COVID-19: Changing trends in political campaigning in India

With India gradually unlocking the restrictions imposed to control the spread of Coronavirus, political parties are bracing for the upcoming Bihar state assembly elections even as the COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the country. Last week, the three key parties in Bihar – ruling BJP in alliance with CM Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal-United (JDU) and opposition Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) – sounded the poll bugle and launched their campaigns for the election to the 243 assembly constituencies of the state. However, in the wake of pandemic fear, political campaigning strategies are likely to undergo paramount transformations in India.

In the age of physical distancing, technology is going to play a significant role for political parties to reach out to eligible voters. From massive outreach programmes on social media platforms (Facebook and Twitter) to Zoom video conferences, political leaders including Home Minister Amit Shah are planning to address virtual rallies to attract the voters.

Interestingly, political parties have been integrating digital technology and social media platforms in their electoral campaigns including extensive use of WhatsApp targeting and online mobilization among all sections of voters over recent years. However, the traditional mode of campaigning, such as public gatherings and rallies, has always been the central and preferred mode for politicians to reach out to the masses. In the past elections, prominent leaders including PM Modi and former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi have addressed several rallies across all states of the country. But, for politicians who are not used to using electronic means of digital technology, it is going to be a challenging transition, particularly in remote areas of politically crucial Bihar.

It is important to point out that there is still a noticeable lack of access to internet and smartphone penetration in rural India, in spite of the Modi government’s substantial push for digitalization in the county. Not to mention about the recent increase in the misuse of social media platforms and digital technology for spreading misinformation and hate.

In West Bengal, where elections are less than a year away, political parties are mobilizing their leaders to connect to voters in the virtual space. Recently, TMC chief and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee held a virtual meeting with party functionaries to strategize the poll campaign. On June 9, Home Minister Amit Shah addressed a virtual rally in West Bengal attacking the TMC government in the state. According to media reports, BJP is working on conducting more than 1,000 virtual rallies in a bid to cover every corner of the state ahead of the polls.

Due to the digital divide, a large number of eligible voters in remote areas may remain untouched in the absence of physical rallies and political campaigns. Nevertheless, ‘digital’ political campaigning in the age of social distancing will be interesting to watch out for in the coming months.

At the same time, a new trend of masked politics is emerging with political leaders wearing custom-made face masks imprinted with their party symbols and slogans. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and BJP state chief Dilip Ghosh were recently spotted wearing masks with their party symbols during virtual press meets.

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