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India's First Digital Elections Evoke Strong Reactions Online

The world's biggest election is underway in India and, as India's 714 million voters cast their ballots in the month-long elections, they are witness to a range of digital initiatives from political parties, civil society organizations, media houses and even corporates. It's not surprising, then, that the Indian internet community is abuzz with discussions related to various aspects of the elections.

It's not only a big election in terms of numbers, it's a big election for India in terms of timing. Last November, the terrorist attack in Mumbai shook up India's politically apathetic youngsters and brought them out into the streets. Since then, a series of digital civil society initiatives have sought to channel this newfound sense of civic engagement in the Indian youth into meaningful participation in the political process.

In the run up to the elections, online conversations in India have been charged with this civic consciousness. Transparency campaigns like No Criminals in Politics and Vote Report India and voter registration campaigns like Tata Tea's Jaago Re have caught the imagination of urban India's web-savvy youngsters, with their effective use of social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube.

Rashmi Bansal believed that, with the campaign, Tata Tea has taken corporate social responsibility further than most brands do. Rajesh Kumar wondered why only beverage companies do election themed social advertising. Indian Homemaker and Chavvi Sachdev shared their experiences with voter registration. Sanjukta did an interesting interview with Jaago Re campaign coordinator Jasmine Shah.

At the same time, the janus-faced Lead India/ Bleed India campaign by The Times of India has incited mixed reactions.

Anondan tore apart the Lead India print ad while Rajiv Dingra wondered about the rationale behind the Lead India/ Bleed India dichotomy. On Twitter, several users like Deepak and Kanika, found the Bleed India campaign “funny and creative”, while Sumant and Aadisht believed that Bleed India was “buzz gone wrong” and “badly done sarcasm”.

BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani's Obama-style digital campaign consisting of a blog, a blogger outreach program, and an aggressive internet and mobile advertising element, has also evoked strong reactions online.

Most bloggers, including Sampad Swain, Mayank Dhingra and myself, have praised BJP's campaign, but some, like blogger-turned columnist Sidin Vadukut have complained that it is an overkill.

The Congress Party's Bharat Buland campaign, built around the Oscar-winning song Jai Ho (let there be victory) from Slumdog Millionaire, has attracted a lot of criticism from bloggers like Vinod Sharma, especially after the BJP released a parody titled Bhay Ho (let there be fear).

Aparna Ray has captured some of the reactions to the BJP and Congress campaigns in previous posts on Global Voices.

Several bloggers like Rajesh Jain (associated with Friends of BJP), Offstumped are aggressively campaigning for BJP. The #indiavotes09 Twitter feed is dominated by hardcore BJP supporters like @offstumped, @centerofright, and @deadpresident, with only @vimoh and @b50 standing up for Congress.

Beyond the campaigns, bloggers have been critical of BJP's Hindutva agenda and the Congress party's obsession with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Bhumika Ghimire has written about these critcisms in a previous Global Voices post.

The Indian internet community has also been abuzz with discussions on the controversy surrounding Varun Gandhi's inflammatory anti-Muslim speech and subsequent imprisonment, the incidents of shoe-throwing against Congress politicians P Chidambambaram and Naveen Jindal and BJP leader L K Advani, and the election campaigns of writer Shashi Tharoor , danseuse Mallika Sarabhai and ABN AMRO India chief Meera Sanyal.

In the midst of this spirit of civic engagement, some people have become fixated on the misguided idea of “negative voting” under section 49(O). Basically, the idea is that voters should have the right to ask for a re-election by selecting a “none of the above” option, if none of the candidates are acceptable to them. A chain e-mail falsely claimed that such a rule already exists. Many bloggers, like Deva Prasad and Vimoh, strongly supported the idea and even called it a powerful agent of change. A Facebook group and an online petition promoting the idea are getting some traction.

In terms of individual sources, the Outlook India Election Blog is doing a great curation role by linking to important stories from elsewhere. Social networking community IndiPepal has blogs from several well-known analysts. Blogger Chakresh Mishra is doing a series of state-wise pre-poll predictions for the Indian elections. Blogger Manoj Kevalramani is traveling through 11 states in 45 days to get a first-hand impression of the mood on the ground during the election period. The Indian Muslims Blog is writing about the elections from a unique minority perspective. Jai Hind, Indian Election 2009, Indian Elections 2009, Indian Elections, Speak India and Youth Ki Awaaz are some other blogs dedicated to election coverage. BlogAdda and OneVote are doing a great job of aggregating these conversations.

Cross-posted on Gauravonomics, my blog on social media and social change.

This post is part of the Global Voices special coverage on Indian Elections 2009

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