Communication for Vote Farming

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

The recent Legislative Assembly election campaigns have seen a dramatic change in the communication, particularly political communication, is conducted. While PR Narendra Modi is credited for dramatically transforming or even disrupting the political communication, the opposition too had its own share of initiatives. PRapport initiates a debate among communication professionals to analyse and understand lessons from the new communication regime - what was right and what we wrong.
We at PRCI did make a beginning during our 11th Global Communication Conclave with a discussion on Disruption – Political Communication with a Fireside Chat with BJP political strategist Ashwani Singla. Now  we take this forward.

By S.Narendra*

India has successfully completed another   cycle of   free and fair elections. The latest poll cycle witnessed several new features   in poll campaign   communication. According to a BJP leader in UP, the battle strategy aimed at winning   ‘booth by booth’ (there were 150000 poll booths).For this purpose the party deployed lakhs of  foot-soldiers for personally connecting with the voters. The foot-soldiers efforts   in the field were   coordinated through mobile phones and  social media.
In a first of its kind, BJP  gathered inputs from thousands of  voters for preparing its manifesto. Such crowd sourcing and deployment of foot-soldiers seems to have created a groundswell. The 3-D communication-that is, multi-screen projection of election BJP rallies, especially that of PM rallies, (first unveiled in 2012 Gujarat poll), was very much in play. At each such venue, a bank of plug-and -play facility was created for news channels to take their feed which went a long way in getting free airtime. Perhaps , relative absence of broadband  connectivity limited the scope for streaming  PM’s rallies  from one centre to others.
A notable aspect was the seamless mixing of traditional campaign mode with the state-of-the art technology by the two main contenders-BJP and SP. The  latter, as the ruling  party spent hundreds of crore of rupees from government funds for showcasing its performance (Kaam Bolta hai)  and its young chief minister. SP’s incumbency handicap  was also palpable. The Incumbency  burden  in this case meant  that the voters had  taken for granted  any  development initiatives  of  the outgoing  government. And, rerunning  its  such achievements in TV spots  and other media  without  unveiling  SP’s future agenda  failed to rally the voters.  The government communication  usually tends to throw  information at people without  packaging  such ‘achievement information’  into a political  message .    
The BJP on the other hand, enjoyed the advantage of  presenting  the  Union Government’s  several  on-going pro-people  programmes  which were not being  effectively  implemented by  SP state government . The Centre’s   dominant presence on  social media  like mygov.com site,  apps and social media  and  on TV and radio  could not be matched  by other parties., And, PM himself  adroitly put  himself  as the champion of the poor against the rich and took almost personal responsibility for lifting UP out of its under-development.
The opposition attack on demonitization seems to have backfired as the people perceived the step as a blow against  the rich and the corrupt. As the theatre of Ram Janmabhoomi movement and demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, one expected BJP to revive the emotional Ram temple issue. Surprisingly, the issue did not dominate the political discourse.
A sub-text to the political communication was the BJP’s clever weaving of   the social divide represented by Dalits, OBCs and Upper castes into its seat  distribution arrangement. Although BJP totally ignored giving any representation to Muslims (16% of the state population), and its opponents   attempted to paint BJP as anti-minorities, such factors did not significantly swing voters away from BJP. This is one mystery of this election campaign communication  that needs to be carefully studied.

An important point to note is that both conventional media and social media, howsoever intensively they are deployed, have their limitations. Such limitations can be overcome only when they are enjoined with IPC   or inter-personal communication for micro-messaging. In this case, the BJP’s massive numbers of foot-soldiers were empowered with messages using social media.
And, more importantly, they became the listening posts,   sending   feed- back to central strategists. At the helm was an untiring, towering   foot-soldier in the form of Narendra Modi. He was both the media and the message phenomenon. Opposition withered away.

PS: One of the first Communication needs assessment, CNA, studies commissioned by the Election Commission (designed and supervised by me), established that Voters were influenced more by IPC that is, when they discussed issues with friends and other known people. The latter tended to be information consumers of media and eager to be Jaankars. My recommendation to ECI was to reach out to such Jaankars who could relay messages to actual voters who may or may not access media. In traditional societies, IPC tends to be more effective. (*The author is a former Information adviser to PM and government spokesperson. He can be reached at sunarendra@gmail.com)

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