Monday, March 9, 2009

Will we have voting via internet in India??

It is just so coincidental that during our lunch time we had a heated debate on this topic and with juts about 7-8 members involved in this discussion it became a pretty serious.

Well we had started off with saying that when should India be planning to use the internet medium for things like voting. We had a few members who supported this or rather felt that it should be a good option while we also had opinions where some of us felt that it is too early in India for having this since the penetration of internet is still not reached the villages as it has in other developed countries. We didn't reach a conclusion that day and we might still not until one day the thing really happens.

One of the interesting argument was that security will be an issue for internet voting. The point that was put forth was that internet voting may involve the votes been unethically cast by family members sharing their passwords for voting with other family members and that this won't be secret ballot. The point also raised was that threatening could also happen to all the internet voters by some parties by holding them at gunpoint, which I was not supportive of.

An intelligent point which had also come up was about the cost cutting that could happen by use of less papers for this purpose. NRIs currently don't have the rights to vote although forming a very large community in country's decisions and economy. Why hasn't this point also not taken up anytime ? One can easily make use of Indian embassies in respective countries to help get the votes in for the NRIs. There are few unasnwered questions, which I feel we shall get answers in the next 5-10 years or less.

So anyway we still don't have internet voting happening but the popularity of internet during the recent american elections has started catching up in some way for Indian elections. Below is an article published in Businessweek asia on March 6.

*Barack Obama used a unique grassroots campaign that leveraged technology to reach out to the masses. His assets included an impressive 13 million e-mail addresses and 2 million friends on his social networking site, according to published data. Now Indian politicians are taking a leaf out his stunning campaign and are trying to use technology to reach out to the electorate.

A few parties, including Congress and BJP, are also reaching out to specialised consultants, and going beyond plain vanilla websites to help them plan their campaigns. Robinder N Sachdev, president, The Imagindia Institute, a think-tank which helped to mobilise Indians as a lobby group in the American elections, is now in discussions with campaign managers of various political parties.

Mr. Sachdev plans to leverage cell phones, which has a much higher penetration in India compared to the internet, to reach out directly to voters. "At every rally, we will ask people to send in three issues that matter to them most on the SMS number we set up. Even if 10-15% of the 1000 people who attend the rally do that, you've got a sizeable number," he said.

The candidates can then address the issues that matter most to the constituency through targeted campaigns. A rating of all the issues can be done based on the responses received. And, a la Obama, who built what is probably one of the most valuable databases of e-mail addresses and contact details, the mobile numbers can help political parties build a database through which they can directly reach out to voters.

The Congress and BJP are spending more than Rs 1 crore on online, e-mail, mobile this time. Although party contributions from individual voters is not yet happening because of low penetration of the internet and payment gateways, BJP said it is pushing around half a million mails everyday. "Though the penetration of internet is still minuscule, 60% of internet users live in the top eight cities which impacts some 50 Lok Sabha seats, so it's a medium worth considering," said Pradyut Bora, convenor of BJP's IT cell.

The BJP has also cross-linked its website to different portals and are keenly promoting it through the Google search engine. It also plans to use Facebook and Orkut. Others like BSP are in the process of signing up a Delhi firm to launch a website, while UP CM Mayawati is expected to soon launch her blog.

The Congress is updating its website, given that online medium are increasing becoming more central. "We are in the process of giving a cleaner and leaner look to our five-year-old website," Biswajeet Prithvi Singh, chairman, computer department, Congress, told ET.

The relatively lower cost of an online campaign also makes it a compelling proposition, according to Mrutunjoy Mishra, co-founder of online firm "By spending Rs 3-4 lakh, one can get around 4 million impressions which is far cheaper than channels like television or outdoor," he said.

Parties like CPM are, however, a little sceptical of the power of online. "In a poor country like ours face-to-face contact with voter will always occupy centre stage. Online campaigns can be a successful model for America where internet penetration is 100%," said Prasanjeet Bose, convenor, research unit, CPM. "The Obamisation of Indian politics has little relevance to the bulk of voters that actually elects MPs on the basis of caste, creed and Rs 2 rice promises," admitted Mr. Mishra. "But nonetheless, this is just the beginning. By general elections 2014, the results will start to show," he added.*

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