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Bihar campaign faces virtual test

The Covid-19 pandemic is changing the rules of the electoral game, with Bihar as a test case.

bihar-election Updated: Sep 18, 2020 15:19 IST
Subhash Pathak and Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa
Subhash Pathak and Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa
Hindustan Times, Patna/Delhi
Internet penetration in Bihar is 32 subscribers per 100 people by the end of 2019, according to TRAI data.
Internet penetration in Bihar is 32 subscribers per 100 people by the end of 2019, according to TRAI data.(HT photo)

In the first statewide election to be held after the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, with strict social distancing guidelines in place, Bihar’s political parties suddenly have a new, unusual worry — the state’s low tele-density, low internet penetration, and low mass media exposure.

All three pose a challenge in reaching out to prospective voters in a campaign that will rely on indirect communication and digital tools.

This is a far cry from the pre-Covid-19 era when, in the run-up to elections, political parties mostly had to worry about the size of their rallies, the scale of their advertising campaigns, the logistics of door-to-door campaigning, and the selection of candidates.

Click here for full Covid-19 coverage

The pandemic is changing the rules of the electoral game, with Bihar as a test case.

Tele-density — the number of telephone connections per hundred people in a given area — is the lowest in Bihar , at 59 by the end of 2019, according to data compiled by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). The national average is 89. 

Internet penetration in Bihar is 32 subscribers per 100 people by the end of 2019, according to TRAI data, compared to the national average of 54. This is the lowest among the 22 telecom service areas in India. In Bihar’s rural areas, home to 89% of the state’s population, there were only 22 internet subscribers per 100 people.

Mass media exposure, too, is poor. According to the fourth National Family Health Survey, conducted in 2015-16, 61% women and 36% men in Bihar had no access to mass media. Among all states and union territories, Bihar has the highest share of women with no access to mass media while it is behind only Jharkhand in terms of the share of men with no access to mass media.

BJP spokesman Nikhil Anand said the elections were taking place under a new normal, where social distancing was a must. “However, party has its chain of digitally enabled workers, who in turn arrange the digital output system through local cooperation to reach out to maximum people through virtual rallies,” said Anand.

Rajiv Ranjan Prasad, a spokesperson for the BJP’s ally, the Janata Dal (United), said that the state was grappling with low tele-density for long. “There is limitations of each type of technology. But the pandemic will lead to higher number of mobile users in the state.”

The lead opposition party in Bihar, RJD, which already opposed holding the elections during the pandemic, said it was reliant on its tried and tested mode of campaigning — direct contact with its electors — to overcome technological limitations. “We had pointed out the issue to the Election commission of India and urged it to allow a level playing ground to all parties. Our party is not that resourceful and neither are its voters. RJD leaders have already started holding meetings in small groups at panchayat levels,” said RJD spokesman Mrityunjay Tiwari.

State Congress chief Madan Mohan Jha said that the party’s digital drive to enrol fresh members could have been faster had the state been blessed with better telecom accessibility.

Former Patna University professor, Nawal Kishore Chaudhary, said low tele-density, which is more pronounced among the poor, might not lead to an authentic mandate. “The resource-rich parties may have an upper hand to motivate their electorate for voting. For a proper mandate, the election should be put off till the pandemic is contained,” he said.

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