Poll campaign in Uttar Pradesh set for tech-tonic shift

BJP appears to have virtual edge, others too gear up for digital connect with voters in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh
To check spread of Covid, Election Commission has banned rallies leaving political parties with virtual campaigns on social media and door-to-door contacts to connect with voters. (Deepak Gupta/HT)
To check spread of Covid, Election Commission has banned rallies leaving political parties with virtual campaigns on social media and door-to-door contacts to connect with voters. (Deepak Gupta/HT)
Published on Jan 19, 2022 10:09 PM IST
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ByManish Chandra Pandey and Umesh Raghuvanshi, Lucknow

The major political parties in Uttar Pradesh are bracing themselves up for the real challenge of a virtual campaign in the seven-phase state assembly elections.

Among them, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems all primed for the information technology. The party leaders have been all smiles since the election commission announced that the poll campaign would be either door-to-door or virtual.

To be sure, other parties are also trying to get their act together for a digital connect with the voters while being keenly aware of the need for virtual campaigns, probably separate ones for urban and remote rural areas as reaching out to people in villages may be far more difficult than doing so in the urban areas.

This need arises as the election commission (EC) has urged all political parties and candidates to use digital/virtual media platforms, banning any physical rallies at least up to January 15, 2022 for now in view of Covid-19 concerns.

As for the BJP, its smiles aren’t without reason. It was in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections that the party had first unveiled its then PM face Narendra Modi’s virtual avatar by holding 3D rallies. Those were political events in which Modi would appear simultaneously at different places to address rallies.

“I think as of now, this 3D version is ruled out because till January 15, all political events that violate social distancing are banned by the election commission. So as of now, our campaigns would largely be amplified through WhatsApp groups, social media pages,” a party leader said.

The BJP’s 24-member election panel for UP that includes chief minister Yogi Adityanath is mulling over ways to expand its reach to the people in villages and a door-to-door campaign will be rolled out from Tuesday. But party leaders also admit that since the first wave of Covid itself, the party had begun providing muscle to its plan for virtual rallies and campaign.

“Virtual rallies are being talked about now, but few remember that during the Covid-19 second wave itself, three of our party leaders, including party chief JP Nadda, Union ministers Narendra Singh Tomar and Smriti Irani, had addressed virtual rallies,” said UP BJP’s social media head Ankit Singh Chandel.

“We have about 10,000 social media functionaries itself. The number of cadres with the social media and IT cells, which previously worked as one, but now are separate entities this time. During the Covid peak, as part of our ‘seva hi sangthan campaign’ we had used digital connectivity to connect with the cadre,” Chandel said, adding that the technology that the party has in place would be used to adhere to EC’s directives too during UP polls.

The party has already held around 18 training sessions for its social media teams so far.

So, what would a typical virtual rally be like? Picture this.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose proposed January 9 rally in Lucknow couldn’t take place due to a fresh rise in Covid cases, begins addressing a virtual rally from Delhi.

At the same time, the party’s 150 odd Facebook pages and its Twitter handle start beaming the PM’s virtual outreach, which is further amplified through an estimated about 2 lakh plus WhatsApp groups that are reportedly active.

“I am a member of a WhatsApp group and surely, as soon as the BJP social media teams provide me the link to the PM’s virtual rally, I would share it with all 256 people who are on my list. They will pass it on to others. So, in fact all those who have a smartphone, and these days most have one, would have instant access to the rally live. This is besides the live beaming of rallies on Doordarshan or several news channels,” a BJP member, who is part of these WhatsApp groups, explained. Such BJP karyakartas (workers) spread across the state are actively involved in what one of them described as “content monitoring and dissemination.”

The BJP has little over 27,000 shakti kendras (booth clusters) in UP and the cadres of all these booths. There are an estimated 1.74 lakh booths where the BJP has presence. Each booth has at least 8 to 10 people, mostly youths. Plus, the party has created a team of about two lakh health workers, mostly in the rural areas.

“These people, mostly connected with us or drawn to our party because of leadership and policies, have been trained to remain connected with the people through their respective booths or shakti kendras. All of them have a smartphone. So even in case someone has missed catching a top leader live, we can always play it back for him or send important clips to him,” said a BJP booth level cadre based out of Gonda in eastern UP.

“All ministers, party functionaries and others who have an impressive list of followers, too, would host the rallies on their social media handles,” a party leader said.

“During door-to-door campaigns too, the party would connect with the masses, sharing codes and links ahead of an important rally,” another party leader said.

“It is not just about rallies alone. Rallies are just one way. For target messaging and to counter negative publicity, exposing the opposition through previous videos or clips or statements, too, are there,” another leader said.

In October, union home minister Amit Shah had launched the party’s membership campaign through which the party sought to add 1.5 crore new members in addition to its existing 2.5 crore cadres.

“Now, these four crore (40 million) people who are our party members all have a smartphone. Naturally, being connected to us, they will all have access to at least one basic WhatsApp party group about party programmes, rallies or campaigns. That would mean at least four crore BJP karyakartas automatically become our social media campaigners. So, our virtual programmes would definitely have more reach than ever before. Since no other party has as many active volunteers and karyakartas, we have an edge,” a BJP leader said.

The Opposition, too, says it is ready.

Samajwadi Party’s social media national coordinator Manish Jagan Agarwal said, “We are ready. The BJP has its information technology cell that is known to be having large number of computers, teams of workers and social trollers. The Samajwadi Party, however, has a dedicated team of workers to run the SP’s campaigns and counter the BJP’s propaganda on their personal social media accounts. Our job will be to counter their campaign based on lies.”

A few hours before the ECI announced a ban on physical rallies, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was having a virtual connect with the people on Facebook Live on Saturday (January 8).

“Following directives from Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the party has been fighting for the cause of common man on various issues. About 18,000 Congress workers were sent to jail while fighting for the cause of people and partymen worked to distribute relief. The Congress has connected with 30 million people through 1,50,000 WhatsApp groups. An additional number of 40,000 to 50,000 people have been added as Congress members in every constituency through digital campaigns. The Congress organised more than 1800 training camps to train over 0.2 million workers for campaigning on social media. These workers have been trained to work at booth levels. We are going to deploy 4000 LED vans and this will mean 10 LED vans in every assembly constituency,” said Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee’s digital media incharge Anshu Awasthi.

According to a report of TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) published in 2020, Uttar Pradesh has a tele-density of only 67.8%. This includes tele-density of 48.12% in the rural areas and 131.70% in the urban areas. A considerable number of vendors are already offering LED walls on rent for the polls. It is probably keeping in view this aspect that the EC has decided to increase the election expenditure limit from 28 lakh to 40 lakh in the state.

As smaller groups of workers may be allowed for door-to-door campaigns, face mask printed with logo or election symbol of the political parties along with a kit carrying sanitisers may be among various options for no-contact campaigns. Vendors are already marketing such products online, emphasising how distribution of these items among workers can be effective for promotion of political parties during the pandemic.

Besides asking the political parties to get ready for virtual campaigns, ECI has asked the official machinery, political parties and voters for Covid appropriate behaviour.

“It is expected that all stakeholders namely political parties, candidates, campaigners, voters and authorities engaged in the election process shall be conscious of their prime duty towards public health, safety and therefore shall abide by general instructions and norms of Covid appropriate behaviour as mandated by the respective authorities prescribed,” said EC, adding, “In view of Covid concerns polling time has been increased by one hour…”

“The commission has decided to double free equitable time allotted to recognized political parties on Doordarshan and AIR during these elections.”

“Yes, political parties face a major challenge of reaching out to voters at this point of time. This is not the time for holding elections. If there is a peak, as predicted by medical expert next month, the voters will not turn up,” said Professor SK Dwivedi, former head of the department of political science, Lucknow University.

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