India’s election campaign is being fought in voters’ pockets

Apr 11, 2019

“ARE YOU there? It’s me, your sweetheart,” a push notification coos at 7am. It comes from one of India’s most popular smartphone apps, Helo, which allows users to chat and share content. But the flirtatious burble soon gives way to political anecdotes and jokes aimed at national leaders. Many question whether Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress party, is really Hindu, or make him look weak. The torrent of political content is only natural, given that voting began in the country’s seven-phase election on April 11th. But who is behind it all, and what effect will it have on voters?

The campaign still features billboards and little lorries with loudspeakers plying through towns and villages. But this year’s election is being waged most vigorously on voters’ phones. At the previous general election, in 2014, India’s 1.3bn citizens had barely 100m smartphones between them. Now they have more than 400m. Mobile data are cheap, with a gigabyte costing just $0.26. India has become the biggest market for Facebook (more than 300m accounts), WhatsApp (more than 200m active users) and a host of other social-media apps. Many, such as Helo and SHAREit, a similar service, are owned by Chinese firms. Together, they were downloaded 950m times last year.

Many social circles and extended families form WhatsApp groups, to...

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