As India is Hit by Third COVID Wave, Political Parties are Forced to Move Electoral Campaigns Online
While announcing the state polls in five Indian states, the Election Commission of India last week said that physical rallies and roadshows were allowed only up to 15 January because of a surge in COVID cases.
India is gearing up for the biggest election of 2022 in five states - Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Punjab, Manipur and Uttarakhand. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the ruling party in four of these states and opposition party Congress is the ruling party
The contest to form a government all alone or in alliance with other local political parties has turned into quite a challenge since the election authorities have banned election gatherings.
This is the first time the Election Commission of India (ECI) has completely banned the holding of election rallies, street corner meetings or even meetings at roundabouts in roads or in small localities.
These curbs, brought in because of how infectious COVID-19 is, are forcing political parties to campaign virtually after preparing elaborate blueprints and strategies.
Speaking with Sputnik, Congress party's social media head Rohan Gupta, says: "In the last West Bengal state assembly election in April 2021, we withdrew our physical campaign and reached out to the public via social media.
"Every party got enough time to set up the basics. We have created a template for virtual rallies. Our database of volunteers is ready, and we are connected with them all day, every day."
Gupta added that the Congress party has trained its social media warriors at local level how to connect with voters through digital poll campaigns, besides setting up WhatsApp groups to communicate with volunteers. Gupta has also pointed out that they were "aiming at organic reach and the need to map youth through micro-targeting."
The "warriors" are party workers or volunteers who help Congress during the campaign in their particular area and sometimes travelling to other places.
Similarly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Information Technology cell head Amit Malviya earlier said that "The matrix was in place, and it took us hours to move from physical campaigning to virtual mode."
Malviya said the BJP has "the institutional framework in place, and the party workers are ready for it".
Explaining the digital campaign process, Kamal Tiwari, the founder of TLK Info Solutions, a Digital Marketing Agency, told Sputnik that "all political parties have a good presence in social media".
For instance, the BJP has around five million followers on its Twitter handles and seven million on Facebook in all five states.
Tiwari argues that social media marketing and promotions have been part of every election for several years. "But just after the pandemic, active virtual campaigning
came into shape."
According to government statistics, India has more than 560 million social media users of which 530 million use WhatsApp, followed by YouTube (450 million) , and Facebook (410 million).
Elaborating on how online public campaigns are carried out these days, Tiwari said that it was not about posting electoral banners or live telecasts of politicians on social media platforms, but rather reaching out to the right voters with audio messages, phone calls, 3-D cutouts, digital banners, videos, and LED screen-mounted vans to remote villages.
Various tactics or innovative ideas are being embraced to influence the general public.
For instance, the Congress party is using local culture, language and folk songs during the rallies to connect with people.
Not All Local Parties Satisfied Over Digitised Campaigning Model
Although the two main national parties - the BJP and Congress - appear ready with their digital campaigns to draw as many voters as possible, not all parties are happy with the existing state of affairs.
According to Samajwadi Party (SP) president and former Uttar Pradesh State Chief Akhilesh Yadav, small parties are finding it hard to take on the federally ruling BJP during these state polls.
He says it's happening because of the digitisation of the campaigns.
"The BJP has had a digital infrastructure for a long time, unlike other political parties. We will request the Election Commission to strengthen the digital platforms of other parties so that they can come in a position to compete with the BJP," Yadav says. "In case there is a need for digital rallies, we need to ensure that other parties also have a good digital infrastructure."
Agreeing that such difficulties exist, Tiwari says that there are two important ingredients in social media: "First, money, and second, the longer you've had a presence, the more organic and the better your reach. The BJP is stronger in its social presence if we compare it with any party."
He says voters also talk to each other on the virtual platform, "which directly affects the subconscious of these people".
"But let us not forget social media is a two-way communication medium. Unlike traditional media, where leaders only give speeches, the audience is free to express their opinions," he adds.
Mohit Pandey, who works with an opinion polls survey agency, says their previous election trends show that social media act as a catalyst.
"In general, if a candidate is winning, there will be more traffic and more comments, likes or views on his post . On the other hand, if the candidate is losing, there is less organic traffic on his or her social media posts," he explains.
But whether social media can create a narrative, or how strongly it affects the mind of voters, it is to be seen once again in the upcoming elections
Voting will be held for assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in seven phases between 10 February and 7 March, in a single phase on 15 February in Punjab, Uttarakhand and Goa, and in two phases on 27 February and 3 March in Manipur. The counting of votes will be held on 10 March.
More than 180 million voters, including over 85 million women, are eligible to vote in these five state assembly polls.