Written by Anita Tagore
The Bihar assembly elections will be contested for 243 seats in three phases, with polling to take place on October 28, and November 3 and 7, and the counting of votes to take place on November 10. It is expected that 7,29,27,396 electors who are registered will vote in the coming state elections. The massive electorate calls for a robust election campaign design that captures the benevolent public disposition.
The question about a level-playing field for political parties in Bihar is a contentious issue. Two important PILs were filed in the Patna High Court and Supreme Court to challenge the conduct of elections amidst the pandemic in Bihar. Both were dismissed on the ground that the Election Commission would take necessary steps for the free, fair and safe conduct of elections. Subsequently, the EC has come forward with a set of containment guidelines that are restrictive of major election campaign movement in the constituencies.
Election campaigns are at the heart of democracies. With the advent of information technologies, political campaigns have acquired a new meaning. Social media platforms are used extensively for election canvassing. The Bihar elections are witnessing a strategic integration of traditional ground campaigning and virtual canvassing by a plethora of political parties. The differential comparative advantage of each political party in profitably adopting new media for their virtual blitzkrieg is a contested terrain.
As early as July, parties aligned as the Mahagathbandhan—including the RJD, the Vikassheel Insaan Party, the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist- Liberation) and the Loktantrik Janata Dal—submitted a memorandum to Sunil Arora, the Chief Election Commissioner, about the fallouts of lopsidedness in digital campaigning in Bihar elections. The memorandum expressed the alliance’s apprehension about the asymmetries in the absence of a limit to expenditure in virtual political campaigning.
The BJP, with its experienced social media infrastructure and pool of resources, has been the harbinger of online election campaigning in the country. It has developed an elaborate organisational structure for the digital campaign in Bihar. The mandal IT cell heads will disseminate information, rally videos and speeches to shakti kendra IT cell heads first and then to the booth level. It has appointed 9,500 IT cell heads at each Shakti Kendra in Bihar. It is estimated that there are around 5,500 mandals, 9,500 shakti kendras and 72,000 booths. Each shakti kendra has at least 6-7 booths. More than 50,000 WhatsApp groups have been formed. CM Nitish Kumar is also enthusiastic about his digital presence. With 6.1 million followers on Twitter, Kumar has been active in publicising poll issues, showcasing the development work of his government and propagating electoral promises. The mere paraphernalia at work shows how the BJP and its allies are geared towards propelling an agenda on social media platforms.
The Mahagathbandhan allies, particularly the RJD and Congress, have also used social media advantageously in terms of impacting electoral templates and connecting to the electorate. Tejashwi Yadav, who is the leader of opposition, has more than 2.5 million followers in Twitter, tweets routinely, voicing his opinion on every key concern of the state. His Facebook account is also an engaging one, which has propagandized “jansabhas” as a principal means of criticising the failure of the incumbent government in Bihar. RJD has set up a wide network of WhatsApp groups at both the booth and district level. Other smaller parties have been complacent about the effectiveness and capability of social media in the election campaign in Bihar during the pandemic. Clearly, political parties, who have greater access to finances, have a better stronghold in social media. Twitter has been largely responsible for setting the political narrative of the campaign for most elections in the country. However, in Bihar, the rural voter is affected more by WhatsApp and Facebook. Videos of contestants and political messages circulated by central leaders have been readily accepted by voters. Videos that address local issues in rural areas like construction of roads, bridges and other development-related work have found a special following among the masses.
The digital-divide in Bihar has multiple axes. Firstly, smartphone penetration in Bihar is between 27 per cent and 30 per cent. Second, among these smartphone users, it is primarily the youth who has access to social media. Third, 88 per cent of Bihar lives in the rural hinterland. Fourth, a gender and caste divide in the use of smartphones is not difficult to anticipate in rural contexts. Therefore, each political party in its enterprise to bridge the digital divide and gain votes has resorted to rigorous on-ground electoral campaigning in Bihar.
This Bihar assembly election campaign is a perfect example of the virtual and the non-virtual trying to overcome their limitations.
(The writer is assistant professor, Kalindi College, University of Delhi)
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