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."
Bora's team has uploaded several film clips from Advani's political career onto YouTube and plans to target social networking sites that young people frequent, such as Orkut and Facebook. In March, when Advani's memoir, "My Country, My Life," was published, the party created a Web site with reviews, videos and speeches. Campaign managers hope the book will play the same role as Obama's "The Audacity of Hope."
Advani's career in politics spans six decades; he has served as a deputy prime minister.
In 1992, he and his strident Hindu chauvinistic rhetoric were widely viewed as inspiring a mob to demolish a 16th-century mosque, triggering a wave of sectarian rioting. In recent years, he has toned down his words and moved toward the center to gain wider acceptance.
Some analysts find talk of the Obama campaign model for Advani odd.
"That particular campaign style worked for Obama because he is a young, fresh-faced, charming man who promises change. But Advani has too much baggage, both good and bad, attached to him," said Ramachandra Guha, a political historian with the New India Foundation, a Bangalore-based research group. "It strains one's credulity to imagine the austere, unsmiling Advani being rebranded like Obama."
Another politician trying to woo the youth is the 37-year-old heir apparent of the Congress party's ruling political dynasty, Rahul Gandhi. His office said that while it, too, has "flooded" the YouTube and Flickr Web sites with images of Gandhi, such campaigns cannot go far in India, where Web reach is limited and a quarter of the population lives in poverty, according to official estimates.
Bora agreed that 75 percent of the political networking in India will have to be done offline. The BJP began a series of programs in January that it says are meant to instill a sense of honor and responsibility in first-time voters. The youth are given trendy wristbands that say, "I am proud to be a first time voter."
"People ask me if we are adopting the Obama campaign strategy for Advani-ji," Bora said. "My answer is: 'Replication, no. Inspiration, yes.' "
The inspiration is flowing to the BJP office here through many direct and indirect routes.
A month ago, Abhishek Kumar, an Indian-born software engineer from Houston, e-mailed the BJP about his volunteer work for Obama. He organized American young people for the "Nation for Change" rally in April and worked as a phone bank officer. He sent a proposal to the Advani team for drawing in young voters. The campaign team has invited him to India for two months.
"I am not even an American citizen, and I cannot vote," Kumar, 26, said from Houston. "But because of my work, I feel that the Obama campaign is my own campaign. That is the same feeling I want to bring among the Indian youth for the Advani campaign."
But perhaps the most enduring image that many Indians have of Obama is a recently released photograph of his personal luck charms. In the collection there was a Hanuman figure, the Hindu monkey god.
Immediately, a group of overjoyed priests at a Hanuman temple here began performing an 11-day ritual prayer for Obama's victory.