They can't win elections, but they can represent the difference between comprehensive victory and resounding defeat, says Aditi Phadnis.
It is clear that the Samajwadi Party is a late entrant in the call-centre-as-war-room business. It is equally clear that the Mulayam Singh-led political force means business.
As for the Congress, its war room started weeks before the election that is now underway. The war room is located inside the party's state headquarters in Lucknow, and is manned 24/7 by young people who have all the election-related information at their fingertips. This wing is the nerve-centre of the poll campaign, and its functionaries are busy putting candidates in touch with campaigners, forwarding requests and keeping everyone in the loop.
A computer system connects Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi's Delhi office to the Lucknow office and also to the Uttar Pradesh Youth Congress office. The youngsters here perform administrative functions like making complaints to the Election Commission and coordinating booth-level work, besides oiling the process of actually getting voters to get out of the house and into the polling centres. Sure, some of them will be -- in the future -- Congress candidates themselves, having gone through the process of schooling and radicalisation.
Coming to the SP, its war room is located in the building adjoining the party office -- the house occupied by the Lohia Trust. Thus, the first contrast: the war room is not inside the party office. In fact, it is out of bounds for party workers. "It would have anyway been hard to work inside the office," notes Sonu Yadav, SP's new-age media manager. Reasons: too many distractions, plus too many people keen to know everything and want everything to be explained to them."
The party's new star, Akhilesh Yadav, the SP's state president, is particular about just one thing: the names of those manning the war room must be kept secret. "See, they are on leave from companies where they work. It may compromise them," he points out.
The SP war room is still in the making. One has to leap over the building debris and rubble and climb a steep flight of stairs. Old pictures, posters and piles of manifestoes from past elections lie in heaps. Once you enter, you take a deep breath. Dark timber flooring, blinding white paints on the wall, central airconditioning and desks that would not be out of place in any multinational occupy the first floor.
You are offered refreshment this is no poori kachauri place. Instead, you are politely asked to choose items from a fruit platter that comprises strawberries, grapes and kiwi. Everything is sparkling clean. "We are still getting off the ground," says the team leader. "That's why this looks so spacious," he adds, revealing that he is a chartered accountant otherwise.
Eight or 10 large computer screens hum busily. Young men wearing body armour comprising headsets, Bluetooth earphones and wires sprouting from every orifice work with quiet intensity. They are all from various call centres all over the state capital -- on leave of absence. Their mission: to interact with booth-level workers and report every complaint and glitch back to the party high command -- Akhilesh, in this case. They are comfortable speaking in Hindi, as well as English. None of them eat pan or wear khadi.
How do they see their future? "We are not politicians. We are executives. When the election is over, we will leave," shrugs one of them. "Just as a painter is not needed after the walls are painted, we will have no role after the election."
Others differ. "Our government will function from the secretariat. But this will also be a secretariat," says one of the boys. Adds another, "In its last tenure, our party made a lot of mistakes. This time, we won't repeat them." His allusion is to the scam in the state police's recruitment, besides the SP's reputation for thuggery and strong-arm-methods. That was its undoing in 2007, when the Bahujan Samaj Party led by Mayawati swept into power with simple majority.
The ruling BSP has no war room. "It is in Behenji's head" says Ramkumar, a Dalit social activist who says his boss, Mayawati, is a master tactician who needs to think beyond the here and now.
The war room of the Bharatiya Janata Party is in Delhi. "They don't need one," quips an SP activist. "They are at war with themselves." His reference is to the tension between senior leader Uma Bharati and sections of her party, including Babu Singh Kushwaha, who was brought in the BJP from the BSP by party president Nitin Gadkari on the eve of the elections much to Bharati's anger and resentment.
Sure, war rooms can't win elections. But they can represent the difference between comprehensive victory and resounding defeat.