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Published on: Sept. 10, 2020, 7:22 p.m.
Digital campaigning in Bihar meets slow internet
  • Shah: setting the trend for digital campaigning

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

Even as elections are drawing closer, the Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party ruling alliance in Bihar isn’t losing its sleep. A normal election in Bihar could have made the going tougher. After all, Bihar is home to a large number of migrant workers who had returned home from across the country as the lockdown wiped out jobs. 

There have been several reports on the hardships being faced by such migrant workers. The state health department has had its hands full testing residents and migrants for the novel Corona virus. On top of that came the devastating floods which caused further misery.

But this isn’t going to be a normal election. On 7 June, home minister Amit Shah addressed the people of Bihar in a first-of-its-kind virtual rally from Delhi, setting the trend for the digital campaigning that would be a hallmark of this assembly election. All parties are training their booth-level workers as the traditional ways of campaigning via public meeting, roadshows and door-to-door campaigning are being reworked due to the fear of the contagion. Only groups of up to five people are allowed to campaign door-to-door, and roadshows must be restricted to five vehicles. The narrative of this election, it is being said, will not be set in rallies and roadshows, but on WhatsApp and Facebook.

On the face of it, this gives the social media-savvy BJP a clear edge over its rivals. In fact, in June this year, nine opposition parties had petitioned the Election Commission against the BJP’s digital campaign in Bihar, claiming that it disturbed the level-playing field. The BJP is already dominant on social media, both in terms of membership and spending power. During the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the party reportedly spent  Rs27 crore on platforms such as Google and Facebook, whereas the second largest party, the Congress, had spent just Rs5.6 crore. The BJP’s Twitter following of 14.3 million is double that of the Congress. The Rashtriya Janata Dal of Laloo Yadav does not even have 4 lakh followers, as it predominantly depends on its ground-level workers.

Yet it isn’t all hunky-dory for the BJP and its ally. This is because the actual digital penetration could even be lower than 30 per cent in the state and Covid-19 is likely to have further affected it. According to the BJP’s own estimates, Bihar has an Internet penetration of less than 37 per cent. A BJP functionary said data put together by the party revealed that while nearly 6.72 crore people in the state have access to mobile phones, only 2.68 crore of them have mobile Internet. Things are so bad that there was no Internet connectivity in Bihar for government schools to conduct online classes. 

Digital divide

As for social media and smartphone penetration, it has mostly happened in the 11 per cent urban areas of the state. But while the digital divide is making the democratic divide clearer, parties such as the BJP had planned  out for this  even before Covid-19 by training their cadre in technology or giving smartphones to people. For the rest, says D.M. Diwakar, former director, A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna, parties have to rely upon other options like text messaging.

The BJP believes that WhatsApp has the highest reach among social media users. Facebook, its mainstay for digital campaigns, has 1.22 crore users in Bihar, of which 22 lakh are women. For the 18 lakh Instagram users in the state, the party has planned a campaign for youngsters. “Only one-third of mobile phone users have the Internet, and only half of them have Facebook. So, clearly, this is a state where we need a single tool to disseminate all the activities we do on multiple platforms,” a party functionary engaged in the exercise said.

To overcome the limitations of digital outreach, the BJP has decided to promote a “lite app” called Kamal Konnect that can be run on low-speed Internet, to amplify pro-party and pro-government content from various social media platforms. The app, now a part of every senior leader’s speech in Bihar, is being promoted “to ensure the party’s publicity reaches every user”, without him or her being present on multiple platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram. Whether it will help the BJP and its ally to conclusively beat the anti-incumbency, which has recently surfaced, remains to be seen.

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