Karnataka BJP bets on WhatsApp groups to counter anti-incumbency in Mangaluru

Apr 06, 2023 07:53 PM IST

Karnataka elections: The BJP is trying to win the fence sitters and even base voters of other parties to counter the loss of votes

MANGALURU: As the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces anti-incumbency in coastal Karnataka -- a region the party swept in the 2018 assembly elections -- the leadership is turning to its tried and tested weapon – WhatsApp groups. To be precise, 1,680 of them.

Bengaluru: Karnataka BJP President Nalin Kumar Kateel with Union MoS Shobha Karandlaje and Bhagwant Khuba during the inauguration of the party election media centre (PTI)
Bengaluru: Karnataka BJP President Nalin Kumar Kateel with Union MoS Shobha Karandlaje and Bhagwant Khuba during the inauguration of the party election media centre (PTI)

People close to developments said if micromanagement of information provided to the voters at the booth levels helped them win the 2018 assembly elections, the party is trying to win the fence sitters and even base voters of other parties to counter the loss of votes.

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“In the last election, we focused on our core vote bank, but this year, we are even reaching out to the Muslim voters,” said a booth-level social media campaigner in Mangaluru. “We are sending WhatsApp messages to women voters from the Muslim community about how triple talaq and hijab are against women,” he explained.

When asked if it would work, he said, “Even if one vote comes because of this, it is more than enough.”

The saffron party faces a huge challenge in 2023 compared to the previous elections.

Even though political murders took place in the region in the last two years, they never escalated to become a major polarising factor ahead of the latest polls, said people close to developments.

“The minorities have understood how these political murders were used to polarise the communities. And both the Hindu right-wing and hardliners in the Muslim community used murders. So, before these elections, there was a conscious effort from the minorities not to escalate these murders, which would have given milage to the right-wing organisations,” said Muneer Katipalla, a Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) leader.

The lack of polarisation has forced the saffron party to think of a change in tactics, a party leader said.

A senior social media cell in charge said the party devised a plan by segregating voters into three categories – A, B and C.

While category A has the core voters of the party, under section B are those who voted for the party in the last election but could shift camp over caste, unhappiness with the MLAs etc. Category C has those who are core voters of the other party, the social media cell in charge said.

“Category B is the big focus. We have to remind them constantly about how they have benefitted from the party. Here Hindutva ideology doesn’t work. We set camps to get them Ayush cards. Instead of them going to the offices to get these cards, with the help of our people working in government offices, we take these services to them,” said Ajith Ullal, the district convener of the BJP’s social media cell.

But for the customised messaging to cater to the different groups of voters, the cell is relying on its tried and tested organisational hierarchy. Over the years, from booth level to block level and from ward level to district level, party workers and leaders have created several groups on WhatsApp.

“We have a page pracharak for every page of the voter list (30 voters), and this forms the booth level groups, which has around 1000-2000 people accommodated in groups of 200. There are 1,680 groups in Dakshina Kannada. These page pracharaks who are in constant touch with these voters update us on the pulse on the ground, and based on that, we change the nature of the content,” Ullal added.

Ullal said the grassroots workers share hyperlocal information about development activities — for instance, a beneficiary getting access to services offered under a government scheme — and work done by their party with voters in their area. They click images and videos as proof and circulate them to demonstrate that the party cares about local issues.

These WhatsApp groups are also active 24 hours a day during the elections. Party works are deployed “night shifts”, so the steam of messaging in case of any late-night development is communicated without delay.

Since 2018, on the technology front, restrictions have been set by the major instant messaging apps on the number of times messages can be forwarded, and social media platforms and tags have been given to messages that have been forwarded several times.

To counter this, the party has introduced new software with the help of techies working in the party.

“If needed, we can send messages to all groups at once. So, there is no need to send messages to different phones and forward them further. The process is centralised, and it will be made available to all booth-level workers also,” said Dhiresh K, co-convener of the social media cell.

Meanwhile, the Congress, which is hoping to cash in on the anti-incumbency in the region to win back the votes, is yet to catch up on social media.

A party spokesperson admitted that even though the party had recently restructured its social media wing, no one is in charge of the social media in Dakshina Kannada.

“Individual MLAs and candidates are running social media campaigns on their own,” said the spokesperson who didn’t want to be named.

Ramanath Rai, a six-time MLA from Congress, lost the elections in 2018, and he blamed misinformation against him as one of the reasons for the loss. “There was misinformation that as a sitting MLA, I was appeasing one community and at the same time that I had done nothing for the minorities,” he said.

But Congress leaders like him and UT Khader are still relying on the on-ground campaigns to counter the social media cell of the BJP. So much so that debugging the WhatsApp forwards have become part of their campaign speeches and public meetings, said leaders close to developments.

The city police also have increased their social media cells to keep track of the messages doing rounds.

Mangaluru police commissioner Kuldeep Jain said that the police social teams are keeping a close watch on social media activities.

“Activation (of cadre) using social is a reality and an effective method. So, our teams are keeping a constant watch,” he said.

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    Arun Dev is an Assistant Editor with the Karnataka bureau of Hindustan Times. A journalist for over 10 years, he has written extensively on crime and politics.

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