, since radio was government-controlled, the Congress used it brazenly for its political propaganda. I remember how, throughout the campaign in the 1982 Vidhan Sabha elections in Andhra Pradesh, AIR did not mention the name of N.T. Rama Rao, who went on to win a thumping victory in the polls, even once. The first time people heard his name on AIR was when the Governor invited him to take the oath of office!

As Minister of Information & Broadcasting in the Janata Party government (1977-79), which was formed after the end of the draconian Emergency Rule of Smt. Indira Gandhi, I had to perform the onerous duty of dismantling the infrastructure as well as the mindset of misuse of the government-owned media for the partisan ends of the ruling party. One of my decisions, which made me particularly proud and which was widely welcomed, was to allow, for the first time since 1952, the Opposition parties to have time-slots on AIR to convey their message to the people on the eve of Assembly and Lok Sabha elections.

The Internet has many attractive attributes, but the best perhaps is that it is owned neither by the government nor by any private media groups. It is open to all and in this sense it is the most democratic of all the communication platforms invented by mankind so far. Censorship of political communication on the Internet is both impossible and unthinkable – except in communist and other dictatorships.

Indian elections have come a long way since 1952. Indian voters, both collectively and individually, have become mature. Democratic consciousness and awareness about the power of the vote have grown immeasurably. No political party and no candidate can take the voter for granted. Voters judge an incumbent government by its performance and the contenders for power on the basis of what they stand for vis-à-vis their own expectations. In other words, the content of electoral communication carries far greater weightage today than when our candidate from Kotputli in Rajasthan advised me against the use of printed poll literature.

From printing handbills in small printing presses that used movable types – which has almost disappeared now – to writing a blog on my own website on the Internet, I too have come a long way in using technology for election communication.

Thank you for your spending your precious time reading my first blog. I promise to come back soon. Until then, best wishes.

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