Virtual wars: Inside Tamil Nadu’s online electoral fight

The Dravidian parties are going all out hiring consultants, fighting meme wars, roping in lakhs of party workers to gain advantage.

ByLokpria Vasudevan
Virtual wars: Inside Tamil Nadu’s online electoral fight
Shambhavi Thakur
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It’s a bright morning and a group of college students is engaged in banter at a bus stop. A group of politicians approach them, seeking their votes in the impending election. One of the students takes a swipe at the politicians for making a rare appearance while another mocks the party’s dynastic politics. They then proclaim their rejection of the party and even predict its poor performance in the election.

The title card proclaims, “Thodaratum vetrinadai, endrendrum erattai ellai.” Let triumph continue, two leaves forever.

This is a campaign ad for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the governing party in Tamil Nadu which is in alliance with the BJP in the election. Its symbol is two leaves, memorialised forever by former party chief J Jayalalithaa on Chennai’s Marina Beach as the wings of a golden Pegasus statue.

In another ad, a group of women discusses women’s safety in Tamil Nadu as they go about their daily chores. One of them highlights the Pollachi sexual assault case, a racket of rape and extortion of women in Pollachi town in Coimbatore, and accuses the AIADMK government of colluding to keep the accused out of jail. Another woman chips in, bringing up a recent sexual harassment case filed by a woman police officer. Will it ever be safe enough for their daughters to leave their homes, the women ask.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president MK Stalin emerges from this frame, promising to make Tamil Nadu a “haven for women”. As the sun rises in the background, Stalin urges his fellow statesmen to reclaim the state’s rights.

With Tamil Nadu going to vote on April 6, these digital campaigns have come to dominate the electoral battle between the two Dravidian parties. The fight for the chair at Fort St George, the seat of power of the Tamil Nadu government, is unfolding not on the streets but on social media.

The Covid pandemic has only furthered this reliance on social media messaging like never before. It helps that Tamil Nadu has among the highest internet penetrations in the country, and parties are investing in digital mediums to gain the upper hand.

The DMK’s information technology wing has been working overtime since last year, when it roped in Prashant Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee, or IPAC, to shape its narratives online. On its part, the AIADMK is working with election strategist Sunil Kanugolu, the man who was a key member of Narendra Modi’s campaign in 2014.

IPAC, organic campaigns, and IT wings in 65 zones

The DMK brought IPAC on board in February 2020. With over 400 employees, the young team laid the groundwork for the elections almost a year in advance. In April last year, when India faced a nationwide lockdown to contain Covid, it introduced the “Ondrinaivom Vaa” initiative, meaning “let us unite”, to provide services to the needy during the lockdown.

The initiative served over one crore people in its first 40 days, according to Stalin, and was a resounding success.

The IPAC war room is on Chennai’s Anna Salai, just a stone’s throw from the DMK’s headquarters. A team of web developers, copywriters, and data scientists listen to social media conversations round the clock to develop strategies for the party’s campaigns. With field-level workers at every constituency, IPAC claims the DMK has enrolled 47 lakh new members in the last 200 days – which it calls the most extensive membership drive in the recent past.

The campaign currently includes a grievance redressal forum called Ungal Thogithiyil Stalin, a membership drive titled Ellorum Inaiom, and a dedicated app called Stalin Ani to highlight his achievements. Lending weight to these projects is the party’s We Reject ADMK website, launched in December.

“Stalin is a hands-on leader,” a source at IPAC told this reporter. “His energy and eagerness to work for people’s welfare helps us to reach the campaign to a larger audience.”

Ungal Thogithiyil Stalin has received 17.18 lakh grievance petitions so far, the source added. “Our data is transparent and available for the public to see and decide for themselves,” they said. “All our campaigns are organic and related to each other.”

Complementing IPAC’s efforts is Dr PTR Palanivel Thiagarajan, head of the DMK’s IT wing and MLA from Madurai Central. A former investment banker, Thiagarajan built the IT wing from scratch in 2018. It took him six months to get the ball rolling but the team now boasts a whopping 28,000 office-bearers.

“Unlike most other parties, our IT wing is only three years old,” Thiagarajan said. “Our embrace of information technology was nonexistent and we had a herculean task. I traveled across the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu, soliciting applications and interviewing thousands of potential candidates who were appointed as office-bearers.”

But what do these thousands of office-bearers do?

The DMK has divided the state into 65 zones. Each zone is under the charge of a district-level office bearer of the IT wings, and each district-level unit comprises an IT coordinator and two deputy coordinators. Most office bearers are below 30 years of age. Sources were guarded when this reporter asked what precisely they do; they merely reiterated that the IT wing “strengthens” the party.

Thiagarajan himself has a rich lineage in politics. His father, PTR Palanivel Rajan, was a DMK leader and the former speaker of the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly. His grandfather, PT Rajan, was chief minister of the Madras presidency in 1936 and the last president of the Justice Party.

With a doctorate in computer interface design and an MBA in finance, he spent over 20 years as a corporate honcho – something that stands him in good stead in his current line of work.

“The ambition of the IT wing is to strengthen the foundations of the DMK and the Dravidian movement,” he said, “so that it lasts another 50 or 100 years.”

Quiz him on how the DMK’s IT wing responds to attacks from the AIADMK, and Thiagarajan is unfazed. “We will not let other people dictate our agenda,” he said. “By attacking us, the opponent has made one thing clear: they have nothing worthwhile to talk about in their achievements, so they indulge in character assassination. We will not get drawn.”

This is not entirely true though; “character assassination” is emblematic of all major parties in Tamil Nadu. Most recently, DMK MP A Raja was issued a notice by the Election Commission for casting aspersions on chief minister EPS’s birth, suggesting that Stalin was “born in the proper way” but the chief minister was not.

Thiagarajan’s diligence in building the digital team paid off when the pandemic unfolded. “Due to systems that were in place, a fortnight after the pandemic broke out in March 2020, Stalin held a Zoom meeting with all the office-bearers,” said Thiagarajan proudly. “Ours was the first party that conducted its general body meeting online. It was possible because of the strong foundation that was laid to strengthen the party’s internal communication infrastructure.”

IIM expertise, potshots, and 80,000 WhatsApp groups

On the AIADMK’s side, Sunil Kanugolu joined Team EPS in June 2020. A former consultant at McKinsey, he advises the government on policy matters apart from lending gloss to the AIADMK’s election campaign. He oversaw Stalin’s campaign in the 2016 Assembly election and again in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, and was a part of the BJP’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, which ended with Adityanath becoming chief minister.

The AIADMK’s IT wing is a couple of years older than the DMK’s: it was launched with much fanfare by Jayalalithaa in March 2016. At the time, she appointed Singai G Ramachandran, an alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad, as its head.

Ahead of the election, however, the party restructured and reorganised its IT wing and divided it into five zones: Chennai, Coimbatore, Trichy, Madurai and Vellore, led respectively by Aspire K Swaminathan, Ramachandran, Vinobalan, Raj Sathyan, and Janani Sathiskumar. Each zone is headed by a zonal secretary with a 13-member team, and each zone comprises 10-15 districts. Each district has a sub-committee of 14 members.

The future is digital, said Ramachandran, the zonal secretary of Coimbatore zone.

“Due to the pandemic, digital campaigns have assumed significance,” he said. “TikTok fostered the habit of watching videos...In our analysis, people prefer to consume more videos on WhatsApp and YouTube. As a party, we should be there on all parties to gain more political leverage.”

Ramachandran comes from a family of AIADMK loyalists. Party founder MG Ramachandran officiated the wedding of his parents while Jayalalithaa christened him after MGR. Ramachandran joined the AIADMK at the age of 18.

“People always ask me why I left placements at IIM Ahmedabad and ventured into politics,” he said. “My dream was to work with Amma [Jayalalithaa]. I was passionate about politics. The founders of the start-up I worked for were IIM alumni. They recognised my love for politics and encouraged me to be well-qualified, as Amma rewards educated people. So, I joined IIM and gained professional experience. I wanted to implement that in my political life.”

This election season, AIADMK’s campaign focuses on highlighting the achievements of the Edappadi K Palaniswami government and reminding the public of the “dark days” under the DMK between 2011 and 2016. The party has launched a series of videos under the brand “Kayavar TV”, a potshot at the DMK-owned Kalaignar TV channel. Kayavar TV dishes out short videos against the DMK and Stalin.

“The core target audience of Kayavar TV is 90 lakh first-time voters who have come into the electorate in the last 10 years,” said Aspire K Swaminathan, the zonal secretary of the Chennai zone. “Their first vote would have been in 2011. They have not seen DMK rule at all. So, we do videos on land-grabbing, rowdyism, and the corrupt practices of the DMK.”

The AIADMK’s IT wings claim to have over one lakh office bearers with 80,000 WhatsApp groups catering to diverse audiences. The groups are divided based on demography, and messages are accordingly customised and delivered with great precision. In-house software gauges the engagement metrics of every single campaign.

The latest viral campaign is a series of videos titled “Thillu mullu company”, or fraudulent company, a name that is a direct reference to the DMK acronym. Matching the DMK’s We Reject ADMK website is the AIADMK’s Odi Poidu DMK site, or “run away, DMK”.

Campaigning online with Covid

While the war will be won by either of the Dravidian parties, members of Tamil Nadu’s numerous “third fronts” are managing to give these heavyweights a run for their money. Chief among them are actor Kamal Hassan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam and Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi, both of whom have a strong social media presence and an assortment of stylish campaigns.

Take, for instance, Dr Santosh Babu, a former IAS officer and the MNM’s candidate for Velachery constituency in Chennai. As principal secretary of information technology in the AIADMK government from 2018 to 2020, Babu revolutionised the paperless office and pushed for technological interventions.

Santosh Babu interacting with voters on Zoom.

Santosh Babu interacting with voters on Zoom.

Joining the MNM in December last year, Babu saw the pandemic as an opportunity to implement novel campaigns for workers. He now has a team of 500 volunteers working on the ground, distributing pamphlets with QR codes that direct voters towards Babu’s website. The team is also testing the use of augmented reality to allow Babu to seamlessly interact with voters.

Now, more than ever, Babu needs to use technology to drum up support: he tested positive for Covid in March and now runs his campaign from his hospital room, switching between Zoom meetings and WhatsApp video calls.

“It was a jolt from the blue,” he said of his Covid diagnosis. “I am disappointed. But one has to make the best use of the opportunity. As a doctor, I think it is my primary responsibility to ensure that people don’t get infected by me.”

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This story is part of the NL Sena project which over 300 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Vedant Kanade, Madhukar R, Shreyansh Jain, Navas, Ayan Dutta, Mathivanan, Padmani, Arjun Goutham, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Ravi Pandey, Rajesh Shenoy, Sahit Koganti, Sarthak, Uma Rajagopalan, Somok Gupta Roy, Sam Sadguru, Tulasi Pemmasani, Praveen Surendra, Kamesh Goud, Ankur Mishra, Sharique Damda, Himanshu Singh, Akshaydeep Singh, Saurabh Bhatia, Chitrak Gupta, Mayukh Roy, Suhesh Lodh, Sumit Dhiman, Farzana Hasan, BK, Sandeep Sharma, Yuvraj Arora, Ranjith PS, Inderdeep Singh, Joseph M Raj, Gregory Cooper, Sayani Dasgupta, Soumit Ghosh, Daman, Raunak Dutta, Mhetre, Puneet Dravid, Md Rafat S Siddiqui, Shayan Sarkar, Aliasgar Khokhawala, Rinku Goel, Vijesh Chandera, Rohit Duggal, Qaim Alvi, Shubham Bangar, Sainath Naidu, Prabhat Lakra, Daksh, Bibhas Adhikari, Anima Dey, Sujith Nambudiri, Rahul Chauhan, Murali K, Aikya Chatterjee, Harshal Geet, Aditya Deuskar, Anindita Brahma, Abdeali Jivaji, Kamran Hambali, Pranav Prabhakaran, Ankur Mehrotra, Ston, Phani Sista, Kartik Rao, Sourav Banerjee, Ravinder Dasila, Rohit Jain, Gaurav Kumar, Anishkumar Madhavan, Abhijeet Kumar, Akash Chandra, Ridhima Walia, Priyanshu, Deepanker Mishra, Rishi R Mehta, Vaishali Miranda, Mithun Singh, Roger, Sandeep Roy, Bindhulakshmi, Jashan Ghuman, Subhadeep Banerjee, Suhas Gurav, Nahas, Apoorv, Reid Alexander Dsouza, Abhishek Chakraborty, Varun Arora, Oindrilla Mukherjee, Shageer, Arnab Chatterjee, Sahil Ali, Roushan Jha, Shamik Das, Srinivas Iyer, Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, Imran Shariff, Souvik Deb, Tamnjum, Rajeev Kumar, Nabil Shaikh, Sushmit Roy, and other NL Sena members.

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