The mayavi or mysterious virus is dampening and rupturing the music of Uttar Pradesh election campaign, which was warming up slowly with huge rallies, slogans, and performances of enthusiastic supporters. The Election Commission recently imposed a ban on rallies, road shows and big meetings for a week in all five states going to polls — UP, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur. But it has allowed political parties to carry out door-to-door voter outreach with five workers and digital campaigns.
Who is going to benefit and who is going to lose due to the entry of Covid-19, and more specifically Omicron? This is going to change the entire culture of electioneering and mode of electoral politics in these states. Cadre, connectivity and digital power are going to emerge as main factors of winnability in this election.
Who has dedicated cadre/voters?
The parties who have strong cadre base and are in constant connect with the public will be in a beneficial position. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is famously known to have a strong, dedicated army of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadre on the ground that works to spread the campaign message and do the most important thing on voting day – get out the vote, as the Americans say. The RSS acts as a parallel force all through the five years between elections to keep their political and social narrative alive.
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) also has a dedicated voter base that will vote for Behenji even if they are unhappy with the party’s performance. These are predominantly jatav voters. The Samajwadi Party (SP), on the other hand, has the more-or-less loyal MY (Muslim-Yadav) factor.
But as previous alliances have shown, it is not enough to just rely on loyal vote base. Parties are constantly having to reach out to other communities beyond their captive constituents. In a non-rally campaign, this task of reaching out becomes a challenge for everybody. However, the BJP has an edge here because of its large Hindu base.
Who has more data and WhatsApp groups?
The political parties that have enhanced their digital strength by developing IT infrastructure, strengthening capacity of artificial intelligence, training cadres for organised virtual campaign will be in an advantageous position. Political parties that have strong area-wise data of socio-economic-political profile of caste, classes and communities will take lead in the election campaign in all five states. The BJP has a formidable network in WhatsApp and Telegram groups, as also Facebook and YouTube. This is part of political folklore now. Other parties have tried to emulate and play catch-up.
The role of researchers, campaign consultants, and techno-experts may increase in this virtual mode of electoral campaigning. The advertisements on print and electronic channels and on digital sites will play an important role in disseminating the messages of political parties to people.
But for viral content, you need a charasmatic leader too. Modi and Yogi have both passed that test. Priyanka Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav have appeal, but it’s not broad-based.
Who has the first-mover advantage?
The election campaigns in Uttar Pradesh and other four states will, however, not be completely digital — they will be in mixed mode with both door-to-door campaigns and high-tech virtual campaigns. But Covid shows that those political leaders who worked for the people for five years have an edge over those who are just gearing up.
It used to be the old political wisdom in India that elections are won and lost in the last two months. SP’s Akhilesh Yadav appears to be a believer in this. He has picked up visible campaigning only in recent weeks. But in the era of Narendra Modi’s BJP, election campaigning is done all through the five years with 24×7 politicians. It gives the party a lead, especially in Uttar Pradesh.
The BJP, under the leadership of Yogi Adityanath, worked throughout the five years by creating and delivering various social welfare programmes to the poor and marginalised. Second, the BJP acquired the largest and strongest cadre base in the state. Since 2014, the party has emphasised on digital campaigning —whether through social media or uploading rally speeches online. Narendra Modi has used social media more visibly than other leaders. Having realised the importance of it, the cadres started collecting more phone numbers and data and disseminating their agenda through WhatsApp. The direct and indirect, visible and invisible support of the cadres of RSS is added advantage for the BJP.
The Samajwadi Party also has strong organisational presence in the state, but is in the process of developing a strong virtual network. Meanwhile, the BSP has a mass base of cadres but is yet to evolve effective virtual campaigns. The Congress has the ability for a virtual campaign, but its base is eroding by the day.
As election campaigns get modified by Covid, political capital of parties also evolve. Digital campaigns are the currency in demand now. Will democracy suffer?
The author is Professor and Director at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. He tweets @poetbadri. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)