India has been the target of numerous terrorist attacks and Mumbai (aka Bombay) has been a frequent target, but when downtown Mumbai was held hostage for three days by a bunch of gun-toting young men in November 2008, the urban Indian middle class was outraged like never before. The shocking and tragic incident also woke them up to that fact that unless they engaged with the political process they had no right to complain about political ineptness and security lapses.
Over the past 25 years Indian middle class voters have been exercising their franchise in decreasing numbers, particularly in urban India. In the process they had become quite disconnected from the political process in the country. The alienation was due to both apathy and a sense of helplessness brought on by the perception that while urban, educated and largely young India is impatient for development and change, politics in India still seems to be mired in age-old caste and communal issues as well as corruption. In addition, in the recent period of coalition politics, politicians seem to have forgotten the issues that affect voters. What the attacks of what soon came to be known as 26/11 threw up for urban Indians, however, was the fact that distancing themselves from the political process would not make their problems disappear.
Post November 08 many civil society groups sprang up all over urban India with the aim of stirring their fellow citizens into action on issues that had for too long taken a back seat in the rapidly changing socio-economic scene in Indian cities. Voting during the parliamentary election of 2009 was one such issue. And Smartvote was one such group, based in the southern Indian city of Bangalore.
Made up of young, mid-career professionals and entrepreneurs, Smartvote focused on the educated Bangalorean who had access to the Internet, launching a primarily website-based campaign (www.smartvote.in) that gave voters information on candidates, constituencies and how to go about registering themselves to vote. Smartvote also collaborated with a few other groups and organisations to compile data on candidates, constituencies, electoral issues, the past records of sitting members of parliament, etc. The website, with all the links included there, provided a fairly comprehensive picture of the choices before voters in the city. To strengthen their campaign and widen their reach among citizens who did not have access to the Net they also attempted to form media partnerships with the local press and a local television channel.
The experience with the press and TV were very different. The press, by and large, either ignored their efforts or tried to use Smartvote’s research on candidates for their own reports; when they found that the material was not sensational enough, they lost interest. Some newspapers shied away from collaboration, saying that they would not like to cover any “citizens’ initiative,” possible due to apprehensions that they would face problems with political parties. Other newspapers said Smartvote would have to pay for coverage in their publications. But for a few scattered reports in one or two newspapers, which used some of the interviews done by Smartvote, the “story” about a citizen-initiated effort to counter voter apathy was largely bypassed by the print media in Bangalore.
Smartvote had much better luck with a relatively new local TV network, which broadcasts both in English and the local language, Kannada. Smartvote collaborated with the network’s channels on content and was able to organise several half-hour, USA-style public debates between political candidates (rarely attempted in India before), involving not just candidates fielded by national parties but independents as well. The televised debates were reasonably successful. The network also ran spots urging viewers to log on to smartvote.in and gave credit to Smartvote as equal partners.
The kind of time and effort that citizens’ groups invested in trying to help fellow citizens make an informed choice was certainly commendable. However, the support they received from press was disappointing. As a result, Smartvote had far fewer hits on their website than they expected. Bangalore also had one of the poorest voter turnouts in recent times. A more responsive press may have made a difference.