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Election In Pincodes: Digital poll push by parties is a glimpse at future of campaigning

By, , Jind/sonepat/gurugram
May 24, 2024 07:06 PM IST

Tales of Rameshwar Kadian's youth wrestling skills are now replaced by WhatsApp videos in Haryana villages. Digital campaigning gains momentum in the region.

​In his youth, tales of Rameshwar Kadian’s sinewy muscles, feline-quick moves and arm-wringers on the dust bowl of the local akahda were legend. Today, at 63, his skin is crinkled with age, and bags of skin hang loose from his arms. Even his name has evaporated from local memory. He is just tau, the Haryanvi moniker for elderly uncle , and the familiar wooden stem of the hookah, the accompaniment of all taus, is always by his side.

Across Haryana, it is now common to see clumps of people under large trees or in a courtyard, huddled over a phone. (HT photo)

The patriarch of a family of seven owns a television set but rarely turns it on anymore, instead regaling himself with a steady stream of clips on WhatsApp and videos in Haryanvi from YouTube. One stifling afternoon last week, a loud guffaw escaped his lips as a video of Prime Minister Narendra Modi grooving to a Bollywood song played on the phone. The unfamiliar sound of tau laughing brought his relatives out to the yard. “It’s probably not real, but I had never seen anything like it,” Kadian said.

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He isn’t the only one. Across Haryana, it is now not uncommon to see clumps of people under large banyan trees or in the courtyards of an elder’s home, huddled over a phone in the evenings.

Such gatherings, often strictly cloistered by community or caste, are the primary lever of village social life. Now, the smartphone has replaced the hookah for pride of place. The conversations are animated but informal, as villagers discuss clips and YouTube videos, jokes and one-liners, often in local dialects that have narrower but deeper reach. “These videos bring the world to our village. We learn about new events, see what’s happening in the cities, and sometimes, we just laugh together,” said Ram Singh, a farmer from Badli village.

Over the past few years , motivational speeches, jokes and spiritual one-liners have jostled for space with political content as turmoil over the three farm laws in 2020-21, protests seeking Jat reservations, and finally the Lok Sabha polls have upended the political terrain in the region. “With the election season upon us, we are all listening to political videos and Youtubers, their agenda and what they’re saying,” said Ram Singh. “And we’re receiving video calls from candidates greeting us and talking to us by taking our names.”

Such examples abound across India . As the world’s largest elections enter the home stretch, politicians are spending a chunk of their campaigning budgets on modes of outreach not tried at scale before – hiring companies to shoot videos that can then be used to generate calls and videos, personalised clips to be spread over WhatsApp, holograms that add some dazzle to a weary campaign, and deep fake videos sometimes of leaders long dead.

Some aspects of these campaigns are run from formal party war rooms – HT visited the BJP and Congress facilities focussed on Haryana to take stock – while others are outsourced to companies, and still others to little-known operators ruthlessly churning out manipulated clips on demand. But how effective are they? The high-stakes Sonepat constituency offered some clues.

YouTube sensation

In southern Haryana, there are mostly three categories of influencers. A cavernous wedding hall outside Jind is the makeshift home of two YouTubers from the first category – Mahinder Singh and Anil Belarkha – whose rise in local popularity is tied intimately with the churn in this belt. From 6am to 7pm every day, the two men brainstorm in a kitschy room, sharing space with a glittering silver replica of a unicorn and another of an elephant. Their YouTube channel – Apka Reporter (your reporter) – has scores of five-minute videos in local Haryanvi dialects, rooted characters such as a tau , and themes targeting the government on questions of price rise, farmer issues and community pride. “We don’t have any ties to any political party but find more traction on videos questioning the government on issues,” said Mahinder Singh.

Belarkha said one bare-bones video of five minutes takes an hour to shoot, then a couple of hours to edit, and then another couple to sync audio and insert subtitles. “The demand from rural areas is high, and so now we want to release a video every two days, instead of seven days.”

They say Opposition politicians sometimes pick up their most viral videos but are frustrated at their haphazard operations. “The BJP is far ahead in its coordination and signal boosting. The Opposition is too ragtag,” said Mahinder Singh.

Himmat Saini exemplifies the second kind. A YouTuber, Saini, 32, has expanded his social media reach into a fledgling business. He now operates a team of 20 professionals – producers, content writers, editors, and graphic designers – to cater to the demands of various parties. His services include dubbing and editing videos and pictures of politicians, and tying up with influencers to help the clips gain traction.

His team comprises both full-time hires for the duration of the election season and freelancers . This period is particularly lucrative as political parties invest significant sums to maximise reach and visibility. “Candidates rarely negotiate, they are focused on ensuring their presence is felt everywhere,” he said.

The problem both these categories face, by their own admission, is that people aren’t always interested in overt political content. “A video call from a politician is a novelty, but I am more interested in fitness tips and workout training videos. That’s what I watch everyday with my friends,” said Abhishek Gohana, 22.

This is where the third class of influencers, exemplified by wrestler Ankit Baiyanpuria, come in. Baiyanpuria, a resident of Sonepat district, is wildly popular in the Haryana hinterland because of his rustic fitness videos. His stark and grainy vlogs always begin with the local greeting Ram Ram bhai Sara Ne, and are shorn of the sleek production and soft lighting of big-city influencers. Instead, he uses bamboo poles and mounds of bricks for his chin-ups and burpees, his background as the son of illiterate labourers and someone who worked as a waiter giving him organic connections with young people in small-town Haryana. Last October, he was picked to shoot a swachhata promotional campaign with Modi, the video viewed eight million times on Youtube and liked 8.6 million times on Instagram. “He’s my idol and I can do anything to meet him once. I even joined the local BJP march. He’s one of us, he’s not a neta. I trust what he does,” said Gohana of Modi.

AI joins the fray

Darkness is descending over Gurugram, the sun’s last rays bouncing off hulking steel-and-glass facades that house the beating heart of India’s economy. Off an obscenely wide highway, a group of people is quietly filing out of a barebones office building. But the day is not ending for all of them. A second job awaits — the moonlighting aimed at financing a family vacation, fees for a better school, or emergency hospital bills.

Ankit Kumar is one of them. A package producer at a private agency, Kumar holds a second job where he, sitting alongside a team of 50 people, edits, manipulates or morphs videos. It’s a painstaking process, beginning with the collection of raw footage, creating a rough cut based on the narrative sought by the client, removing bits that break the narrative, adding visual effects and overlays, adjusting the colour balance and grading, and treating the audio.

“Most important is the audio work and lip synching, or using background music to drown out what’s unnecessary,” he said. Or simply what’s inconvenient.

A flood of such edited clips have inundated southern Haryana in the weeks before the polls, including one where Modi’s purported voice is canvassing for the Congress. “It can take up to 24 hours to make a video viral. We offer those services too. It can take 1.5 lakh depending on what the clients want,” said the owner of the company, requesting anonymity.

This is also the kind of money one needs to shell out for AI-manufactured videos such as that of Modi dancing. Hyderabad-based Polymath Solutions, run by Divyendra Singh Jadoun, has been at the tip of this spear in India, churning out deepfakes of former Andhra Pradesh CM YS Rajasekhara Reddy, for example, campaigning for his son, Jagan Mohan Reddy.

Politicians walk in, get shot in various poses and deliver a set of pre-set campaign promises; the agency then uses data and AI tools to generate video clips, personalised messages, AI-generated videos, songs, CGI clips. To use AI for voice modulation costs a minimum of 5 lakh, and more elaborate video work takes up to 15 lakh.

“We started getting requests from politicians from November 2023; many wanted to put the face of one leader on some controversial video or clone the voice of an opponent to say something they never had. Out of 200 requests, we could only take up 14 because of such ethics issues,” said Jadoun.

What parties do

Across three large rooms inside a bungalow in Gurugram’s Sector 38 is the BJP’s digital war room for southern Haryana. Row upon row of desks is lined with laptops; fingers are flying across keyboards to craft tweets, posts, and videos. Large television screens mounted on the walls stream news channels and live feeds from rallies. Team members, around 300, are calling ground operatives, seeking approval for content or adjusting strategy.

A central command table, adorned with party flags and insignia, serves as a hub for senior strategists to review analytics and brainstorm on tactics. Arun Yadav, who heads BJP’s digital strategy for Gurugram, said they have 20,000 workers running WhatsApp groups focussed on the region, “We are aiming at first-time voters on Instagram…Our team is posting 15-20 reels daily,” he said.

To win the region, Yadav said the BJP has drafted digital influencers such as wrestlers Yogeshwar Dutt and Babita Phogat. “We have a social media budget for 22 professionals such as content producers and graphic designers. There are also over 1,000 Youtubers in Gurugram and we keep a check on their content,” he said.

The Congress’s war room, in comparison, in old Gurugram, is more modest, comprising two teams of 14 young people each. The facility is a hive of coordination, as members discuss strategies to counter the BJP’s narrative and promote their own. Calls for approvals are frequent, and team leads huddle over video conferences with state units.

“We have hired photographers, photo editors, graphic designers and content writers to run the campaign. Our teams collect data across the district and the backend team shares it on social media. We generate more than 30 posts everyday and each post takes nearly 20 minutes to get ready and hit the platform,” said Pankaj Dawar, the party in-charge.

The contrast is evident – the BJP’s facility is better resourced and sleeker, drawing from the party’s deep outreach to influencers, creators and gamers through a string of awards and events held over the past year. The Congress’s is more bootstrapped, focussed on better use of limited resources and signal-boosting organic content created by YouTubers such as Singh.

The common thread -- using local dialects. “Haryanvi dialect makes people feel close to me, like they know the creator and inhabit their world,” said Ashish Malik, who gained popularity in Haryana towns by mimicking former Haryana deputy CM Dushyant Chautala. “Many political parties approached me this election, but I have not agreed to anyone.”

The poll battle

Long considered the heart of Jatland in Haryana, Sonepat is witnessing among the fiercest competitions this election. Jats make up a third of the electorate and every MP since independence, save three, have been from the community. Since 2014, though, the BJP has held the seat by crafting a careful coalition between non-Jat upper-castes and Dalits and playing on their fear of the dominant community. The effectiveness of this strategy was most evident in 2019, when the BJP’s Ramesh Chander Kaushik defeated Congress’s Jat stalwart Bhupinder Singh Hooda by 160,000 votes.

Five years later, though, things are in ferment. The 2020-21 farm protests and Jat reservation stir have soured the community towards former BJP ally, Jannayak Janata Party, and prompted four independent lawmakers to withdraw support from the government. The Nayab Singh Saini government has survived for now, but Congress leaders have smelt blood. In Sonepat, the party has named spiritual leader Satpal Brahmachari, a Hooda acolyte, hoping that the Brahmin candidate can hive off some of the BJP’s upper-caste base, in addition to the Jat vote loyal to Hooda. Wary of anti-incumbency, the BJP has dropped its incumbent MP, and named another Brahmin, Mohan Lal Badoli. The Congress holds five of the nine assembly segments here, the BJP three and JJP one.

In Sonepat’s villages, this churn has created a new kind of evening routine. Shakuntala Devi, 66, a resident of Baiyanpur village, said women gather at night after their chores, sit together, and watch political videos on their phones, engaging in discussions about candidates. “We discuss which candidate is better and whether we want change. These videos help us know better and be cautious,” she said.

Three things are happening. Devi underlines the potential of digital campaigns to drive information and pique interest. In a competitive state such as Haryana, these can bestow important last-mile advantages to a candidate or party.

Two, in the hinterland, video watching is often a community experience. This means videos and clips – manipulated or not – can transcend the realm of the individual (the primary way in which they work in the west) and can help mobilise a community. In a province where caste and community weigh heavy on poll decisions, this is an important signal booster.

But can it prompt someone to change their mind? Kadian is not sure. Over the past two years, he has increasingly grown concerned about his community’s stature, first over the denial of quotas and then the turmoil over sexual harassment charges levelled by Jat women wrestlers against a BJP parliamentarian. “It seems our pride is at stake,” he said. He has learnt YouTube scrolls from his grandson. “I enjoy these videos even when they seem fake, I show it to others too. But will I barter my community’s maan (esteem) just because a video told me to do so?” he asked angrily.

“Never.”

(This is the 29th in a series of election reports from the field that look at national and local issues through an electoral lens.)

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