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Analysis of Sansad TV Discussion: ”Digital Campaign: Benefits & Challenges”

Context

  • For the first time in free India’s history, political parties and electors are being challenged to adopt the new election normal as the Omicron-induced third wave upends past practices forcing disruptive changes to poll plans of parties and the EC alike.
  • Door-to-door visits with a maximum of five persons, including the candidate, virtual rallies, mobile-based and digital campaigns are the only canvassing tools available through the seven-phase polling to the Assemblies of Uttar Pradesh (403 seats), Uttarakhand (70), Punjab (117), Manipur (60) and Goa (40) from February 10 to March 7 with counting on March 10.

What are EC’s new campaigning restrictions?

• No roadshow, pad yatra and vehicle rally shall be allowed.
• No physical rally of political parties or probable candidates or any other group related to the election shall be allowed.
• Campaign curfew between 8 pm and 8 am daily.
• Political parties can hold indoor meetings of 300 persons (maximum) or 50 pc of the hall capacity or the limit set by the SDMA.
• Door-to-door campaign allowed with a maximum of 5 persons, including the candidate.
• Number of star campaigners down from 40 to 30 for recognised parties and 20 to 15 for unrecognised ones.
• No victory procession after the counting. Two persons can accompany the candidate to collect the victory certificate.

Key concerns

  • As rally grounds shift from physical to virtual, candidates wonder if the level-playing field will remain intact.
  • The new guideline by the EC will put the smaller and regional parties in a fix if election campaigns go entirely digital. This despite the fact that a large crowd at election rallies doesn’t signify a victory for a party
  • Anxieties driven by fear of the unknown are already palpable with some opposition leaders concerned that the EC’s austere 16-point Covid campaign guidelines may only benefit the ruling BJP and potentially alter the level-playing field.
  • No physical contact rules require quick transitioning from familiar time-tested candidate-voter interface to new modes of communication like audio-video animations with text, digital banners, 3D Studio Max Technology that allows politicians across cities to simultaneously join a virtual rally stage, use of local TV channels and purposive presence on social media platforms.
  • Prima facie, the world of social media appears equal for all but designing virtual election strategies obviously involves money. Bigger the cash, the better the campaign.
  • The EC, for its part, raised the candidate expenditure limit to Rs28 lakh in Goa and Manipur and Rs40 lakh in Punjab, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, besides enhancing airtime for recognised parties on AIR and DD to “aid the digital campaign plans of contestants”. But will this amount suffice is the question considering digital campaign designers are an expensive proposition.

What necessitated the elections under the shadow of the third wave?

  • Article 172 (1) of the Constitution mandates clearly that every legislative assembly unless dissolved sooner, shall continue for five years and no longer.
  • Postponement of the Assembly elections would result in a situation that denies people the right to elect a government of their choice.
  • Democracy is part of the basic structure of the Constitution and a timely election is the essence of maintaining that democratic structure.

Is India Prepared for digital transition of the election process?

  • India is not totally prepared to conduct digital elections. The third wave may have pushed the Election Commission of India (ECI) to place temporal restrictions on physical rallies, but we need to do many reforms to change the course of how elections should be conducted.
  • While it is true that the penetration of the internet, and the use of smartphones, has increased in the last few years, there still exists a massive digital divide in India.
  • A digital election means that the poor and the lower castes will be at a disadvantageous position compared to the urban, middle and richer classes, and the upper castes.
  • The new diktat will also put the smaller and regional parties in a fix if election campaigns go entirely digital in reaching out to their electorate.
  • To modernise, and revolutionise the electoral process, will require a lot more steps. First, the filing of nomination papers by online mode; second, campaign through online mode, and finally, online voting.
  • At every stage of the election process, there seem to be challenges for going online, which India is not fully prepared to take on at this moment.

What are the other options?

  • Ban on physical rallies should not bother political parties too much though. There are other avenues available for political parties and candidates for election campaigns. ECI has allowed door-to-door campaigning, with not more than five people at a time, including the candidate.
  • Door-to-door campaigning has been an important mode of polling from the very beginning. In a changed situation, parties and candidates need to strengthen this mode of election campaigning. More groups should be formed to engage in more door-to-door campaigns.

Way Forward

  • While big crowds at election rallies do help the party in creating a perception of its chances of winning an election, it is important to note that these crowds are not necessarily an indicator of victory of the party as a sizeable number at these rallies are a “hired crowd”.
  • And merely attending the rally does not mean that they would end up voting for the party of which they attended the rally.
  • Some attend the rally as they want to see their leader, while others attend it for payment, and are even provided free transport to the venue.
  • Essentially, all those who turn up to attend the rally do not vote for the party. So, a ban on physical rallies will not as such affect the prospect of the party, which organises more rallies.
  • Since the digital divide will work against them, they can minimise the blow by organising more door-to-door campaigns.

Conclusion

The EC must ensure regional parties get their due space on all digital platforms as the Election Commission would equally be tested on its constitutional mandate of ensuring free and fair elections — the bedrock of democracy.

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