The World’s Largest Video Conference Kicks Off the World’s Largest Elections

The world’s largest democracy runs on video conferencing power.

As Indians prepare to participate at the most populous democratic elections in existence in April and May this year, they will do so under the influence of video calling. Few countries have so enthusiastically embraced video calling as India, and none have done so on such a grand scale. It’s safe to assume that a significant number of citizens will be informed and empowered in their vote by the disembodied messages of politicians that have been beamed all over the country.

If you think that all sounds a little great, consider this. India’s incumbent leader just completed the world’s largest video conference as a key part of his campaign. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently appeared before more than ten million people across 15,000 locations. Simultaneously. Via video conference.
And the record he broke was his own, one he established during the last Indian general election.
We still have a long way to go before video conferencing reaches its full potential as an empowering voter platform, but India is proving that the technology can be a vital part of a healthy democracy.

The World’s Largest Video Conference in a Country of Video Callers

Prime Minister Modi reached out to those ten million party faithful during a rally in late February. He may have been preaching to his BJP party’s converted, but he exercised a form of communication potentially more powerful than broadcast television.
That’s because video conferencing can create a live echo. Modi’s audience was able to respond and question him in real time (via a moderated app). You can’t get that kind of interactivity with a network television broadcast or live-streamed event without the use of second-screen technology, and you can’t reach anywhere near that kind of audience in any political town hall meeting.

What Modi has realized is that video gives you unfiltered access to a mass population with the vitality of a live performance.
Through video conferencing, Modi can engage, reply and direct a live audience of millions. What effect would that kind of power have on a population far smaller than India’s 1.3 billion? What Modi has realized–first back in 2014, albeit across a “mere” 88 locations–is that video gives you unfiltered access to a mass population with the vitality of a live performance.
He can do it, at least in part, because India has long understood the potential of video conferencing.

Video Courts, Politics, and Empowerment
India is in the throes of a communications revolution. In 2015, it embarked on an ambitious program of internet infrastructure modernization and installation that will ultimately deliver fiber optic networks to 250,000 local government areas. In doing so, it will grant millions of people in rural and regional areas access to a worldwide marketplace of ideas, economic advantages, and developmental opportunities.
As that project evolves, the nation has readily embraced video communication as a way of bridging both distance and population density. It is common for all levels of government to stage meetings and make pronouncements over video calls. The local court system has pioneered the use of video calling in major legal trials.

Modi’s use of video conferencing has few genuine innovations beyond its scale.
Here is a small selection of other examples where video conferencing has been used in the country:
Education programs in war-ravaged Kashmir
Independence Day celebrations
Online treatment of opium addiction
Online legal aid services
Disaster relief
All this video outreach is probably essential to maintaining a democratic process among such a large population. Attending 15,000 separate rallies, for example, is simply not physically possible within the time period of a general election.
Unfortunately, however, Modi’s use of video conferencing has few genuine innovations beyond its scale. There is a dearth of democratic innovation behind his virtual appearances.

Video as Broadcast Media
Despite the “world’s largest video conference” headlines, Prime Minister Modi is a rather conventional politician–in performance, at any rate. He may give speeches to thousands of sites simultaneously, but they remain speeches nonetheless–although he has employed holographic imagery at times.

What video conferencing is uniquely positioned to achieve is greater voter empowerment.
This is video conferencing as a recreation of traditional broadcast media. In a nation as populous and diverse as India, that’s a powerful enough tool, especially as it can be wholly controlled by the broadcaster and audience participation can be moderated.
That is the appeal of video conferencing to political parties. It is not, however, it’s best practice as a tool of democracy.
What video conferencing is uniquely positioned to achieve is greater voter empowerment. What sets it apart from broadcast and streamed media is the voice of the audience–the two-way flow of information.
There is little evidence of that in Modi’s presentations. Granted, few politicians would be so brave as to field unsolicited live questions from dozens of different communities at once. Failing to do so, however, renders video calling mute–and moot.
So, perhaps it will fall to one of Modi’s hundreds of political peers and rivals to discover a way to gain an electoral advantage by listening to and responding directly to their electorate.
Perhaps a new election will bring with it a fresh democratic innovation.