Is it time for Indian elections to go digital?


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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

No. If you ask me, India is totally unprepared to conduct digital elections. The third wave may have pushed the Election Commission of India (ECI) to place temporal restrictions on physical rallies, but this is no indication that we are ready 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, it 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 seems to be challenges for going online, which India is completely unprepared to take on at this moment.

Just like how we have to fill online applications to seek admission in schools and colleges, candidates will have to switch to online for filing their nomination papers. And, just as how bigger and more renowned schools are able to use online platforms effectively, while smaller schools, especially those in villages and smaller towns, suffer in getting applicants, a similar difficulty is bound to be encountered by candidates from smaller parties and candidates from rural locations with limited understanding of the medium.

The ECI had first put a ban on physical rallies till January 15. After reviewing the situation, the ECI has extended this ban further, permitting political parties and candidates to engage only in online rallies for 2022 Assembly elections. But using entirely an online platform for campaigns is surely to the disadvantage of the smaller parties as they do not wield the same influence on social platforms like bigger parties.

According to the Lokniti-CSDS surveys conducted during the 2019 Lok Sabha election, in a state like UP, the BJP managed to reach 22% voters through WhatsApp and SMS, while the Samajwadi Party could only manage 9% voters using the same platform. While the BSP managed 6%, Congress only 5% voters, despite being a bigger party, and the RLD only 3% voters.

Even in Uttarakhand, the BJP only reached 17% voters, while Congress managed to reach 12% voters. In Punjab, even though all the three parties were equally strong on social media platforms, the Congress managed to reach 15% voters through WhatsApp and SMS; AAP managed to reach o14% voters; BJP managed 15% voters; while SAD 9% voters.

The situation is similar in other states as well. Bigger parties always dominate over smaller parties when it comes to digital strategies to reach out to a wider section of the population. The Lokniti-CSDS survey also indicates how voters from different social backgrounds use social media.

For instance, Facebook was used by 35% voters belonging to upper castes; 25% among OBC voters; 21% among voters from Dalit cimmunity; and 19% among the voters from the Adivasi community. And about 41% upper caste voters used WhatsApp; 30% among OBCs, 25% among SCs, and 21% among Adivasis.

Their presence on Twitter, however, was much smaller, even though the presence of voters from lower social classes was even less. Such a digital divide amongst voters from different communities will make the voting greatly uneven for voters from different social backgrounds.

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.

While big crowds at election rallies does help the party in creating a perception of its chances of winning 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 rally 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.



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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