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India leaders blog, text to plug in to young voters

Reuters | 03/18/2009 5:59 PM



MUMBAI - Video clips on YouTube, updates on Facebook, blogs, and an online voter registration campaign.

Welcome to a newly-wired India, where political parties are using text messages to send updates and leaders are sprucing up their pages on social networking sites in an effort to connect with the country's growing young and plugged-in generation.

With nearly 700 million people eligible to cast their votes in an April and May general election, the ruling Congress party and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are devoting more time to first-time voters and the tech-savvy middle class.

The reasons are not hard to find: a booming economy that grew at about 9 percent in the last three years encouraged rapid penetration of Internet and mobile phone ownership, giving politicians tools to connect with even far-flung areas.

"We have 100 million first-time voters in the age group 18-24, and they are all most likely connected via the Internet and mobile phones," said Diptarup Chakraborti, a principal research analyst at Gartner consultancy.

Now, after a successful presidential campaign by a youthful, tech-savvy Barack Obama, as well as the Mumbai attacks last November, a groundswell of activism and political awareness among the youth is apparent, particularly in the cities.

Both Congress and the BJP's prime ministerial candidates are elderly, but that has not stopped the parties from reaching out to the youth, using text messages, campaign tunes and videos.

L.K. Advani, the iPhone-carrying, 81-year-old leader of Hindu nationalist BJP, has posted his own blog (http://blog.lkadvani.in).

"In my own political life spanning six decades, I have enthusiastically embraced every new communication technology -- from the early simple Casio digital diary to iPod and iPhone," he wrote in a blog that drew more than 100 comments.

BJP teams have made YouTube campaign videos and their election offices in New Delhi are packed with youngsters glued to computer screens to update campaign websites.

"There are emotional and functional reasons for using technology: functionally, it is more cost-effective and more participative than say, a rally or an advertisement," said Kiran Khalap, co-founder of brand consultancy Chlorophyll.

"And emotionally, they want to be like the cool urban youth they want to connect with," he said.

A young Gandhi

The BJP's main competitor for the youth vote may be Rahul Gandhi, 38, son of Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi and head of the party's youth wing. He is tech-savvy, and has been doing the rounds of colleges, mingling with students and posing for pictures taken on camera phones.

Gandhi has thousands of supporters on Facebook and his portrait dominates many election billboards, even though it is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 76, who is the party's candidate for the top job.

The Congress party has bought the rights to Oscar-winning anthem "Jai Ho," whose title is Hindi for "Let There Be Victory," from the movie "Slumdog Millionaire."

But the two main parties' reach may pale with the 55,000 YouTube views of Omar Abdullah's rousing speech in parliament last year in defense of secularism and a civil nuclear deal.

Abdullah, 38, the youngest chief minister of restive Jammu and Kashmir state and seen as a rising political star, has a Facebook profile and also wrote a blog.

One-fourth of the electorate is below the age of 25, but in previous years few parties courted this segment because it was not so politically-inclined.

Now, an ad for a mobile firm shows a leader using text messages for feedback from her constituency, while a campaign (http://www.jaagore.com) aims to persuade urban youth to vote.

Only about 10 percent of urban youth voted in the last general election in 2004, said Sangeeta Talwar, an executive director at Tata Tea which is running the Jaago Re campaign.

"If the youth are made to feel they have the power to influence the outcome of the election and the future of the country, that's a very powerful motivator," said Talwar.

But a hit song and blogs alone can't do magic, said Khalap.

"Awareness may grow, but whether it will change attitudes and behavior of voters and politicians remains to be seen," he said.

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