NEW DELHI — One recent Sunday morning, volunteers for India’s main opposition party fanned out through a middle-class apartment building in the capital. They were knocking on doors, guided by the most sophisticated set of analytical voter data that India has ever seen.
When a sleepy young man at one door said he favored the party’s candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, the volunteers pounced.
“Are you on Facebook? Twitter? Do you use WhatsApp to chat with friends? We would like to send out some political jokes, Modi messages and videos. Can you post and circulate them among your friends?” asked Mahavir Mittal, 45, a shoe box manufacturer.
On Monday, millions began heading to the polls in an election that could oust the party that has dominated India’s politics for decades and see the voters move beyond traditional priorities such as caste and religion to focus on government corruption and the economy.
India’s electorate is starkly different today compared with a decade ago, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first coalition government came to power. About two-thirds of the population is younger than 35. Voters are more urban and connected than ever before, and per capita income has risen dramatically. Upwardly mobile urban dwellers make up about one-third of the electorate.
To reach them, political parties are going beyond the traditional campaign rallies, packed with supporters bused in by candidates. Now, they are pursuing U.S.-style campaign strategies, including volunteer mobilization, social media outreach and micro-targeting of various groups — such as business executives, students and retirees living in gated communities. The parties hope to engage members of India’s growing middle class who in previous elections stayed home instead of waiting in long, chaotic lines at polling stations.
The tactics are also being used to reach India’s youths. The number of first-time voters has increased from 43 million in 2009 to 101 million, out of 814 million eligible voters, according to the Election Commission of India.
In the past, voters often cast ballots along caste, religious or ethnic lines, sometimes following a village elder’s orders. This benefited the governing Congress party, which has a large presence in the countryside.
“I am impatient. Some days I feel that our old-style politics and politicians will never change, but then there are days when I feel there is still some hope for India,” said Tavleen Kohli, 22, a graduate student of psychology in Gurgaon, a suburb of the capital. “Jobs are important for me, but so is clean politics. In this election, many of my friends feel that our vote matters.”
Modi, 63, has 3.66 million followers on Twitter and has drawn more than a million volunteers to his campaign, a new development in a country where politicking has generally been done by party workers, called cadres. His Bharatiya Janata Party is ahead in most polls.
His campaign highlights his record as the pro-business chief minister of the western state of Gujarat and plays down his credentials as an ardent Hindu nationalist. He is trying to capitalize on disillusionment with the current government over the slowdown in economic growth. The country’s gross domestic product grew at more than 4 percent in 2013, less than half of the increase in 2010.
Modi’s followers run war rooms in three cities, with social media and speechwriting teams that can fine-tune his message for specific groups.
Indian campaigners don’t have access to the vast array of consumer data that American political parties use. But Modi’s campaign analysts spent months creating a database with polling information from individual precincts in the past six elections, which had to be translated from dozens of languages to identify and target potential voters.
When Mittal was canvassing in central Delhi, he was armed with voters’ telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, the neighborhoods’ past voting records and an estimate of how likely individuals are to vote for Modi.
The volunteers “are the young, middle-class professionals who want to contribute, but they are not here for a lifetime. They have attached themselves to us for a few months,” said Arvind Gupta, the head of the BJP’s digital campaign. “We have studied [President] Obama’s election campaign strategies and observed the elections in Australia. We are taking best practices, but we are also Indianizing it.”
For example, the campaign encourages supporters to place a “missed call” of support with their cellphones as a way to generate a telephone database. The missed call is a common phenomenon in India; people ring a number and then hang up so they are not charged for the call but there’s a gentle reminder that they telephoned. In this case, the campaign can text or call them back with information.
Late last year, the new Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party, surprised many people with its strong showing in the Delhi state election, just a year after it was founded on an anti-
corruption platform. Although its Delhi government quickly imploded, many credited the party’s fast rise to its use of Obama-style tactics such as volunteer canvassing and raising funds from small donors. Since then, the party has raised nearly $3.5 million from smaller donors in amounts as modest as 10 rupees (about 17 cents).
“We were a social movement before we became a political party. We set the benchmark on the use of social media for mobilizing volunteers around an idea of anti-corruption,” said Dilip Pandey, who supervises the campaign for AAP.
Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of global IT giant Infosys, is running for a seat in Parliament as a Congress party candidate and is using micro-targeting to woo voters in the tech hub of Bangalore. His team created an app that helps his volunteers keep track of each family’s political leanings and how they change.
But he says there are still limits to how widely Western-style strategies can be used in India, given that just about 200 million people — less than 20 percent of the population — have Internet access.
“What works is how Obama harnessed volunteers, how to target messaging and communication,” Nilekani said. “What does not work is that the quality of voters’ database in the U.S. is much higher, much more digitized — like voting records, credit-history records, ability to deduce a person’s political affinities. There’s almost no data here.”
Indeed, some experts say it remains to be seen how successful these new campaign strategies will be in a country where nearly 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas, including millions of poor people.
“The importance of social media has grown, but look at the size of the population, the number of people living in villages, the number of illiterates,” said Sanjay Kumar, an election expert and director of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies.
Voters will go to the polls in phases, starting Monday and ending May 12, with tallying scheduled for May 16.
The Congress party, a 128-year-old monolith dominated by the descendants of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, has been slower to adopt new campaign tactics, with its organizers continuing to rely on such traditional methods as large-scale rallies and “road shows” in which candidates travel through villages waving from open cars.
The party’s public face, Rahul Gandhi, 43, Nehru’s great-grandson, is not active on social media. Recently, though, the party has tried to play catch-up to the Modi machine, redesigning its Web site and bringing in Matthew McGregor of the consulting firm Blue State Digital, who was dubbed Obama’s “digital attack dog” in the 2012 campaign. After a training session with McGregor in February, the Congress party introduced a “Fact Check” feature on the Web site to highlight some of Modi’s shortcomings and more controversial statements, according to Gaurav Pandhi, the head of the party’s volunteer social media effort.
“For far too long, the ‘India lives in its villages’ mind-set dominated political calculations and prevented parties from addressing urban voters,” Pandhi said. “But now urban India is hard to ignore.”
Jalees Andrabi contributed to this report.