BJP takes digital route to connect with voters
Addressing a virtual rally for Jammu and Kashmir on Sunday, Union defence minister Rajnath Singh said the mode of outreach was “samvaad ka ek rasta (a way to communicate)”, and added that a new world where physical distancing is the keyword has nudged politics towards the path of “digital India”.Updated: Jun 14, 2020 23:55 IST
With key states headed for the polls later this year and next year, and with the coronavirus disease showing no sign of abating, the poll campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be built around digital rallies that highlight the achievements of the first year of its second stint in power, according to leaders familiar with the details.
“With the pandemic yet to abate, going forward, most of the rallies by leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will be held digitally,” a senior party functionary said.
Addressing a virtual rally for Jammu and Kashmir on Sunday, Union defence minister Rajnath Singh said the mode of outreach was “samvaad ka ek rasta (a way to communicate)”, and added that a new world where physical distancing is the keyword has nudged politics towards the path of “digital India”.
Singh’s address was among the 75 such rallies planned by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, but party leaders said these virtual events were likely to continue as part of poll campaigning. While Bihar will go to polls later this year, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry will vote in 2021 to elect a new government.
Soon after the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 25 to stop the spread of Covid-19, the BJP, which has 180 million member members, set the tone for political engagements in the time of social distancing. Party leaders, led by their president JP Nadda, began holding virtual meetings with workers right down to the booth level.
“It was decided at a general secretary’s meeting that the party can connect digitally with masses and its workers. Ram Madhav (also a general secretary) was the one who suggested the idea and drew up the plan, which was new to a lot of people,” said a second BJP functionary.
National secretaries Tarun Chugh and Satya Kumar were given the charge to plan the rallies. “Big states can have more than one rally and the target audience here is at least 50,000 (for one rally), while in the smaller states, the target audience is 25,000,” the second functionary said.
Union home minister Amit Shah’s rally in Bihar on May 31, which marked the beginning of the programme, recorded over 3.9 million impressions in real time. These rallies are live-streamed on social media. “The response far exceeded expectations,” said BJP Bihar unit president Sanjay Jaiswal.
In that rally, Shah, however, said it was not about elections but about boosting the morale of the people amid the Covid-19 outbreak, though the Opposition criticised his party over the timing of the programme.
The first step to organise rallies is a meeting through video calling. Senior leaders are instructed to hold meetings with workers on a daily basis to discuss the party’s activities during the pandemic. This helps the party cadre prepare the logistics for digital rallies, such as internet services.
“For the May 31 rally addressed by the home minister, information technology (IT) sanyojaks, or coordinators, were appointed at the panchayat level to train party members on how to share data of those who watched the rally. Bihar shattered the myth that party workers in far-flung areas are not tech-savvy,” Jaiswal said.
A list is drawn up in every district of party workers with smartphones and access to the internet, and this is followed up with IT training.
“PM Modi has said we need to turn this challenge (Covid-19) into an opportunity, and that’s exactly what we have done. We have been holding regular IT training lessons for our workers,” said VD Sharma, president of the Madhya Pradesh unit.
Getting people to tune in for the digital rallies has an added advantage for the BJP. “Earlier, we used to ask people to give a missed call to connect with us. Now, when they log on, we get their details and we can then forge a connection with them. Those who are not supporters also log on to the rallies. Our booth-level workers will reach out to these people while maintaining the norms of social distancing,” said the first functionary.
Sharma said the party formed WhatsApp groups in every district of not just party workers but of residents as well. “For the Nitin Gadkari rally in Madya Pradesh on June 10, people from 45,000 of the total 65,000 blocks connected through social media and primarily WhatsApp,” he said.
Digital outreach is not new to the party; it explored the hologram technology in 2012 during the Gujarat assembly polls and scaled it to a pan-India level in 2014 during the general elections. The party is also known for effectively using social media to reach out to people.
From novelty to routine
Rajyavardhan Rathore, a parliamentarian from Rajasthan and a former minister, did not expect to see a bunch of people on the screen when he dialled a party worker in a district in the state.
“Earlier meetings used to be held in designated areas; now with the facility of video calling our workers can speak to us from the comfort of their homes, surrounded by their families,” he said.
The idea of a “big leader” calling on a worker’s phone is fascinating for many.
“There is a lot of interest in VCs (video conferences)…The process itself has become very disciplined and streamlined; workers now follow the etiquette of muting mikes while other speak,” said Rathore, who, like several of his party colleagues, makes multiple such calls every day.
Even as the BJP dismissed allegations by the Opposition that it distributed television and mobile sets ahead of the rallies, most leaders concurred that digital outreach was cost efficient.
“There is a humongous amount of money spent on organising rallies…While we are still advertising about the rallies and putting up posters and banners; it still is a huge money-saver,” said the first functionary.
Will the digital rallies evoke the same response that a public rally does?
“Earlier we used to meet in public rallies, look into each other’s eyes, read facial expressions, but that is not possible here, but samvaad ka ek rasta has been found,” defence minister Singh said on Sunday.
Political commentator Abhay Deshpande said the rallies are a good way of keeping workers motivated and engaged, but it was yet to be seen if they found acceptance among the electorate. “When such rallies get picked by the mainstream media as news, it helps spread the message. But primarily, these are party-worker oriented,” he said.