A month before polling begins in Prayagraj, Ranjeet Singh (33), the CEO of Nanosoft Global Info Services is in talks with 20 individual Uttar Pradesh candidates to finalise details for what he calls his “mobility solutions”.
He worked on the BJP’s Bihar Assembly election campaign in 2015 with packages of bulk messaging, IVRS technology, website services, Facebook and Google advertising and WhatsApp mass-messaging. But, since the UP 2017 Assembly elections, he is now hired more by individual candidates on budgets up to Rs 10 lakh.
“Candidates have begun to understand all this and decide their digital budgets early. Even in rural areas, they at least have team members who understand it. They all now know that without this, you can’t win,” said Singh. “There are no hard copies or banners anymore. Now, in every town, you will find one or two people like me.”
In the 2014 polls, such digital campaigns were the domain of political parties and large consultancies — such as the BJP’s tie-up with Prashant Kishore’s Center for Accountable Governance (CAG). But now, lower-rung individual Lok Sabha candidates have prioritised mobile and digital campaigns themselves.
And they are looking to an expanding bazaar of companies like Nanosoft to carry out now common techniques, be it targeting certain demographic groups on WhatsApp or mass messages on mobiles. The growth of such candidate-level digital agencies follows the growth of internet penetration, which has doubled since 2014 to around half a billion users.
“At the individual candidate level, the role of professionals has vastly increased,” said a current employee of Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC), a descendant company of CAG. “They really don’t know what value they can bring, but they know that they need that value. Those times are gone when a leader in Bihar would say that social media is of no use to me. Just like how every constituency would have a printer vendor and hoardings vendors, now we have this.”
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Take Ajay Sharma, an Independent candidate in Prayagraj, who is planning to choose his digital vendors because “time bachega”. “Social media is cheaper than print or TV ads or posters. We will only do our own promotion through social media and door-to-door. For any print or TV coverage, they will come to us,” he said.
Like Sharma, 18 Lok Sabha candidates across the Hindi belt have called up Saket Pathak’s marketing firm in South Delhi. With 34 employees mostly in their 20s, Pathak’s company began digital political work on the BJP’s UP campaign during the 2014 Lok Sabha.
Then, the company was approached by the central leadership, but in 2019, they haven’t been able to find a similar contract. Instead, they have secured three individual candidate campaigns with budgets of around Rs 7 to Rs 18 lakh.
“Many candidates come to us and say bhai, kuch jadoo karo,” said Pathak. “We can’t do jadoo for the candidate. Technology helps bridge a gap for the candidate. That’s where we come in and help.” He sits in front of a pitching board for last year’s Chhattisgarh elections with the words “Narrative: Anti-Incumbency -> Industrialization, Naxals, Corruption.”
His services are not just dissemination, but developing an overall digital strategy with content creation, live video shooting, and on-the-ground WhatsApp group formation. He outsources to about 15 smaller organisations mostly operational tasks, such as research and call centres.
An employee at the Association of Billion Minds, a major consultancy that sources say is currently working with the BJP, told the Indian Express that – with inspiration from Kishore’s Chai Pe Charcha – they focus on building campaigns that mass collect phone numbers. Then, they outsource to call centres further collection of demographic details about the owners of those phone numbers.
When Singh was working with big agencies or the political parties themselves, they supplied the databases of phone numbers, while he purchased the messaging software online. But now that he is working more with the candidates, he has to reach out to other vendors online to purchase between five and 10 lakh numbers – both SMS-only and WhatsApp-capable – at roughly one to two paise per number. Depending on the package that a candidate in constituency wants, Singh builds a small digital team of around 10 people accordingly.
Right now, these candidates are doing their rounds of rallies and door-to-door campaigns, but as the polling day looms, he anticipates last-minute desperation for individual candidates wanting to spread their videos on WhatsApp.
“For WhatsApp campaigning, when the voting day is near, maybe one week away, that is when maximum circulation happens,” he said. “Wo last stage mein, vote change karne ke liye, they call me.”