‘Technology at the Wheel’: Computers, Data and Tech-Utopianisms in the Political Imagination of 1980s India

During the 1980s, the Indian electorate was characterized by a rise in partisan de-alignment and an increased volatility in its voting intensions. How did India’s political elites respond to the challenge posed by the changing landscape of voters? This paper explores how an approach of technologism and a recourse to political marketing emerged as the principal solutions to this problem. As the prime mover of these changes, the Indian National Congress (INC) introduced a combination of large-scale data gathering, computerization, and greater reliance on advertising professionals to win elections. Influenced by global currents of cyber-libertarianism and spearheaded by Rajiv Gandhi, these changes were expected to reform INC’s organizational machinery and improve its electoral competitiveness. Although this modernization project had little success in strengthening the Congress, it left a far more decisive impact on the trajectory of the opposition parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). By exploring the interface between politics, media, and technology, this paper shows that the 1980s marked an important inflection point in India’s political culture insofar as it transformed ideas of political expertise, benchmark of actionable evidence, and styles of decision making within intra-party politics.