Lok Sabha elections 2024: Can tech reshape the poll campaign? | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Lok Sabha elections 2024: Can tech reshape the poll campaign?

ByShahana Sheikh
Mar 16, 2024 04:02 PM IST

Technological change is moulding poll campaigns. But online campaigning is best utilised asa complement, rather than as a to old-fashioned retail politicking

​India epitomises the global communication technology revolution. In the early 1990s, there were only an estimated six landline phones for every 1,000 Indians and waiting times were measured in months. Today, smartphones can be purchased over the counter within minutes and their presence is ubiquitous. This transformation is further enabled by India’s cheap mobile data rates. By the end of 2022, roughly two-thirds of Indians were using smartphones, and by 2026, India will have an estimated one billion smartphone users. India’s political parties have increasingly turned to social media and the messaging app WhatsApp in their campaigns, leading observers to characterise the 2019 parliamentary elections as “the WhatsApp election”.

The ongoing prevalence of mass campaign rallies in the digital age motivates a broader question about modern campaigns in India. (PTI)
The ongoing prevalence of mass campaign rallies in the digital age motivates a broader question about modern campaigns in India. (PTI)

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However, alongside the proliferation of smartphone usage, which allows for low-cost party-voter communication, India’s parties continue to conduct mass in-person campaign rallies during election season. For instance, prior to India’s 2019 national general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi each addressed around 140 in-person rallies during the official two-month campaign. These were accompanied by even more rallies featuring other star campaigners.

The ongoing prevalence of mass campaign rallies in the digital age motivates a broader question about modern campaigns in India. Why do expensive, labour-intensive, and time-consuming in-person mass campaign rallies persist when there are cheaper ways for parties to conduct more targeted outreach online? More specifically, how are internet-based communication technologies shaping party campaigns in India today?

Continued importance of in-person campaigning in India

An analysis of parties’ self-reported campaign expenditures reveals that, during the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections, both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC or the Congress) spent between one-quarter and one-third of their total campaign expenditure on in-person campaigning, with a substantial share spent on rallies. Nationally representative surveys conducted by Lokniti-CSDS reveal that, during campaigns from 1999 to 2019, the share of voters attending election meetings or rallies has remained stable at about 20%.

A face-to-face survey I conducted with approximately 4,000 voters in Uttar Pradesh in 2022 revealed that voters consider in-person campaigning to be of high importance for voter outreach. In the survey, each voter was asked to rank the importance of five campaign activities of a party in its voter outreach efforts: Door-to-door canvassing, mass campaign rallies, campaigning on social media, party advertisements on TV and radio, and party advertisements on roadside public posters and billboards. For smaller, regional-level parties, 73% of surveyed voters considered in-person campaigning — such as door-to-door campaigning and mass campaign rallies — to be the most important campaign activity for voter outreach. Even for large, national-level parties — such as the BJP and the Congress — nearly 54% of the surveyed voters considered in-person campaigning to be of greatest importance. Given how highly voters rank in-person campaigning, it is unlikely to be displaced.

Innovation or normalisation?

Existing scholarship on how the growing use of the internet will affect party campaign strategy is divided into two schools of thought. The first, innovation hypothesis, posits that the internet can reform politics and holds that as internet use becomes widespread, party campaigns conducted on social media platforms will substitute traditional campaigns. Proponents of this theory expect digital technologies to fundamentally upend campaign politics, rendering physical campaigning obsolete. This prediction implies that a party can potentially run a successful campaign entirely online.

On the other hand, the normalisation hypothesis asserts that, even as internet use increases, a party’s online campaigns will supplement — rather than replace — traditional, in-person campaign activities. This logic holds that in-person campaigning is expected to remain central to party strategy, ultimately resulting in “politics as usual.” This theory suggests that in the future, parties may merely live-stream their in-person campaign events on social media.

However, evidence from recent election campaigns in India does not easily align with either of these hypotheses.

Content-complementarity during party campaigns in India

In modern Indian political campaigns, parties strategically leverage content-complementarity — a two-way relationship between online and in-person campaigning.

Social media creates a perpetual demand for parties to produce online content, with campaign rallies being particularly valuable. Scholars have found that rallies achieve a range of purposes, such as solving asymmetric information within a party and enabling clientelistic exchanges between parties and voters. In addition, in the digital age, rallies provide parties with online material, which boosts their importance. The demand for online content also shapes how parties conduct mass campaign rallies.

Before an upcoming rally, a party will broadcast information about it on social media platforms — such as X (formerly known as Twitter), Facebook, and WhatsApp — to mobilise lower-level party functionaries and voters. After the rally’s conclusion, the party will select specific photographs, speech excerpts, sound bites, and displays of enthusiasm from the rally to share on social media. Voters see real-world evidence from rallies as vital in evaluating a party’s fit with their interests and prospects for electoral success.

A party’s concurrent use of different campaigning modes extends the rally’s shelf life, giving it a pre-life and afterlife on social media. The rally-organising party can bypass mainstream media, disseminating rally content on social media. For the rally-organising party, the benefits of the event are no longer limited to reaching those who physically attend it. Rather, through content circulated on social media, a rally’s effects travel to voters’ phones, transcending the rally’s time and place. Social media content from in-person rallies can simultaneously influence voter perceptions of the rally-organising party and mobilise voters for the party’s future rallies.

Parties' functionaries
Parties' functionaries

Content-complementarity manifests most explicitly in content about rally crowds. Because rally crowds provide ready-made content for parties’ online engagement, they are high-stakes endeavours, laden with great risks (if they flop) as well as great rewards (if they succeed). Photographs and videos revealing low turnout are fodder for an opposition party to exploit on social media to mock the rally-organising party for its apparent lack of support. This can negatively impact voter perceptions about the rally-organising party and demobilise voters from participating in its campaign.

On the other hand, if a large crowd turns out for a rally, the rally-organising party can boast about the crowd turnout on social media. This can positively influence voter perceptions and mobilise voters to participate in its campaign.

Party-voter linkages: Evidence from party campaigns

To test the parties’ use of content-complementarity, I examined partisan tweets during recent state election campaigns in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. For Uttar Pradesh, I investigated content on the official X handles of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and the Samajwadi Party (SP), which were the two most competitive parties in the 2022 state elections. A content analysis of nearly 9,300 tweets that appeared from these handles during the campaign period revealed that around 40% of partisan tweets included rally content. For both the BJP and the SP, among tweets that contained rally content, at least 75% included post-rally content.

For Madhya Pradesh, I examined content on the official X handles of the state units of the BJP and Congress. A content analysis of around 3,100 tweets that appeared from these handles during the 2023 state elections campaign uncovered a similar pattern. Around 35% of tweets contained rally content, and of those, almost 70% included post-rally content.

A remarkable percentage of partisan X data contained rally content, and a striking proportion of this was post-rally content, which typically consisted of photographs of the rally crowd and the party’s campaigner and videos from the campaigner’s rally speech.

On X, parties boasted about “historic” crowd sizes at their rallies. For instance, in one post, which included an accompanying video with visuals of large rally crowds, @BJP4UP said: “jan sailab phir se itihaas likhne jaa raha hai, UP mein phir se kamal khilne jaa raha hai” ([this] flood of people is going to write history, the lotus is going to bloom again in UP). In another post, which included a video with a speech excerpt that referred to the large crowd gathered at the rally site, @samajwadiparty said. “Aitihasik jansamarthan bata raha hai badlaav hone jaa raha hai” ([this] historic people’s support is telling us that change is going to happen).

Party circulation of post-rally content is not limited to X. Among the approximately 400 party functionaries from the BJP and the SP who I surveyed in Uttar Pradesh in 2022, 90% said that they posted photographs and/or videos from their party’s rallies on WhatsApp and/or Facebook. Moreover, among the nearly 2,000 voters surveyed in Uttar Pradesh in 2022 who were smartphone users, 53% reported having seen photographs and/or videos of campaign rallies on their phones at least once a day in the lead-up to the elections. This exposure to rally content has the potential to influence voter perceptions and voter mobilisation, especially among smartphone users.

Intraparty Linkages: Evidence from party organisation in India

In addition to leveraging content-complementarity for party-voter linkages, parties also utilise this complementarity for building and maintaining intraparty linkages. Each of India’s major parties has an organisational vertical — variously referred to as the party’s IT and social media cell, department, team, or wing — dedicated to generating and circulating fresh social media content. Content creation and dissemination are among the core functions of these verticals, which operate from a party’s top level (the national or state level) down to its lowest tier (the polling booth level).

The demand for intraparty online content raises the importance of in-person party events and shapes how they are conducted. Online content associated with in-person party events fosters intraparty online engagement between party elites, party functionaries across hierarchy levels, and grassroots party workers.

To disseminate online content, political parties attempt to establish robust networks online. My survey of party functionaries in Uttar Pradesh found that almost all functionaries of the BJP and the SP made use of smartphone apps for party purposes, especially WhatsApp and Facebook. 66% of surveyed party functionaries reported forming new political WhatsApp groups during the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections. Among them, roughly 70% reported that they had mostly included their party’s workers and supporters in these groups, while the remainder reported that they had mostly included voters in these groups.

To understand how often party functionaries communicate over WhatsApp for party purposes, I asked them how many times in a day they used WhatsApp for intraparty communication and how many times for voter communication. On average, during the 2022 state elections campaign in Uttar Pradesh, BJP functionaries said that they used WhatsApp to communicate with other party functionaries and workers around 55 times a day. For SP functionaries, this number was slightly lower at 48 times a day. Both BJP and SP functionaries used WhatsApp to communicate with voters during their campaigns around 40 to 50 times a day on average. In the months following the elections (when the survey was administered), the average number of times per day these functionaries used WhatsApp for political communication reduced to around 15, one-third as much as during the campaign. This implies that even without an upcoming election and associated campaigns, party functionaries used WhatsApp about once every waking hour for intraparty communication and voter communication.

Equipped with organisational resources as well as online networks that span across a party’s levels, together with a steady stream of content — a significant share of which is linked with party events — parties engage in continuous social media messaging. Through messages that they circulate among their functionaries and workers as well as supporters throughout the day, parties reinforce their partisan inclination and keep them in a state of constant mobilisation.

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Technological change is shaping election campaigns and party organisation in India. The BJP has been the leading party in the online space, but other parties are catching up, investing in IT and social media units to build their digital presence. These investments can bear fruit, but party leaders must recognise the limits of online-only campaigns. In the 2024 election — and likely beyond — online campaigning is best utilised as a complement, rather than as a substitute or adjunct, to old-fashioned retail politicking.

(Shahana Sheikh is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Yale University. In the months ahead, the Carnegie-HT “India Elects 2024” series will analyse various dimensions of India’s upcoming election battle—including the role of foreign policy, the strength of partisan ties, and the impact of welfare schemes)

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