Why Bihar’s voters are set to drive the digital journey of India’s democracy

It’s a new world of electioneering, involving social media interactions and virtual rallies, and Bihar will be the first state to try it out in India.

ByAnand Vardhan
Why Bihar’s voters are set to drive the digital journey of India’s democracy
Shambhavi Thakur

A few decades ago, Hindi writer Harishankar Parsai, seeking a taste of the distinct social flavour of elections in Bihar, satirically said, “Hum Bihar mein chunav lad rahe hain.” I am contesting in the elections in Bihar.

If he said it today, the declaration would have a different ring to it. As India’s first large-scale electoral exercise in the middle of the Covid pandemic, the Assembly election in the state, scheduled for October-November, will be significant for reasons beyond the political.

In many ways, the new set of logistical and administrative challenges for the Election Commission, and the task of political parties to recalibrate their campaigns with new modes of campaigning, has made this poll a markedly different exercise in poll administration as well as voter engagement. More significantly, for the 72.9 million registered voters in the state, the very process of receiving and evaluating political communications and the physicality of electioneering and casting the vote will be different experiences this year.

The Election Commission is coming to terms with the exigencies of an unusual poll. In the process, it will even develop a historical sense of the task at hand. The detailed schedule of the election is expected after the commission visits the state for a final verification of the ground situation and a consultation with state authorities. The date of this visit will soon be announced.

Earlier this week, the chief election commissioner Sunil Arora alluded to how the approaches of poll bodies in different Covid-affected countries will have different trajectories due to local variables, such as population, response capability, and the extent of the pandemic. Taking a global view of how poll bodies handled health and safety concerns, Arora cited examples of how countries like Australia, South Korea, Malawi, Iceland, Belarus, Sri Lanka and Mongolia conducted their electoral processes during the pandemic.

The data about participation doesn’t suggest anything conclusive; while a few countries registered a rise in polling percentages, others registered a dip.

Back to Bihar, on August 21, the Election Commission issued the guidelines and standard operating procedures to be followed by political parties and individual candidates throughout the poll process — from campaigning to the final votes being counted. This has already altered the campaign scene in the state, and the coming weeks may see a wider range of these changes. For the poll body, some of the measures for social distancing carry a slew of logistical challenges. For instance, the measure to restrict the upper limit of voters at a polling station to 1,000 from the earlier limit of 1,500. Consequently, the number of polling booths has increased from 65,000 to one lakh this year.

The notable absence this year will be the mega public rallies organised by political parties. In the last Assembly poll in 2015, for instance, chief minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) addressed 230 rallies. The Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad Yadav addressed 251, and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi addressed 26 while Amit Shah addressed 85 events. Other BJP leaders were assigned the task of speaking at more than 10 rallies each day.

This year, the rally scene is being replaced by virtual rallies and poll meets facilitated by social media. Different parties are gearing up for the shift with varying degrees of efficiency.

The implications of these changes on the poll expenses incurred by candidates haven’t gone unnoticed either. While the onus of following the Election Commission’s social distancing guidelines is largely on parties and candidates, the limit of 100 participants per poll meeting and campaign gathering has made the crowded roadshows and imposing cavalcades of vehicles non-starters.

Even visits to remote areas and door-to-door meetings are less likely to be done as displays of candidates’ resources and clouts. Interesting, in a piece in Hindustan, the most-read newspaper in the state, resident editor Vinod Bandhu said this situation might help a candidate with modest means by neutralising the effect of resources in the perception of a candidate’s strength in the contest.

Vinod Bandhu's piece in Hindustan.

Vinod Bandhu's piece in Hindustan.

However, this has brought a different kind of challenge too in what is being called a “digital election”, because of the enhanced role of social media campaigning.

The reach of parties on digital platforms and the availability of the electorate on these platforms will continue to engage campaign analysts in the weeks to come. According to an estimate, there are 6.21 crore mobile phone users in the state, about 62 percent of the state population. Of this, 3.93 crore, or 40 percent of the population, use the internet. Early this week, plans to augment the extent and speed of internet connectivity in the state got a boost with Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Union minister for electronics and information technology, announcing that Bihar would be the first state in the country to have internet connectivity in all of its 45, 945 villages through optical fibre by March 31 next year.

Meanwhile, political parties and the candidates will have to work on the current level of internet penetration. While the popular pattern of internet use in the state is known for its penchant for recreational engagements — like viewing and making short entertainment videos — parties are working on making it the key medium for political communication in this poll. This entails taking the digital route to reach party workers as much as the voters.

In May, the Nitish Kumar-led JD(U) organised a digital interaction with panchayat-level workers, and with booth-level workers in June at the chief minister’s residence. This is in addition to virtual conferences being organised by other regional forces, like the Tejashwi Yadav-led RJD and Chirag Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party. The BJP was also an early mover with Amit Shah participating in the virtual Bihar “jan samvad” in June. This month, prime minister Narendra Modi used digital platforms for the inauguration of various physical infrastructure projects in Bihar.

One may recall the rhetorical question posed by Lalu Prasad Yadav, the then chief of the governing party, in the initial years of the present century. When he asked, “Ye IT-YT kya hai ?Kya computer doodh deta hai (What’s this IT? Does it give milk?)”, Lalu was trying to position the idea of information technology in governance as a distant elitist project, far removed from the Lohiaite ideal of social empowerment.

Interestingly, under a different dispensation, Bihar is going to set the template for a huge electoral exercise driven by the reach of information technology. With the finger beneath the glove, and the face under the mask, the millions of voters in the populous state would unknowingly become key drivers of the digital journey of democracy in India.

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Also Read : With the upcoming election, Bihar's news cycle is circling back to serious affairs
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