Parties split over Election Commission ban on physical campaigning

Smaller parties fear they might fail to reach voters

Politics

January 14, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

Parties split over Election Commission ban on physical campaigning

Digital campaigns run by the political parties over social media

The Election Commission of India (ECI) recently announced the schedule for upcoming assembly polls in five states. With the schedule, ECI released multiple guidelines for the parties to follow for their campaign. Citing the sudden revival of the Covid-19 pandemic, ECI suspended all forms of physical campaigning like rallies and roadshows till January 15. Parties in the poll-bound states are divided on the decision. Some of the smaller parties like Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) have asked the election commission to allow physical campaigning with restrictions, while others are comfortable with the scenario and have already begun their campaign in the digital mode.

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On January 8, 2022, the Election Commission of India announced the schedule for holding elections to assemblies in five states, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur. Alongside the schedule, the Commission also laid down guidelines for holding the polls as well as for campaigning.

In view of the rising Covid-19 cases and fear of its highly infectious Omicron variant, the ECI banned all physical rallies and roadshows in the poll-bound states till January 15. It also restricted the number of people in door to door campaign to 5 and urged all the parties to campaign digitally as much as possible.

While this decision seems to be in favour of the health concerns revolving around the pandemic, parties are divided on the decision and some of them are even concerned they might lose elections as the digital penetration in the country has failed to reach the most rural regions of the state and also because they have not yet fully adopted the digital mode of communication. Certainly, digital campaigning, including social media, is an integral part of campaigning. In 2014, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) used social media and television to spread their vision and pander to the voters which helped them emerge victorious in the general elections.

Advertisements with catchy songs and emotional messages resonated among the voters swaying them in BJP’s favour. In the upcoming polls, more parties are likely to use the same tactics with the help of digital tools at their disposal to help persuade the vote bank in their favour.

“Power of political parties to propagate a point of view depends on the power of people to tell their story and it’s the same for this election as well. This election is about the common man who has been terrorised, diminished and shown bure din (bad days) by the BJP and its dictatorial government. Our strategy is very clear and we will ensure that our digital campaign is built on public voices and not on fake speeches and fake concepts,” Ghanshyam Tiwari, national spokesperson of Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh tells Media India Group.

Another party, the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), that is fighting the BJP in Goa has accepted ECI’s decision saying the health and safety of Goans is their primary concern. For campaigning digitally, the party says it is ready on all fronts. “TMC has established a formidable social media presence across all channels including WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Our digital network connects 400,000-500,000 Goans at any given time. This has been possible through targeted communication channels and messaging that has attracted Goenkars towards the credible alternative, an image that Goa TMC has carried since the beginning of the campaign. It has been the foresight of the party that has kept the TMC ahead in the race to touch every Goenkar,” says Hardeep Dugal, Media Lead, Indian Political Action Committee, a  political consultancy, which advised the AITC in West Bengal and is now helping the party in Goa as well.

“TMC entered Goa with foresight & learnings accumulated from West Bengal elections and the pandemic’s impact on that. And this time too, TMC is well prepared to be the frontrunner in connecting with Goenkars even if the order for digital campaigning only is extended beyond January 15,” she adds.

But not everyone is ready for a digital campaign and some of the smaller parties have complained to the Election Commission about its decision and asked it to modify it in order to provide a level-playing field to all the contenders.

Punjab’s principal opposition party, the Shiromani Akali Dal is one such party. “No party can campaign 100 pc digitally. All our party workers have phones but, in an election, we have to reach out to all the people including the vote bank of other parties, but such a list of people with their numbers is not available. Secondly, in many villages there are no cell services let alone internet services, there are poor people who can’t afford cell phones, so there lies the big question of how to reach such people digitally. We are in talks with the state election commission requesting them to allow physical campaigning with some limits keeping the pandemic in mind just like there are norms for celebrations and functions,” SAD spokesperson, Daljit Singh Cheema tells Media India Group.

Cheema condemns this decision by the election commission and says it will make campaigning difficult for all the parties. “This decision by Election Commission will be problematic for everyone. Many parties have started campaigning on TV. The current government is doing their campaign by paid advertisement stories. Delhi’s AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) has made their paid campaigns and airing those ads over television channels. The government has a lot of resources and can do their bidding easily on digital mode but no one in the opposition has such resources,” adds Cheema.

Money matters

Whatever may be the mode, but campaigning in an election also needs deep pockets and over the past decade or so, the BJP has outstripped all others, including its principal rival the Indian National Congress, in financial resources. Its stranglehold on money has become even starker since the introduction of highly controversial and opaque electoral bonds.

According to the Election Commission, the BJP received 76 pc of the electoral bonds sold in the financial year 2019-20. The Congress was next in the list, but received just 9 pc of the electoral bonds sold during the fiscal year.

The opposition parties realise the huge disadvantage they face and worry a totally digital campaign could hand over the elections to the BJP. “By any model of evaluation, the BJP outnumbers the opposition in terms of money, media footprint, fake news generation, propaganda and using BigTech firms which are by and large bringing down the democracy and spreading misinformation among workers,’’ says SP’s Tiwari.

Despite the sharply rising cases in the country, Tiwari doesn’t believe that the prohibition on physical campaigning will last long. “BJP can’t live without its mega rallies, the X-factor that they create. Their approach towards managing Covid-19 waves is very dishonest as it was evident from the campaigning in West Bengal. While the logical possibility is there to extend the date for digital campaigning, the decision will come from their political need rather than logical and public health concerns,” Tiwari adds. Despite numerous attempts by Media India Group, there was no response from the BJP or the Congress.

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