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Virtual politics in Punjab: 80-yr-old learning FB, live interaction on YouTube, hashtag hustle

The EC ban on rallies till at least January 22 has forced most candidates in Punjab to go down the same route, with families and professional agencies helping generate content such as graphics, caricatures, videos, catchy one-liners etc.

Written by Divya Goyal | Ludhiana |
Updated: January 18, 2022 7:01:20 am
First virtual interaction with voters held by Sukhbir Badal.

Main hun Facebook chala taan laina haan, par oh gall nahin bandi (I can use Facebook now, but it is not the same thing),” says Tota Singh, the Akali candidate from Dharamkot of Moga, and an 80-year-old veteran of five decades of poll battles who has been forced this time to go digital.

Apart from smartphones and Facebook, Tota Singh, a three-time MLA, now has the hang of party meetings on Zoom, and bulk messages on WhatsApp. His children pitch in (including Moga Akali Dal candidate Barjinder Singh Makhan Brar), as do his grandchildren. His new team is running as many as 206 booth-level WhatsApp groups in his constituency. A new snappy tag he has acquired on Facebook is ‘Dharamkot da jathedar (The leader of Dharamkot)’.

Yet, rues the 80-year-old, the impersonal social media can never substitute the connect of physical rallies. Tota Singh is also apprehensive that the Election Commission’s ban on rallies due to rising Covid cases would hit the Akali Dal the most, with its voter base comprising farmers, daily wagers and rural households.

Tota Singh, 80, SAD candidate from Dharamkot now uses smartphone to check his FB page.

“They still cannot access the Internet or use social media. Each rally of the Badals would see a gathering of thousands,” he says.

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Son Brar says he has hired a private agency to manage the social media campaigns of him and his father. “Photographers and videographers accompany us and they coordinate with our in-house team to update each activity on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms.”

The EC ban on rallies till at least January 22 has forced most candidates in Punjab to go down the same route, with families and professional agencies helping generate content such as graphics, caricatures, videos, catchy one-liners etc.

The Aam Aadmi Party says it its digital campaign is designed as per the target age group, with the central theme being Arvind Kejriwal — ‘Ik mauka Kejriwal nu (One chance to Kejriwal)’.

Parties say if the ban is extended further, they would hold “virtual rallies” next and that the groundwork has started, with constituency-level social media volunteers mobilising supporters to join platforms such as Zoom, Facebook Live etc.

The Akali Dal contest is focused around party president and former deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal and ex-minister Bikram Singh Majithia, on bail in a drugs case. The party has hired poll analyst Sunil Kanugolu’s Mindshare Analytics to manage the campaign overall, with an in-charge attached to each candidate. The firm designed the ‘Gall Punjab Di (Let’s talk about Punjab)’ campaign for SAD.

On Monday, Sukhbir Badal with party’s Kharar candidate Ranjit Singh Gill held the party’s first live virtual interaction with the constituency on Facebook and YouTube.

The party’s IT head Nashattar Singh says, “We are using Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, ShareChat, Snapchat etc, but mainly it is the 23,000 booth-level WhatsApp groups which are the backbone of our digital campaign. We use ‘WhatsApp Dashboard’ to check if the posts are reaching the targeted voters.”

Congress latest creative has Sidhu, Channi & Jakhar as leading faces.

The Aam Aadmi Party says it its digital campaign is designed as per the target age group, with the central theme being Arvind Kejriwal — ‘Ik mauka Kejriwal nu (One chance to Kejriwal)’.

The party’s social media head for Punjab, Akashnoor Singh says, “After Kejriwal, our focus is on state president Bhagwant Mann as he is extremely popular among the voters. We are also using features such as Reels on FB and Instagram. Our focus is not on hashtags but content, to tell voters why they should vote for AAP.”

About their age-wise strategy, Akashnoor says: “If we have to reach those aged 35 and above, then Facebook is key. For voters aged 18-35, we are pushing content on Instagram. In Punjab, Twitter is not very popular and it is mostly used by party volunteers for political posts and networking.”

The AAP leader adds that their team mostly consists of volunteers. “They work from homes and contribute in the form of graphic designing, caption writing etc,” he said.

The social media war room of the Congress, headquartered in Mohali, is headed by the party’s national digital coordinator Gaurav Pandhi. Its campaign is focused on portraying Charanjit Singh Channi as the CM of the common people, with hashtags such as ‘111 Congress dubara (More of Channi’s 111 days)’, ‘Lokkan da CM (People’s CM)’ and ‘Lokkan di sarkaar (People’s government)’.

The EC ban on rallies till at least January 22 has forced most candidates in Punjab to go down the same route, with families and professional agencies helping generate content such as graphics, caricatures, videos, catchy one-liners etc.

“The idea is to say that in his 111-day tenure as Punjab CM, Channi has put in 1,100 days of work,” says a Congress leader.

Punjab Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu has an in-house team of own looking after his social media and backend works, led by Smit Singh (30), an international skeet shooter, a postgraduate from Oxford University and the son of former Congress MLA Dhanwant Singh from Dhuri. Sidhu is among the few politicians of Punjab also active on micro blogging site ‘Koo’.

Rakesh Goyal, IT and social media head of the Punjab BJP, says that even though their party is contesting in alliance with Captain Amarinder Singh’s Punjab Lok Congress (PLC), their social media strategy is focused on all the 117 seats. “We have an in-charge in each constituency who pushes content on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. Apart from the state-level Facebook page of Punjab BJP, we have 36 other pages.”

The recent online campaigns and hashtags run by the Punjab BJP include ‘Nawan Punjab, Bhajpa de naal (The New Punjab is with BJP)’ and ‘Modi da Sikhaan naal khaas rishta (Modi has a special relationship with Sikhs)’, among others.

About virtual rallies, Goyal says the BJP is miles ahead of the others. “We were the first to organise a massive virtual rally, on the farm laws issue. We clocked 22 lakh views.”

Amarinder Singh’s PLC’s Facebook page has a little over 8,300 followers, with his grandson Nirvan Singh managing his social media platforms. Allotted the symbol ‘hockey stick and ball’, it has started the hashtag ‘Bas hun goal karna baaki hai (All that is left is to score the goal)’.

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