Sunday, February 15, 2015

Curtain Call

“Hello, I am speaking from Pune, Maharashtra. May I take two minutes of your time?” was how the calls began. The person on the other end, a voter from Delhi, would suddenly pay attention to this person from Pune who personally called them. The voice from Maharashtra would humbly request them to cast their vote to Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – a request that would take many Delhi voters by surprise. They found it delightful that someone from another state is so concerned about the betterment of their state. While some of them promptly replied with a, “yes, my family and I are voting for AAP,” while there were others who engaged in discussions over the issue. They would ask about the various allegations against the AAP and from the other end, the person from Maharashtra would address these concerns. Majority of the recipients of these calls gave a positive feedback at the end. Those who were staunchly against the party also mellowed down to a point where they would say, “We will think about the AAP. Thanks to you, we did learn a few nee things about them.” After the call, a pre-recorded message would ask the caller which party the voter was more inclined to vote for. These answers were then recorded and used to get an estimate of the inclination of the people of Delhi. This is the Calling Campaign that played a major role in AAP’s success in the capital.
While AAP’s volunteers from Delhi and rest of India were in Delhi’s streets and mohallas, volunteers from other cities as well as Indians from foreign nations aided them through the calling campaign. When the campaign started, around 2000 calls were made during a day. However, this number exponentially rose to around 75,000 calls per day towards the end of the campaign. The people of Delhi received thousands of calls daily from AAP’s volunteers in Maharashtra – and throughout the campaign, the calls that were made from Maharashtra outnumbered all other states. A lot of effort went into ensuring volunteers’ active participation in the campaign and the volunteers themselves were so enthusiastic that some of them spent their weekends and off-days repeatedly calling voters in Delhi and urging them to vote for the AAP.
One can estimate the success of this campaign by simply taking a look at the numbers. Total number of calls was more than 1,022,000. That means as few as 1 million homes were spoken to. 21% of those calls were made from Maharashtra alone. In the last two weeks of the campaign, 95% of the people said their vote would be for AAP. And now, if you take a look at the results, you will see how flawless the polls done by the calling campaign were.
All this may sound glorious, but it is a Herculean task to pull it off. Setting up this infrastructure that is capable of withstanding the quantity of calls and to achieve the goals that were set when the activity was undertaken was an elaborate process. Let’s take a closer look at it.
There were three fundamental techniques used, one of which was set up on the smartphones by Arvind Kejriwal’s aide from the IIT – Prasonjit Patti. The second tech, developed for the internet was provided by Mohanraj Thirumalai. But incase these two ways fell short, the volunteers bought a toll free server just in case. There was a team looking after social media marketing, recognition, reporting which was supervised by Shashank Malhotra (Delhi), Kartikeya Maheshwari  (Philadelphia, USA) and Gopal Krishna (Patna). Shrikanth Kocharlakota was the US based volunteer who had the responsibility of promoting the calling campaign on social media. A team to train the callers for the campaign was led by Amitabh Gupta (Rourkee) and Alka Harke (Delhi). Apart from this, a team led by Akash Jain was responsible for supervising that the calls are successful. There was a helpline set up for the volunteers participating in the campaign which was under the supervision of Alka Harke which was operated by volunteers in cities like New Bombay, Baroda, Aligarh, Anand, Punjab and Haryana. Communication between departments was given a lot of importance and throughout the campaign; Mahesh Kedari from Chinchwad was overseeing the department that ensured smooth communication between members and volunteers. The calling campaign took place in 25 states; therefore a Coordinator was placed in each state. In Maharashtra it was Amit Khandelwal who handled that responsibility initially and carried forward by Ajinkya Shinde. A Coordinator to look after all the states’ Coordinator also existed – Vikas Shukla (Bengaluru) and Ashish Jain (Chandigarh). And then there was Gopal Sharma in Pune who was looking after all these teams. In Delhi, Bhaskar Singh formed a link between Gopal Sharma and the Party’s high command. All these members are in the age group of 25-35. Most of them volunteered for this campaign while juggling their full time jobs in the IT sector. Being from different cities, a majority of them haven’t even met one another yet; but they were all united by the one conference call and a dream to win Delhi that they all shared.
The biggest fear we had was what if the opposition parties use the infrastructure set up by us to promote themselves. The reason for this fear was the bad experience of the elections in 2013, where 33% of the calls were made to promote BJP or to create a negative perception about AAP using the AAP campaign infrastructure. That mistake would not be repeated this time around. There was a team in charge of the security of this infrastructure and every call made was recorded. If it was noticed that a volunteer is being counterproductive, he/she would be blocked immediately. Initially, many of the calls made were made to existing members of the party. Using all these elements, it was easy to supervise whether anyone is badmouthing the party or bringing it to disrepute or simply promoting an opposing party. Most of these bad apples were caught before we reached out to any voters. Hence, during this election, the negative campaigning was brought down to as little as 0.00001%
The expense incurred in carrying out this campaign was hardly over 1 million rupees. And a major part of that was simply in setting up the hardware for the infrastructure required for its functioning. The campaign on social media was totally free. This calling campaign ran by the AAP will go down in history as a revolutionary way to propagate a political party for an election using the modern media. The discipline and belief with which every single member trusted the party and propagated its ideology and vision for Delhi, it seems only logical that the AAP won in such an unprecedented manner.
The highlight of this initiative was the fact that these weren’t paid tele-callers. These were common people with an extraordinary drive to change the status quo. No one shrugged the work saying “the elections are in Delhi, why should we help?” These were the people who are so infuriated by the political scene of the nation that they were keen to start the process of change, albeit in Delhi, while they wait for their turn in their state and the next lok sabha elections. And most importantly, they did so without any personal vested interests.
Jagdish Bellary from Gulbarga was one of these people. Confined to a wheel chair, he was upset he won’t be able to go to Delhi and work in the field, but he participated in the calling campaign and made phone calls for 8 hours at a stretch. He also managed the calling campaign in Karnataka. Rakesh Dwivedi from New Bombay shares Jagdish’s enthusiasm. He would start talking to three Delhiites on three separate mobile phones and turn it into a group discussion and would convince all of them to vote for AAP. He also pulled an unimaginable feat of making 826 calls in a day. To get a perspective, people have lost their seat for lesser votes. Sanjiv Jindal from Nanded made a whopping 1011 calls to Delhi during the campaign. There is no doubt that this historic win was only made possible by the dedicated and perseverant task force of volunteers that worked behind the curtain.
This is a very positive and important phenomenon that people from all across the country are willing to participate in the process of honest governance in such large numbers with no regard to caste, religion, region - in the true spirit of this nation. People from various corners of this country reached out to more than a million homes in Delhi and urged them to vote for change and a better tomorrow and the people of Delhi responded by voting for AAP candidates in 67 out of the 70 constituencies.
When a play ends and the curtain closes, the performers re-appear on the stage for one last hurrah and accept applause. AAP’s calling campaign put an end to the archaic way of politics and governance in Delhi and announced a change in the way politics will be in the future. To these performers of the calling campaign, my humble applause.

-Translated by Omkar Rege
(Original Marathi article was published in Maharashtra Times of 15th February 2015)