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Rally Mukt Election: A delusion or a future reality?

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The Election Commission has extended its ban on physical rallies and roadshows until 11th February. While lifting this ban is contingent on the COVID situation, political parties across the five poll-bound states are left with a shortage of ideas to fill this gap.

The importance of such large-scale spectacular events for an election campaign can be understood by looking at the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi addressed over 140 rallies each, alongside 4 and 8 roadshows respectively. The Prime Minister himself covered over 1.5 lakh kilometers addressing 1.5 crore people across the country1. To this effect, large amounts of money too are spent. BJP alone spent around 200 crores on rallies and processions, accounting for 17% of its total election expenditure2. However, the Lokniti CSDS post-poll survey revealed that 75% of voters denied attending any political meeting, rally, or procession during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections3. An obvious question would arise: Why would any political party spend such large amounts of time and money on rallies when no one is interested?

The Objective

Therefore, before we look into what other modes of campaigning political parties can revert to and how practical and effective they are, let us understand the actual objectives of physical rallies and roadshows.

Data makes it clear that these mega-events are neither designed nor intended to establish live contact with the public, primarily constituted of either party workers or a rented audience. Given this, the two broad and most logical objectives seem to be:

A. Organic coverage by the AV and Print media:

  • Reinforcing fundamentals like inflation, state of the economy, corruption, jobs, taxes, religious and ethnic minorities etc.
  • Asking and responding to queries/ clarifications / allegations by political rivals / journalists / general public
  • Propagating poll promises, proving capability to deliver and undermining the competitor’s – Most illustrious of all times is our Prime Minister’s promise of Rs 15 Lakh to every bank account and Arvind Kejriwal’s relentless stress on free water and electricity transcending beyond the election state and scope.

B. Creating a perception of significant support among the electorate – referred to as wave (or Hawa)

Everyone wants to be on the winning side. This tendency manifests itself with voters voting for the party that is likely to win when it comes to elections. This impression of ‘likeliness to win’ among the electorate is for what these political parties spend crores in rallies/ processions etc. This impression gradually gets quantified in opinion polls, furthering the bandwagon effect and translating this mere impression into reality. A case in point is the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, where a massive 43% people voted for NDA because it was likely to win – alternatively referred to as Modi wave4. Although, such trends are visible primarily when incumbents are uprooted. Such voters came down to a mere 7% during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, because 41% believed that the nation was headed in the right direction3.

However, before we fixate our minds on this set framework of winning elections – it is essential to understand that this doesn’t always give the desired scale of result. For instance, opinion polls showed a tough battle between BJP and TMC in the 2021 West Bengal state elections.

Theoretically, setting the chronology, this must-have helped quantify support that BJP’s star campaigners were getting in massive rallies and created an impression that these elections might actually bring a regime change in West Bengal. Voters driven by this sentiment must have trusted the runner up, which had just 3 MLAs in the state in the previous elections. This sentiment was also visible in the Exit Polls, where BJP had a clear victory in the state.

However, the theoretical chronology did not sustain long, and TMC won the elections with a simple majority. However, the rise in BJP seats (3 to 76) and vote share (10% to 39%), alongside Mamta Banerjee having lost the Nandigram constituency elections, speaks volumes about the bandwagon effect of the ‘likeliness to win’ factor.

Alternatives

Having ascertained the importance of political rallies and roadshows, let us look at political party’s other methods for an election campaign. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, BJP spent the highest amount running digital media campaigns, followed by rallies/ processions and offline publicity material.

Chart represents BJP’s election spending in 2019 Lok Sabha Elections
Source: Election Commission of India

A further deep dive on heavy expenses towards media advertisement reveals that the costs are justified given its widespread reach. Additionally, research proves a direct relationship between the relative amount spent (or no. of posters, TV ads etc.) on media advertisement and votes/ the winning party. Traditional information sources like the television, followed by the newspaper, are still the mainstream tools that voters refer to for political news (refer to the graph below3). While overleveraging these platforms through leadership interviews (at Agenda Aaj Tak, Aap ki Adalat etc.), press conferences etc., is an excellent alternative to compensate for the organic media coverage of large mass meetings/ rallies/ processions, it doesn’t help with the ‘likeliness to win’ factor. Without massive rallies and roadshows (or shakti pradarshan), what can create a perception of likeliness to win for parties among the electorate?

Chart compares the reach of various media channels
Source: Lokniti CSDS 2019 Lok Sabha Election Post-Poll Survey

This is precisely where social media will play a role more prominent than any other election by far. Let’s step out of the shoes of an election observer and think of ourselves just like a voter – what exactly on social media will unconsciously implant in our brains a relative inclination towards a party?

1. Content amplifying positive news/ propaganda of that party (sometimes even maligning the opponents)

2. The frequency with which I am exposed to such content

It is now common for political parties to outsource content creation to digital media companies. However, while content creation is the fundamental building block of social media campaigns, the ability to push it to the maximum audience is the trickiest and most consequential part of the campaign.

Naturally, social media platforms are designed to learn user like/dislikes and organise content basis this knowledge. In the context of elections, the voter would automatically tend to view more and more content about the party towards which it was initially inclined, thereby enhancing the inclination/polarisation. However, digital media companies master the art of tricking social media AI to permeate all users’ viewership, increasing the content’s frequency and reach. It might have minor or no impact on the traditional voters of the opposing party; however, it may significantly affect the undecided voters – a massive 30% of voters decide their vote barely a week before the polling date3. However, unlike the internet, social media marketing is not free. It is a function of the amount of money you push in – more the money wider the reach.

Besides this engineered spread of content through social media, in the absence of rallies, parties must also tap the personal circles of their members. Social media might again prove the kingpin to the success of this strategy. Data suggests that of all people who use any social media platform, even though rarely, 20% actively share the content they view, and 24% express their views3. These are huge numbers and work very favourably for BJP/ NDA, having a solid traditional voter base.

While the growth of digital media is rising exponentially, there is still a significant population outside its coverage, especially in backward areas of states like Uttar Pradesh. Parties should aggressively run door-to-door campaigns to educate voters on their ideology and manifesto. Here again, content for voter education, frequency of visits, and audience targeting should be meticulously planned to create an aura of victory enthusiasm in the campaigners. It is, however, easier said than done. It requires strategic targeting and planning alongside many feet on the ground for execution.

The best bet

Consequently, money and feet-on-ground become the critical requirements for political parties to succeed in ‘Rally Mukt elections’. Therefore, the decision by the election commission furthers the distance of elections in India from a level playing field. Parties with more to spend and a more extensive cadre will dominate using relatively surplus resources. For instance, BJP spent around Rs 400 Crores more than what INC spent as part of the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections, case in point of a clear resource advantage 2. With noticeable businessmen bought into the development vision of Narendra Modi government, this advantage is here to stay. Adding to that, a patiently nurtured social force RSS will serve as the party’s root network, thereby giving it a massive edge in the given circumstances.

Isn’t it too late?

It is truly commendable for the Election Commission to have taken this bold decision to ban such large public gatherings. However, the absence of such directives in the past, despite the COVID variants being deadlier than Omicron, creates unease. 5 Indian states went into elections in several phases between 21st March and 21st May. This time was the peak of COVID’s Delta variant, which crippled the heath facilities across the country, causing shortages of all sorts – oxygen, COVID beds, medicines, ambulances, doctors, etc. – a duration marked with countless deaths and a state of total panic. In the aftermath, data proved that political rallies in election states did contribute to faster growth in COVID infection and consequently deaths5

Table compares the average growth rate of COVID cases between state with / without elections
Source: The Print

Anyway, better late than never and better safe than sorry. Regardless of whoever stands at an advantage or disadvantage, this decision wasn’t easy. It has come at the correct time with the best interests of all stakeholders in consideration.

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