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Where’s the party?
Andhra campaign relied on technology and leaders for political communication.
The May 7 poll in Andhra Pradesh marked the culmination of one of the most difficult and trying election campaigns for political parties in the states of AP and (still to be formed) Telangana. At the same time, these elections solidified some trends observed in parties across the polity. Political parties, with some rare exceptions, are increasingly content chasing voters and maximising their vote share, rather than emphasising policies and mobilising their own stable voting public.
Unlike earlier elections in AP, this time around it was almost like a “founding” election and there was a great deal of uncertainty, given the three striking changes that have taken place since the previous elections in 2009. First, the impending bifurcation of the state threw both political parties and the party system itself into complete disarray. There was a shuffling of party personnel, with multiple crossovers between parties. Most parties now have a fair sprinkling of former Congress members, leaving the Congress itself substantially emaciated. Second, the electoral scene in AP has just been crowded with a couple of new players and in future, it could look increasingly like its southern counterparts, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Third, thanks to the proactive role of the Election Commission, there was a sizeable increase in new voters. More importantly, more than 16 per cent of the total electorate is in the 18 to 25 age bracket. These three changes together pushed political parties hard. Parties had to both recalibrate and reposition themselves, and this was most visible in the nature of the electioneering.
As in other parts of the country, electioneering went through a series of changes, affecting the voter-party relationship and interaction. The more prominent changes include the increasing reliance on both technology and marketing techniques for political communication. Nearly all political parties have an online presence and today the use of social media to reach out to the public is almost considered passé.
Technology savvy and, more importantly, resource rich parties like the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) also used 3D holographic projection technology extensively to beam public addresses of their respective leaders across multiple locations simultaneously. Some of the parties were also reported to have used specialised constituency management software to centrally manage the entire electioneering process. The TDP also experimented with an Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS), not only to reach out to the voters but for candidate selection itself.
Like business enterprises, parties in the state also regularly used “market intelligence” in the form of surveys to not only assess themselves but also obtain information about what voters wanted. Many individual leaders reportedly held polls in their respective constituencies to gauge public opinion on the popularity of parties before crossing over. Technology and political marketing techniques individualised both the campaign and the message. At the same time, they further downgraded the importance of the party organisation.
But we do not know whether the organisation stepped down due to new trends in electioneering or whether it is because of another feature, which Andhra shares with other parts of the country — the leader-centric nature of its political parties. All the state-based parties, including the TDP, TRS, Jai Samaikyandhra Party (JSP), Jana Sena Party, YSR Congress party, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), are distinctly tied to the particular leaders. The polity-wide parties are not an exception to this trend; the only difference is that the Congress and the BJP are bound to a leadership external to the state. In leader-centric parties, the organisation exists only as a vestigial organ. And suddenly, German sociologist Robert Michels’s message, “who says organisation, says oligarchy”, begins to ring loud and clear.
As the role of the organisation diminishes, parties find it more expedient to implement a voter-chasing strategy than a voter-mobilising strategy. Studies would argue that real electoral campaigns across the world have a mix of both these elements and fall somewhere on a continuum between these two ideal types. Political scientist Robert Rohrschneider, who first made this distinction, notes that each of the strategies involves a trade-off between elements. While chasing attempts to maximise vote share, mobilising is motivated by policies. While mobilising focuses on core voters, chasing goes after the unaligned. Chasing depends a great deal on technology, while mobilising relies on history and ideology. While mobilising looks to its core constituencies, chasing emphasises leaders.
A comparison of the party positions and the campaign in Telangana and AP will highlight the chasing strategy. In Telangana, parties/ alliances wanted exclusive credit for the formation of the new state. Most manifestos had something for the so-called martyrs of Telangana. However, the relevant parties repositioned themselves in Andhra, where their main focus was on blaming others for the division of the state. This works only with an unwritten don’t ask, don’t tell agreement among parties.
An examination of other promises also brings out the demand-driven orientation. The TRS first promised to have a Dalit as chief minister and a Muslim as deputy CM. It conveniently ignored this promise, until very late in the campaign when it resurrected the Muslim-as-deputy CM plank. The TDP pushed for a backward caste CM, while the Congress increased the pool of potential CMs to include women. During the campaign in AP, the TDP said that there would be two deputy CMs, including one from a backward caste and another from the Kapus. The campaign was obviously catering to specific audiences. The distinctive feature was that parties were not mobilising their core constituencies but aiming to attract converts and the unaligned.
When parties prefer to cater to the market and rely more on technology and leaders for political communication, will there be space for party organisations? Without an organisation, will it still be a party?
The writer is with the department of political science, University of Hyderabad