Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Social Media and Elections

Updated: April 25, 2019 11:00 am

This morning I got a call on my land line, reaching which, placed in my living room, took little time. By the time I picked it up, the caller had disconnected the phone. But two minutes after it rang again. This time when I picked up, it was Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi Chief Minister, who was at the other end. He said “namaskar” and began all of a sudden with the performance of the schools run by the Delhi government and why Delhi should be made a full-fledged state. Somehow, before he finished, the line got disconnected. But, after half an hour or so, I got a call, but this time it was on my mobile. And again, it was Kejriwal and he began the same way….Obviously, it was a recorded message which was being played. And this call must be going to all the voters in Delhi.

If my memory serves me right, last time I had received such calls from political heavyweights was in 2004. That time, it was the then incumbent Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who talked of “shining India”. I do not know if during the remaining period of electioneering, I will receive such calls from Prime Minister Narendra Modi or for that matter Rahul Gandhi. But the fact that I am in the list of Kejriwal is something for which I must express my gratitude to the Delhi Chief Minister!

Political heavyweights talking directly to the voters is one of the dimensions of today’s “political marketing” that provides the candidates new opportunities to connect with potential voters and shape public opinion. As we know, marketing strategies keep on changing and vary from producers to producers, which in this case, happen to be political parties and leaders.  May be that is the reason why Modi or Rahul has not called me; they, unlike Kejriwal, may think that this strategy of talking through phone has been outdated and there are better methods of campaigning.

In fact, the styles or modes of electoral campaigning in India have changed radically over the years.  Of course, there are electoral rallies, but the electioneering atmosphere has totally changed. In my childhood, the voting seasons were marked by gossips, debates and discussions in schools, colleges, shops and community halls in villages and towns. There were loudspeakers, colourful posters, appealing songs and dances organised by candidates and their campaigners. Late T N Sheshan as the Chief Elections Commissioner in early 1990s ended all this. Now you go to any place and unless there is a road show or a rally, you will never realise that the place is going to witness elections.

This has resulted in two things. First, there has been the phenomenal rise of money power in winning Indian elections, because what the candidates are doing to win elections is working through back channels that are not visible – delivering cashes or kinds to the gullible voters, or at least organising community feasts, laced with easy flow of liquor.   This explains why many candidates win elections comfortably these days without even stepping out of their secure homes or party offices.

Simultaneously, and this is the second point, there have been attempts to reach the voters individually as much as possible. And here, the media- technology is playing a big role in the forms of radio and TV, direct mail flyers, email campaigns, social media such as face book and twitter outreach, etc. This needs further explanation. But before doing that, let me point out that every general election in India has seen the political marketing of some core themes in the shape of domineering slogans. Indira Gandhi in 1971 general election coined the term “Garibi Hatao” very successfully. In 1977, her opponents voted her out by using the “democracy vs dictatorship” slogan. Indira Gandhi came back to power resoundingly by talking of “stability” in 1980.

Elections in 1984 and 1991 were overwhelmed with the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, but the election in 1989 in between was dominated by the theme of “fighting corruption”. The 1996 election campaign featured P.V. Narasimha Rao’s economic reforms vs the BJP’s Hindutva. The 1999 campaign was between two powerful personalities – Sonia Gandhi (“videshi”) vs Vajpayee (“swadeshi”) battle. Vajpayee won but in 2004 his “India Shining” slogan failed miserably. In 2009, the L.K. Advani-led BJP campaign went with the slogan “Majboot Neta Nirnayak Sarkar”, but the Sonia-led Congress survived by highlighting  its achievements of the past five years and promising  to deliver more on the welfare and development fronts.

In 2014, it was “Sab ka Sath, Sab ka Vikash” and “acchhe din ayega”  that Modi used with tremendous effects. This time, it is his “Main bhi Chiwkidar”  and ‘Modi Hai to Mumkin Hai’  themes that are countering  Opposition’s ( Rahul Gandhi’s Congress, in particular) “Chowkidar  Chor Hai” and “ Save the Soul  of India” .
What is most noteworthy about the 2019 general elections is that this  is perhaps the first time that “social media” ( YouTube, Facebook, email and twitter) is being used so extensively by all the political contestants. Last time, it was completely an  one –sided affair, with Modi being miles ahead of his rivals in using this new media. His campaign through twitter accounts got great response in the forms of “election volunteers”  . Modi  made young people more active than ever before.  In fact, his speeches and rallies were  virtually repeated manifold, with  twitters  linking them to the YouTube.  In fact, all his  speeches turned out to be huge online events . And same is the case with Modi this time too.

But this time, there is also a difference. The same strategy of using social media is being used equally effectively by the Congress. In fact, there are areas where the Congress seems to have overtaken Modi’s BJP. Social media, it may be noted, is a double-edged sword ;  it can also be used negatively  – fake news, abuses – to show your adversary in poor light. And in doing this , the Congress has succeeded to a considerable extent in diverting attentions of the voters from Modi’s concrete achievements during the last five years.

So, who will win ultimately? Going by the social media, Modi has a real tough fight  this time. But then, political marketing though social media, all told, has limitations, too. It will always have a  short span of time  without a cohesive and workable political agenda.  And, here Modi has an upper hand; unlike that of his rivals, he has  better power dynamics, in which negative information has very limited role to play.

However, let us wait till May 23.

By Prakash Nanda

(prakash.nanda@hotmail.com)

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