The 2014 Lok Sabha election was deemed India’s first “digital election”, in which technology brought in an unprecedented factor. In 2019, the novelty had faded. From a competition of followers and likes on the Internet, the narrative battle shifted to the ground as the ruling party leveraged its cadre to spread its message further.
“The top BJP leadership was not focusing on digital this time. Digital was a weapon taken care of by the IT cell independently,” a top political consultant hired by the BJP central leadership said. “But booth worker activation had ripple effects.”
LIVE UPDATES: BJP set to enter Lok Sabha with historic mandate
The BJP war room shifted its focus to data collection and analysis to strengthen the party volunteer base and map potential voters. While the Congress also understood that mobile communication required a networked internal party structure, the BJP’s numbers, robust organisation and centralised decision-making proved unmatched.
The BJP had a digital head start in 2014. By mid-2013, then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi had become the Indian politician with the most Twitter followers. Congress president Rahul Gandhi did not have a Twitter account at that time, and only one in four Indians had internet access. Now, in the wake of Jio’s ultra-cheap data plan, India has nearly twice as many Internet users — almost half the population — and all political parties are in the digital fold.
Paid advertising was a basic investment for guaranteed eyeballs. Congress sources said that one YouTube masthead advertisement deal can promise 100 million unique users and 1 billion views. The BJP officially spent Rs 21 crore on Facebook and Google and the Congress Rs 4.5 crore, but the major political spending supporting the BJP was not officially linked to the party.
Even as the Election Commission entered the digital fray for the first time, with a Voluntary Code of Ethics directing social media companies to address valid takedown requests in a timely manner, the BJP’s cadre strength concentrated on encrypted political content that could percolate out on WhatsApp. The booth-level workers, essentially the BJP’s WhatsApp nerve endings, were directed to integrate into non-BJP-affiliated WhatsApp groups in their neighborhood and circulate content beyond the party.
BJP’s IT cell head Amit Malviya said the party had roughly 1.2 million social media volunteers while a Congress spokesperson put their numbers at roughly 9 lakh.
In mid-2018, BJP chief Amit Shah went on a nationwide tour and spoke exclusively to social media volunteers and galvanised them. “The large technology-friendly cadre and massive volunteer network that stood in support of Modi gave us an edge,” Malviya told The Indian Express.
Lok Sabha Election Results Explained: Key takeaways from verdict that returned Narendra Modi to power
The BJP had accumulated data from multiple phases of missed call campaigns starting from 2013. This led to a 25-crore strong database mapped to the booth level, focused on beneficiary outreach.
In March 2018, the Congress also began to build a database of 65 lakh workers, a dashboard to communicate with them, and an application to facilitate door-to-door campaigns. “Big data is not new. What’s new are the tools to digitise and analyse it,” said Congress’s data analytics head Praveen Chakravarty. “Today everybody has a device through which I can reach them. I just need to know more about that device or how to reach that device and more about the owner of that device. That’s what we do.”
While the BJP’s strength in numbers far surpassed the Congress, internal discord in the Congress’ publicity committee significantly stalled the selection of a company for campaigning. While the party chose Dentsu in 2014, the committee chose four firms —- Silverpush, DesignBoxed, Percept, and Niksun —- by the end of March 2019. In contrast, the BJP has been working with Jarvis Technologies to reach out to beneficiaries since mid-2018 and continued to work with Association of Billion Minds since the previous state elections.
Some central Congress social media heads attributed their defeat to a lack of funds. “It was primarily an issue of money. Even if you had imperfect communication, with enough money you can whitewash imperfection,” one of them said. This social media head said he was already gearing up to take back the narrative.