Elections are imminent in India. The first general elections since 1999 also come to a time when India is increasingly connected via the Internet and cellphones. So, how can technology play a role in the elections? In a market where multiple TV channels will compete to provide saturation coverage of the elections, can the Internet really play a role? These are the questions we will discuss in this series. (A personal note: I was involved in the Internet coverage of the previous three elections in 1996, 1998 and 1999 via our IndiaWorld websites. Much of the traffic then was driven by Non-Resident Indians. What will be different about the 2004 elections is that much of the traffic will be from domestic India.)
First, let us look at the Internet coverage of the elections that happened in the past. There are two aspects of the coverage: pre-voting and the counting process. During the pre-voting part, various websites would offer detailed news and information on the various political parties and candidates, constituency-level information in the form of contesting candidates and results of the previous elections, state-level aggregated results, and closer to the polling date, opinion poll results. So, at this stage, the coverage was more focused on providing information. There were also some interactive elements, including mock stock exchanges.
The counting process was always marked with high traffic as surfers came to find out what was happening. Even though television provided the overall picture and the results, it was hard getting details of specific constituencies. One had to wait for the state-wise coverage or keep staring at the tickers. The Internet, on the other hand, had an advantage in enabling surfers to pull out the information of interest right down to the constituency-level and getting details on the exact votes received by each of the candidates.
The primary source for information is the data feed made available by the Election Commission (EC) of India. However, their information in the past has been made available in a format which can be taken by other websites and processed in the manner they chose, rather than looking at the static pages created by the EC and other websites.
Of course, one major problem during the counting process is that of accessibility of the websites. Traffic is 10-100 times higher during the counting process. It is not easy to build infrastructure for supporting this high, short-duration, free traffic. As a result, it becomes difficult to access most Internet websites during the critical counting process. The situation is similar to what still happens during tightly-contested cricket matches, especially towards the end.
Cut to 2004. Besides an increased user base of Internet users, better and more always-on connections, there is also a much larger population of cellphone users. (For the record, India had an installed base of about 10 million computers, 30 million cellphone users, a total of 70 million telephone lines and about 100 million TVs for a population base of over 1 billion.) So, the question is: what can be done differently during the 2004 elections? We will address this question in three stages: pre-polling, during the counting, and post-elections. But, first, let us take a look at why the coming elections are so important for India and its future.
Tomorrow: The New Indian Voter