Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Indian Political Parties Miss the Convergence Bus

So the election results are out and the Congress and its allies have won. Hearty congratulations to the UPA. While everyone was busy discussing the possible outcome of the elections, I conducted a research on the political parties' websites. Now why would I do that? I am sure most of you (possible net addicts like me) will agree that you just can not ignore the Internet users anymore. A recent article pegged 4 crores as the population of Internet users in India. How can a political party ignore this population of net-savvy individuals who. like me, go to the net for info? 

Agreed that having a website, and a good one at that, may not affect the outcome of the election result, but again, it just may. Otherwise, why did Shri. L. K. Advani have such a comprehensive site and why was it promoted so aggressively? Arguing that BJP lost, why did Shri. Milind Deora, Ms. Priya Dutt and Shri. Sanjay Nirupam have their well made websites too? There are many other good individual websites on the net. But I was surprised that party websites fared rather poor in my study. I was surprised by what I found and quite disappointed by some of the websites I studied.

For those who would like to go through my entire research paper, get it here.

What would make a good political website? I read up a lot of literature and research papers and came to the following conclusions:

A good political website would include all possible features of participation, information, mobilization and networking. It would be technically sound. In India, every website would ideally have a vernacular version of the site for the ‘net savvy' and also newly literate population. Like I said, my results surprised me. I tested the websites for the presence or absence of design, functional and formal features. 

Here are my observations:

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Design features:

Though most of the websites studied follow the F shaped design pattern, there are some glaring exceptions. The Indian National Congress, the oldest party that, arguably, has the widest voter base in the country does not follow the ‘F’ shaped design on the home page. A collage of photographs of the top leaders of the party has a lot of white space around it, with the party logo on the extreme right. This space is kept with no apparent reason as it pushes the other content out of the view. The placement of graphics, text as well as coloured tables appears unplanned and unaligned. The website is exhaustive in terms of content. However, in terms of layout and design the website of the party defies standard parameters. The other big party, BJP follows the standard requirement of design and graphics.

AIMIM is perhaps the ideal site in terms of layout and design followed by the BSP and MNS. This is relevant in terms of the equalization theory that suggests that minor and fringe parties are able to compete on equal terms with big parties on the Internet. 

Functional features: 

Participatory : 
The study presents some interesting results. The two biggest political parties, INC and the BJP clearly use their websites as an information tool than as a participatory one. In contrast, websites of smaller parties like SP, AITC, JKN, AIMIM, MDMK, and MNS fare better in participatory features. The BSP, DMK, SAD and AIADMK websites have no contact information. Even a major party website like the BJP does not have a feedback form. Only three parties, LJNSP, MDMK and TRS have an online opinion poll feature. Overall, most of the websites are poor in participatory features. 

Information features: 
Most of the parties are strong on information features. Except AIMIM, none of the websites had any general information about the political system. SS and LJNSP did not even have the party history online. However, most have more information than participatory features. Very few websites had an internal search engine. Most of the parties had photographs and videos, except a few like the CPI which had no photographs and graphics. Only SS and AIMIM had SMS feature. Strong informatory features and poor participatory features clearly indicate a top down approach towards communication. 

Mobilization features: 
MNS is the strongest in terms of mobilization features, followed by the INC and JK. Only INC, LJNSP, JKN, MNS, AIFB and JD(S) had online membership facility. Surprisingly, only AIMIM, MDMK, AIFB and TRS had facility to subscribe to party newsletters and publications. 
Only MNS had an online fund raising feature. As many as eight websites had no mobilization features at all. It is apparent as to how much importance the political parties in India give to the mobilizing power of their websites. 

Integration and Networking features:
TRS ranks the best in networking features whereas the websites of BJP, SS and AITC had no networking features. Only DMK and AGP had links to media organizations and DMK and TRS had links to other organizations giving general information. Clearly, Indian political websites do not entertain the concept of giving information other than that of their own party. Therefore, a user cannot expect any general political information. 

Formal features: 

Language:
In a country like India, it is important to have website content in vernacular language. Surprisingly, though having rich graphic content, the BJP website lacks a Hindi version of the website. There are a few features that can be downloaded. However, unlike the INC website, it does not have a separate Hindi version. Even websites of minor parties like the MNS had a link to the Marathi version of the site on the home page. The SS website too does not have a link to the Marathi section, which is surprising considering that the party is known for its policy on ‘Bhoomiputra’ and ‘Marathi Manoos’. In contrast, the MNS and the SP websites have the option to visit either the English or the Marathi section right on the home page. All the websites that had content in vernacular language had taken care to either use a dynamic font or facilitate font download. One note: Since I do not know Telugu, I was unable to find the English version of the TDP website, if there is one. It certainly have such a link in English on the home page. With rapidly growing Internet usage and literacy rates in India, the next media revolution would happen on the Internet.

Other formal features: 
On the CPI website, though there are numerous links, many pages are ‘under construction'. The DMK website had broken links. One of the important aspects in optimizing a website for search engines is well designed meta tags on the home page of the website. Among the major party websites, BJP had an elaborate meta tag code written, INC had none. RJD, BSP, DMK, NCP, TDP and LJNS were the other websites with well designed meta tags. None of the sites had the feature of RSS Feeds. 
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The website of AIMIM ranks the highest in terms of number of features available, followed by the INC, MDMK and the MNS websites. 

Almost all the websites have a visual element focusing on the leaders of the party. The front page of most of the parties is leader centric.Probably the most glaring aspect in this study is the lack of vernacular version of the website. Clearly these websites have not targeted the neo-literate population which would prefer reading content in their own language. Very few websites have the new interactive communication tools like blogs, guestbooks, opinion polls, RSS feeds. Some do not even have feedback form or contact details.

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Personally I was disappointed by the Congress and Shiv Sena websites. On the Congress website, the graphics and information on the home page was not arranged attractively. The Shiv Sena website was attractive, but very minimal information. Some links(Photo Gallery, Election 2009 and Sppeches) on the home page actually did not work! And me being a Marathi Manoos, I was disappointed not to find a Marathi version of the site. In contrast, both, the BJP and the MNS sites were a sight for sore eyes, with links and features arranged attractively. But the BJP site had no Hindi version. Only some features were available in Hindi. The MNS website has an option to choose Marathi or English version right on the home page, so does the SP website.

Most of the political parties in India have hosted their websites as a brochure employing a top-down communication approach rather than an interactive one. Certainly, websites of Indian political parties are not convergent in nature.

What I would like in a political party website? 
  • Give me more info on what you are contesting the elections for. 
  • OK, OK, so you have given it to me. Now please arrange it properly, so I can notice the links easily. 
  • Give me web (HTML) pages and not pdf documents that I have to download all the time.
  • Give me something more than the portraits and biographies of your leaders.
  • I do think that I am educated, so give me something that does not insult my so called intelligence.
  • Please let me interact easily with your party.
  • Give me opinion polls.
  • Give me feedback forms.
  • Let me be able to complain about my local MLAs/MPs. 
  • Let me be the judge of the work they have done. (Have a look at Mumbai Votes)
  • Maybe I want to donate/contribute to the party funds. Please give me a form.
  • If I want to actively participate in the party activity, let me be able to apply online.
  • I want to see the photo gallery.
  • I want to see the videos.
  • I want links to general information on politics and elections.
  • There are many many more individuals like me on the Internet. Help us participate.
  • And yes, we do vote. The big, ugly mark is still there for anyone to see. But I love it! It is the mark of Swa-rajya.