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National - Elections 2004 Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

At the cutting edge of campaigning

E-campaigning is the most personal method and the cheapest way of approaching the voter, says the BJP's Kirit Somaiya, whose campaign is aimed at the middle class in his constituency.

MUMBAI

A small room in an empty building in Mumbai's northeastern suburb of Mulund is today the scene of hectic activity. Since February 25, 29-year-old computer engineer Nirav Chandan has been working 16 to 17 hours a day with a group of young BJP workers on five desktop computers. They are conducting a systematic e-campaign for the BJP's Kirit Somaiya, the sitting MP and candidate from the Mumbai Northeast constituency.

"India Shining, Northeast Mumbai Smiling," beams Somaiya's website. "My eight-page affidavit was uploaded on my website as soon as I filed my nomination papers on April 5," proclaims Mr. Somaiya. Possibly one of the few politicians to whom you can send a text message and expect a response, this chartered accountant's campaign has been drawing a lot of attention — virtually, at least.

Mr. Chandan, who is the BJP youth-wing secretary of Northeast Mumbai, says, "We launched the campaign in four phases. The first thing we did was to set up a call centre that would work like a voters' helpline. Then we had an automated calling centre that played recorded messages to telephone subscribers in our constituency. We segregated the telephone numbers based on the pin codes from this area. We then divided them according to surnames and uploaded the data on the computer. We sent recorded messages in Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. Some 2,60,500 numbers were short-listed; the effective calls we made were about 1,60,000."

The group then contacted the Lions and Rotary clubs and trade and professional associations to get hold of e-mail addresses and mobile telephone numbers. "We sent about 44,000 SMS and 50,000 e-mails this way. The basic concept behind the e-mails was to target the youth who are first time voters," says Mr. Chandan

The first messages dealt with voters' rights and gave a helpline number operated by 15 workers in two shifts between 7 am and 11 pm from February 25 till March 29. Next, says Mr. Chandan, "We highlighted the achievements of Somaiyaji. And now, in the next two days, the messages will talk of his plans after he is elected. The last phase, just before the voting, will urge people to vote."

The campaign, which took many voters by surprise, has had a good response, say party workers. "We did not expect such an overwhelming response from people — usually they don't have time for politicians," remarks Mr. Chandan. Although some people did get irritated, he says the majority were positive. "Handbills are usually thrown into the dustbin, but here the messages went directly to people," exults Mr. Somaiya.

Mr. Somaiya claims the e-campaign is not just for votes but also to popularise information technology. "I found when I entered Parliament, hardly 15 per cent of the politicians or officials knew how to use computers. IT is India's future and wherever I get a chance, I try and popularise it."

"E-campaigning is the most personal method — it's direct and the cheapest way to approach the voter. Bulk SMSs costs only 25 paise each," he adds. "You also learn to be brief which is a good lesson for a politician — you have to say everything in 160 characters in an SMS and even our e-mails are to the point."

However, all this technology is aimed at middle class voters who form about 50 per cent of the electorate of 19 lakh in this constituency.

The rest, without access to mobile phones or computers, will have the joy of meeting him in person. "My e-campaign is only supplementary to my usual door-to-door campaign," adds Mr. Somaiya.

Meena Menon

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