The guidelines set by the Election Commission of India (ECI) for the conduct of the campaign for the upcoming state elections are a huge paradigm shift for political parties.
Used to sweat it out on the roads and streets, political parties and their leaders now have the digital/virtual world to decide their future -- a scenario which no one had thought about but is a reality today, and could as well become an acceptable way to fight elections, which may also help in minimising the huge spending by parties.
The ECI on Saturday laid down unambiguous guidelines for political parties and candidates contesting the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur in view of the surge in Covid cases, especially of the Omicron variant. It said: "No road show, padyatra, cycle/bike/vehicle rally and procession shall be allowed till January 15, 2022. The Commission shall subsequently review the situation and issue further instructions accordingly.
"No physical rally of political parties or probable candidates or any other group related to the election shall be allowed till January 15.
"Political parties and candidates are advised to conduct their campaigns as much as possible through digital/virtual media platforms/mobile-based mode instead of physical mode ensuring strict compliance of Covid safety norms."
Even if physical rallies during the campaign period are permitted later on, the Commission has said that these will be conducted subject to adherence to Covid-19 guidelines that are in force.
It said: "The maximum limit of persons allowed for indoor and outdoor rally/meeting shall be as per existing directions of respective SDMAs (State Disaster Management Authority). For these meetings political parties shall distribute masks and sanitisers to persons attending and maintain Covid protocol at entry and exit point."
The Commission instructions may change as the Covid situation unravels, but the writing on the wall is clear -- political parties will have to rethink and rework their campaign strategies. The fight will be through social media platforms as well as television, digital and mobile-based modes of communications.
Almost all political parties and leaders are active on most of the platforms -- Twitter, Koo, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram, Zoom and YouTube as well as news television, FM radio, mobile phones and newspapers. The options are vast; strategies vary from party to party.
Most of the parties and leaders have well-entrenched followership and mass base on each of these platforms. For instance, on Twitter, the BJP has 17.3 million followers; its tallest leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has 74.2 million. The Congress has 8.4 million followers, but Rahul Gandhi has 19.5 million and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra 4.4 million.
The Samajwadi Party's Akhilesh Yadav has 15.3 million, but his party has 2.8 million, whereas Mayawati has 2.3 million, compared with BSP's 24.3 million.The Aam Aadmi Party has 5.8 million followers, but its national convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has 23.7 million.
Even among lesser parties, UP's Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party has 1.12 million followers; Rashtriya Lok Dal has 4.16 million. A number of other parties and their leaders also have similar followerships. And these numbers can be seen on other platforms as well.
In 2020, the BJP organised digital rallies during the Bihar Assembly elections, the first to be held during the pandemic. Now that online campaigning has become the norm, it is to be seen how other parties conduct themselves under the new rules. Even the BSP, which till recently avoided social media, is now preparing on a war footing to reach people virtually.
Almost all the parties are working to have online rallies. From plans to wheel out vans with LED screens to reach out to those who are not on social media platforms to connecting through WhatsApp at the booth level, political parties have strategies mapped out for emerging challenges.
According to official figures, India has 1.18 billion mobile connections, 700 million Internet users and 600 million smartphones. The extent of connectivity is huge and the percentage of voters in the poll-bound states with access to mobile phones and the Internet, logically, should be significantly high.
As campaigns shift to the online mode, registering their presence and expanding their digital footprint on all available platforms will become a must for all political parties. But reaching out to the voters who are not on any platform will be a big challenge for all parties.
The switch to online mode of poll campaigning will be a novel exercise, perhaps not just in the sub-continent but across the world. This election may prove to be a watershed moment for democracy.
Thousands of crores of rupees are spent on physical campaigning, so it can be expected that the expenditure may come down drastically because of the switch over to the online mode. Lakhs of workers making posters, flags, banners and other publicity material, however, will lose an important, albeit seasonal, source of income.
We may also miss the festive excitement that accompanies election campaigning, but the digital world will be on fire from now on, till the last vote is cast and the new governments are formed in the five poll-bound states.