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COVID or Not, The Campaign Must Go On

Neelanjan Sircar

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, parties will be heavily restricted in hosting rallies or other large public events that are so crucial to a standard political campaign. But the campaign must go on.

By Neelanjan Sircar

The upcoming polls, in Assam, Bihar, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, pose unprecedented challenges in election management. Even in the best of times, regulating the behaviour of political actors during elections is nearly impossible. Anecdotally, candidates regularly spend over the farcically low spending limits for candidates (although the official data show otherwise) and all manner of distribution of alcohol and cash occur in the days leading up to the polls. But this year has brought forth even more challenges. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, parties will be heavily restricted in hosting rallies or other large public events that are so crucial to a standard political campaign.

But the campaign must go on. I imagine that two campaign activities will be used as substitutes for the traditional campaign. First, in the absence of large public gatherings convened by high profile politicians, parties will have to rely much more on “within village” activities like door-to-door canvassing. Second, outreach to voters — especially from the party elite — will be far more dependent upon social media and other digital media. 

This will likely generate advantages for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), by far the most well-funded party that has invested the most in its social media campaign strategies. For instance, data from the fiscal year 2017-2018 provided from Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) shows that the BJP received 210 crores out of the total of 222 crores from the controversial “electoral bond scheme” ushered in by the BJP, a staggering 95% of all electoral financing through the electoral bond method. This infusion of money has been crucial to maintaining electoral machinery that swells to impressive proportions during election time. For instance, in the 2019 national election, the BJP fielded an army of panna pramukhs (literally page chiefs), who were assigned to keep track of 30-60 voters each. While panna pramukhs were not fielded everywhere, the very fact that they can be fielded over a large swathe of the country indicates both the scale of funding available to the BJP and its commitment to building dense ground-level machinery during election time.

The existing investment in ground-level campaigning will be a huge asset for the BJP. In a time when movement is restricted due to the COVID pandemic, the ability of ground-level workers to mobilize and bring people to the polls is likely to have a greater impact. Furthermore, these same restrictions will make bureaucratic monitoring of elections and campaign behaviour more difficult, perhaps emboldening ground-level actors to use quasi-legal means to mobilize voters.

The BJP also has consistently demonstrated its proficiency in reaching voters through social media. The BJP of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah may not have been unique in their political appeals with respect to religion and caste, but it has been an innovator in campaign methods. Outside of the Congress, the (regional) parties that grew out of the 1990s built their campaigns in a particular manner that was labour-intensive and dependent upon the control of ground-level leaders that often had caste credentials. The BJP realized that if it had to spread beyond its traditional bases of support, it would have to develop a method of directly reaching the voter in places where it did not carry favours with local elites. The development of a strong social media campaign has created a direct channel between the central leadership, and Prime Minister Modi in particular, with the voter. This was a strategy that was effective, for instance, in the 2019 national elections in West Bengal.

Google search data provides a suggestive data point for BJP’s dominance in social media campaigning. While it is true that users of Google are likely to be younger, wealthier, and more educated than the general population, the recent spread of cheap smartphones in the countryside has significantly broadened access to the platform across India. In Google searches about politicians over the 2019 election period, an extraordinary 75% of searches were about Narendra Modi, compared to just 12% about Rahul Gandhi. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The BJP purportedly has extraordinary advantages in most social media and peer-to-peer campaigning through platforms like Whatsapp. 

Here too, the challenges of monitoring and auditing party behaviour are likely to be significant. During the elections, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has significant policing powers, regulating the content of campaigns and policy promises. As communication with the voter decidedly shifts towards social and digital media, where the content is less visible to third parties, the ECI is compromised in being able to regulate campaigns.

The 2019 national election exposed concerns about the impartiality of the ECI. A number of observers felt that, in the process of regulating content, the ECI showed biases towards the ruling BJP. This was in stark contrast to the narrative of the ECI that had started in the 1990s under TN Seshan and continued by subsequent heads of the ECI — which was seen as aggressively maintaining a level playing field for candidates and parties. The consequence of a level playing field was the democratization of the electoral space with new parties and new kinds of electoral appeals entering the system. 

The real threat to democratic norms today is not a momentary shift in campaign tactics due to the COVID pandemic. Rather, it is the fear that new forms of campaigning that are effective in skirting regulatory norms will get locked in, particularly when the ECI has shown little interest in innovating to meet these challenges. For all of its pathologies, the Indian electoral system showed that simply allowing parties to compete on equal footing generating high turnover in ruling parties at both the state and national levels.

Today, as the very basis of equal political competition is being challenged, we must wonder if brute force and money are all that is required to win elections.

Neelanjan Sircar is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and Assistant Professor at Ashoka University. His research interests include Indian political economy and comparative political behavior .

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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