With the announcement of election dates for six states that are due for polls in 2022, yet another act of political theatre is set to reach its climax over the next two months. In a slight departure from the past elections, most notably Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam, that were also conducted under the looming shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, this time the Election Commission of India has spelt out a more stringent set campaigning guidelines in view of the surging third wave.
While constitutional experts are divided in their opinion whether elections to the six states should have been deferred until the latest wave subsided, the Election Commission claimed that the polling dates were decided after consultation with the major political parties. Announcing the polling dates on January 8, India’s apex electoral body issued “Revised Broad Guidelines 2022”, that supersede the previous guidelines put in place in August 2020. Given the difficulty in implementing the guidelines on the ground during campaigning in the states that went to polls last year, it remains to be seen how the Election Commission will ensure that the new set of guidelines will be followed this time round.
The latest advisory, which will be in effect until January 15 before its reviewed, prohibit all physical rallies, padyatras, cycle and vehicle rallies, roadshows, and a maximum of five people will be allowed for door-to-door campaigning. While it might be easy to monitor large rallies and roadshows, how the Election Commission is going to monitor the number of people involved in door-to-door campaigning is difficult to fathom. The Election Commission has further advised the parties to “conduct their campaign as much as possible through digital, virtual and media platforms and mobile-based mode.” Therein lies the rub, which gives the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a massive head-start over the opposition.
Starting in 2007, the BJP has built a formidable IT cell that is now an integral part of the party’s gigantic propaganda machinery. No other political party in India — perhaps in the world — can match its digital messaging machinery or its cyber army. Over the years, the IT cell also acquired notoriety for spreading fake news, misleading and morphed videos and audio clips for building a particular narrative or discrediting the opposition, which are widely disseminated over social media and WhatsApp Groups. A Vice investigation revealed that the BJP deployed AI-powered deepfake technology to generate a video that was widely distributed through WhatsApp groups a day before the Delhi Assembly elections in February 2019. It’s marker of the IT cell’s technical sophistry. Opposition parties too have been guilty of spreading fake and misleading messages, targeting the BJP, but they are nowhere near matching the sheer scale, sophistication, and reach of the ruling party’s machinery.
In February 2021, in the run up to the West Bengal Assembly election, party president, Amit Shah, exhorted the state social media cell that employed 60 lakh people to send 50 lakh content items per hour, targeting 2 crore people through 40,000 WhatsApp groups. In June 2020, when the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic was raging across India, the BJP launched its campaign in the state digitally by deploying 70,000 flatscreen TV sets and 15,000 giant LED screens. The surreal visuals of people in rural Bengal watching party leaders addressing them on TV sets strung up on trees and bamboo bushes provide insight into the reach of the BJP’s digital arm. Earlier in Bihar, the party appointed 9,500 IT cell heads and created 72,000 WhatsApp groups at the booth level to reach out to 2 crore voters and organised 60 virtual rallies using 3D LED screens mounted on mobile vans.
A recent investigation by The Wire, spanning over two years, revealed that a highly sophisticated secret app called Tek Fog, allegedly linked to the ruling party, has been used to hijack social media trends, especially Twitter, takeover dormant WhatsApp numbers, troll and abuse women journalists who don’t subscribe to the prevalent public narrative, boost social media follower count by creating bot accounts, and spread fake news on an industrial scale is a barometer of proficiency of its control and command of the digital messaging ecosystem. In combination with its almost total control on the mainstream media, especially the North India-based electronic media and the Hindi press, puts the BJP way ahead in the race for digital campaigning for the upcoming elections, particularly in UP. The saffron party’s grip on power at the Centre greatly hinges on the poll outcome in the most populous state in the country, which sends the largest number of parliamentarians to Delhi.
No opposition party can match the BJP’s spending power when it comes to mass media advertising and campaign expenses. In 2019-2020, the BJP mopped up 74.2 percent of all electoral bonds sold, totalling ₹3,441.32 crore, and the year before it cornered 95 percent of the total bonds sold, amounting to ₹20,000 core. The BJP has consistently been the top ad spender on Facebook for its political campaigns. On Google and YouTube the party accounted for 80 percent of the total ad spend in the run up to the 2019 General Elections.
Against this backdrop, the Election Commission’s guidelines, emphasising on digital campaigning queers the pitch, handing a distinct advantage to the BJP, especially in UP, where the incumbent Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, is already spending big on print and electronic advertising. With no specific guidelines in place for controlling advertising spends, the opposition has its task cut out to come up with innovative campaigning strategies. Even in door-to-door campaigning, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) with its entrenched network of cadre, which has traditionally put its weight behind the party, it’s advantage BJP. The opposition needs to find answers in the next 35 days of campaigning.
UP: February 10, 14, 20, 23 and 27; March 3, and 7.
Manipur: February 27 and March 3
Punjab, Goa, and Uttarakhand: February 14