India's Unlikely Obama

L.K. Advani's advisers hope his message, like Obama's, will resonate with voters'
L.K. Advani's advisers hope his message, like Obama's, will resonate with voters' "hunger for change." (By Pankaj Nangia -- Bloomberg News)
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 11, 2008

NEW DELHI -- An 81-year-old Hindu nationalist who wants to become India's next prime minister has chosen an unlikely model for his election efforts, the Internet-based campaign of Sen. Barack Obama.

For a few months, a small team of political strategists, computer specialists and management graduates in New Delhi has been studying Obama's speeches and slogans, Web site, campus outreach and rhetoric of change.

"About 100 million first-time voters will enter the election landscape next year. That is a staggering number of young people. And the Indian youth is impatient for change," said Sudheendra Kulkarni, who heads up strategy for the campaign.

His candidate is L.K. Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, a nationalist group that hopes to upset the ruling Congress party in elections next May.

"We want to project the image of Advani around the idea of change the same way that Obama's message resonated with people's hunger for change," Kulkarni said.

More than two-thirds of India's 1 billion-plus people are younger than 35, making it one of the youngest emerging economies in the world. Rising income and aspirations, along with rapid urbanization, are forcing political parties to reimagine their old, top-down style of election campaigning.

Even though India is a parliamentary system based on the British model that stresses parties as opposed to leaders, the BJP has found that in the past few elections, personalized campaigns have reaped better dividends and worked well with young voters.

"Like the Obama brand, we need to create a buzz around Advani-ji," said Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a BJP member of Parliament and a key campaign official, attaching the Hindi honorific "ji" to the veteran leader's name. Naqvi recently returned from a leadership program at Yale University with a notebook full of observations from the presidential primaries.

The party predicts that, like in the Obama campaign, technology will play a central role in attracting the youth. It plans to use cellphones and the Internet as important media of political communication. India, with one of the world's fastest-growing cellphone markets, now has 185 million subscribers; 5.5 million are added a month.

In May, Kevin Bertram of Washington-based Distributive Networks spoke at a packed conference in New Delhi about his aggressive use of text messaging in Obama's campaign.

Work on creating a Web site for Advani that is similar to Obama's is also underway.

"Obama's site successfully created communities of supporters and voters. It was used to call a meeting of friends and plan events," said Prodyut Bora, 33, head of the campaign's technology initiative. "We would like the Advani portal to enable millions of voters to connect with him and with each other. This would encourage people to become Advani's local campaigners."

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