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Covid has hastened the birth of the digital neta
6/3/2020 11:20:29 PM

Kalyani Shankar

Most parties have moved away from traditional methods of communication and have shifted their political wars to cyber space
Covid-19 has changed the dynamics of almost everything in the world, including politics, and poses challenges for all walks of life and all kinds of institutions. This is true of democracy, civil liberties and political parties, too.
Now that health experts say that we have to learn to live with the virus, how will the political system in India change and will it be for the better? Since the Coronavirus outbreak, most political activities have taken a back seat and the pandemic has become the only focus of people and politicians alike. There may be fundamental change in the substance of politics and how it will cope with the new normal now that it is clear that some of the measures like social distancing, wearing of masks, washing and sanitising hands often, avoiding crowded places and congregating in large numbers, are likely to continue. Gone are the days of party supporters boasting of lakhs of people coming to listen to their netas.
So how are political parties strategising for the future? They have already found some new interfaces like digital platforms, videoconferencing and so on. Ever since the pandemic began they have swiftly moved away from traditional methods of communication like putting up posters, distributing pamphlets and flyers, holding door-to-door campaigns and have shifted their political wars to cyber space. Virtual platforms have replaced actual meetings in most of the parties and in Government offices, too.
The BJP is already adept in using the digital platform and has been using it since 2014. Even the 2019 elections were fought more in the digital world. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had used videoconferencing facilities and 3D holographic projections to address the public in large numbers during the polls. The party has used the new medium to its advantage and has prepared digital files of voters and their mobile numbers and so on, that makes it easier to reach out to them. The party has data on all the 543 Lok Sabha seats.
In the changed circumstances, the BJP is planning for smaller meetings and digital interaction with the voters. Bihar elections are scheduled for November and next summer, State elections are due in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Assam. BJP chief JP Nadda told this columnist that the party was getting ready to face the new situation. “We are already using the digital platform. In view of the pandemic we have to think of new ideas for our campaigns and we will hold virtual rallies.”
The Congress Party, too, is not lagging behind and is catching up with the BJP where digital reach is concerned. According to the Congress media head Randeep Surjewala, the party had the biggest-ever virtual contact of almost 10 crore in one day during the May 28 ‘Speak Up India’ campaign led by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi to raise public support for people suffering as a result of the lockdown. “This is indeed a world record. We have adapted ourselves to the new situation,” he claims.
The party has involved its leaders, functionaries, AICC office-bearers, district and booth-level workers numbering around 50 lakh. The Congress is using the Zoom app for holding virtual press conferences and Rahul’s conversations with economists. He admits that social media and digital platforms will play a big role in the forthcoming polls.
Other parties, too, agree that digital interaction is the future of politics now. CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechuri points out that today almost every party has a firm online presence. The Left is also reaching out to the people through their cadres and mass organisations. Trinamool Congress leader Dinesh Trivedi, too, thinks that future campaigns will largely be on social media and digital platforms.
Former External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha notes that “politically there will be a lot more reliance on digital communication.” Most parties now have political strategists and IT units that are responsible for their digital strategy.
The Election Commission (EC), which has announced polls for 24 Rajya Sabha seats on June 19, seems ready to deal with the new normal. However, the real test for the EC will be the Bihar polls. CEC Sunil Arora while admitting that it is too early to think about the timing of the Bihar polls, points out that even during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls the EC had made arrangements for those above 80 and the armed forces to vote through postal ballot.
However, the immediate challenge for all political parties is to convince the people that they are concerned about their welfare. This is where the good old Gram Panchayats and booth-level committees come in.
Parties could go back to the basics and use their block and booth committees to spread the message through the digital platform, particularly as India is expected to reach 859 million mobile users by 2022. In short, politics was already moving towards a virtual world and the pandemic has only hastened that transition.
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