Google and Yahoo have launched special sites dedicated to coverage of the federal elections starting April 16 in a bid to build their brands among Internet users in the country.
The interest of the companies signals the growing importance of the role of the Internet in Indian elections. A number of Indian political parties are using Web sites, e-mail and videos on YouTube to reach voters.
Google, for example, estimates that 25 million of India's 45 million Internet users are of voting age and are actively looking online for information on the elections and other issues.
The Internet has emerged as an important medium for people to interact and debate with other voters, political parties and candidates, said Gopal Krishna, Yahoo's vice president for emerging markets and acting country head for Yahoo India, on Tuesday.
An estimated 100 million new, young voters will be qualified to participate in this election, and many of them are likely to be Internet users, Krishna added.
Last week, Yahoo set up a micro-site, Yahoo's Election '09, which offers election news coverage, schedules, online polls and discussion forums.
A tool on the site, called "Your Manifesto," also allows users to select issues of importance that let politicians know what interests them. "This feature will be of tremendous value for political parties, because it provides an insight into what is going on in the voters' minds," Krishna said.
Google launched on Monday an online elections center in both English and Hindi. The company has partnered with a large media company, Hindustan Times Media, to offer a co-branded site.
Google is already selling advertising to Indian political parties using its advertising tools, but only on other Web sites and not the election site, said Paroma Roy Chowdhury, head of corporate communications and public affairs at Google India. The election site is not a commercial venture, she said.
The partnership with Hindustan Times, which does not involve money, gives Google both an online and offline reach, Chowdhury said. Besides a significant online presence, the Hindustan Times also has print publications with high circulations that will promote the election site.
"There is a large segment of the population moving onto the Internet, and we are ensuring that the Google brand connects with them," Chowdhury said.
The Google election site, set up with the help of nongovernmental organizations and Hindustan Times, allows voters from across the country to confirm their voter registration status, find their polling location, view their constituency on a map and get relevant election-related news, blogs and videos, Google said.
A large number of Indian portals and news sites are also planning specialized election coverage to attract users.
Yahoo plans to make some money from its election site from advertising, but that is not the primary reason for setting it up, Krishna said. Yahoo is selling advertising on its Indian portals to political parties, he said.
"Our main purpose is to inform and involve our users," Krishna said.
Although Internet portals are competing with traditional media like television and print newspapers, Yahoo believes users want more interactivity which they can only get online, Krishna said.
India had 45.3 million active Internet users at the end of September last year, according to a joint annual survey of Internet users by research firm IMRB International and the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI).
The number of Internet users is less than 4 percent of India's total population, which is an estimated 1.15 billion people.
But a number of these users are concentrated in large urban constituencies where they could help swing the vote in favor of one party or the other, analysts said.
About 60 percent of Internet users come from eight large metropolitan areas which account for 50 seats to the Lok Sabha, the house in the country's parliament that elects the prime minister, said Prodyut Bora, National Convener of the IT Cell of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a large political party.
As Indian political parties try to reach out to Internet users, there are revenue opportunities for Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo.
The BJP, for example, is advertising on social networking sites like Google's Orkut and using targeted advertising offered under Google's AdWords and AdSense advertising programs, Chowdhury said.
Other parties have also stepped up their online campaigns and advertising.