The 2020 Bihar assembly election marks the beginning of an era in which digital campaigns will become central to Indian elections. With stringent guidelines issued by the Election Commission of India in light of the coronavirus pandemic, physical campaigning will have a limited impact in swinging the electoral outcome. Only groups of up to five people are allowed to campaign door-to-door, and roadshows must be restricted to five vehicles. The narrative of this election, then, will not be set in rallies and roadshows, but on WhatsApp and Facebook.
In June this year, nine opposition parties had petitioned the EC against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s digital campaign in Bihar, claiming that it disturbed the level-playing field. The opposition’s concern is based on good reason, because the digital turn in politics brings four distinct and critical advantages for the BJP going into the Bihar election.
As politics become more about the dazzle of personality and imagery, and the shrillness of emotion, the BJP looks set to continue capturing the mind-space of Indian voters. Bihar will be the next testing ground to gauge the extent of this capture.
BJP’s digital edge
First, the sheer gulf in the digital capability between BJP and its opposition in Bihar. The party has appointed 9,500 IT cell heads. Through as many as 72,000 WhatsApp groups, the party is planning to reach out to every booth with messages about their issues, and real-time videos of speeches by party leaders. On the other hand, the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress combine is yet to officially launch its state’s poll campaign, and has neither the time nor the financial muscle to construct a competitive online infrastructure. Not every bit of campaigning will be done online, the smartphone penetration in Bihar is still only 27 per cent. But the digital infrastructure of the BJP will definitely help set the agenda and the issues for the election.
Today’s politics is mostly about viral content and distribution pipelines. And the BJP not only has a first-mover advantage in this, but it also dominates the space completely. Gone are the days of packed campaign rallies of Lalu Prasad Yadav, where he would crack jokes and have the crowd in splits. Today, election campaigns aren’t just made up of great oratory, but they come on top through the propaganda content on WhatsApp and Facebook, which is at work round-the-clock, long before election dates are even announced.
The Hindutva party also has an expertise in ‘virtual rallies’, having conducted over 60 of them to mark the first year of Modi 2.0. Moreover, these virtual rallies are costly affairs. As former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) S.Y. Quraishi explained such rallies require “expensive communication devices like projection screens, among other things”. Quarishi wrote that this will potentially skew the election field, as “the arrangement of such facilities is evidently going to be a costly affair and the richer political parties will have a gala time in mobilizing voters, putting small regional/local parties at a disadvantage”.
The BJP is already dominant on social media, both in terms of membership and spending power. During the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the party reportedly spent Rs 27 crore on platforms such as Google and Facebook, whereas the second largest party, the Congress, had spent just Rs 5.6 crore. The BJP’s Twitter following of 14.3 million is double that of the Congress. The RJD does not even have 4 lakh followers, as it predominantly depends on its ground-level workers.
Second, a digital campaign is geared to intensify the already domineering impact on personalities in politics. With party workers hemmed in, and door-to-door campaigns restricted, political leadership will be even more pressed to translate their personal connection with the people into actual votes. This gives a significant advantage to the BJP/JDU alliance, because its faces are Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, the most popular national politician and the biggest face in the state, respectively. In contrast, the opposition only possesses a relatively untested Tejashwi Yadav from the RJD as a potential CM face.
These shifts are not new, but will be intensified in the digital-first campaign. The 2014 Lok Sabha election introduced many changes in terms of campaigning and electioneering. The sharpest among these was the shift from ‘issue’ based campaign to ‘image’ based campaign. The absorption of ‘ideology’ in an ‘idol’ gave us the larger-than-life personality cult of Modi. This is a natural outcome of campaigns mediated by digital and electronic media. Even the 2015 Bihar assembly election, in which Nitish Kumar won the CM seat for the third time, was the outcome of the mega image-based ‘Nitish ke saat nischay (Nitish’s seven resolves)’ campaign, conceptualised by the famous political consultant Prashant Kishor. Both the BJP and the Janata Dal (United) have a leader with larger-than-life image — one at the Centre and the other at the state level. The absence of RJD national president and former Bihar CM Lalu Prasad Yadav will be a big loss for the opposition alliance, as they lack a galvanising larger-than-life CM face.
Third, a digital-first campaign is likely to privilege emotive issues over bread-and-butter issues, such as the migrant crisis, unemployment and the economy — all strong suits of the opposition. Constituency-level issues will also be subsumed by larger state-wide or national issues, as the campaign becomes more centralised. Social media thrives on conflict and emotive identity-based rhetoric. It also allows parties to micro-target groups of voters based on their resentments, as we saw in the campaigns of Brexit in the United Kingdom, and Donald Trump’s election in America. All this bends the election in favour of the BJP, which will be free to air the whole gamut of anti-Muslim prejudice and Hindutva pride (especially after the Ram Mandir bhoomi pujan) on WhatsApp and Facebook, without worrying about running afoul of the EC or the model code of conduct. The recent revelation by The Wall Street Journal about Facebook has already shown how big social media networks are hesitant to remove hate speech associated with the BJP.
In fact, one significant shift seen in the last six years has been that campaigns are no longer a one- or two-month affair — the formidable machinery of the BJP is perennially on campaign mode. The tens of thousands of WhatsApp groups of the BJP are constantly churning out Hindutva propaganda on an industrial scale all year round, trying to create a consolidated Hindu political identity. It would be an uphill battle to foreground local material issues in the few months of a heavily curtailed campaign.
TV builds a character
Technology not only transforms the form of political mobilisation, but also its character. The first televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 is still considered to be an iconic moment that changed American politics forever. Before these debates, now a central feature of American politics, few people ever saw their presidential candidates in a live setting. Nixon went into the debate as the favourite, watched by 70 million people, but the polls turned towards Kennedy immediately after the debate.
The young, well-groomed and smooth-talking Kennedy looked and sounded good on television, compared to the pale and tired figure of Nixon, and would go on to win the election. It would start an era of politics where the looks, articulation skills, and rhetoric of the presidential candidates (in short, their ‘image’) would often overshadow the substance of their policies.
In India, media professor Arvind Rajagopal’s fantastic book Politics After Television demonstrates how the Hindu nationalist movement wouldn’t have made it without television. TV helped construct a pan-Indian Hindu community, helped by the widely watched broadcast of Ramayana and Mahabharata programmes.
The digital medium is similarly revolutionising politics — it is the equivalent of a post-television politics on turbocharge. The BJP is not only helped by its commanding lead in the infrastructure and machinery needed for this new era of digital-driven politics, it couldn’t be more suited to exploit its structural features.
The authors are research associates at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal.
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