Election Campaigning : From Rallies To Reels

Gone are the days of city streets adorned with campaign posters and flags, replaced by a digital revolution that has transformed the very fabric of election campaigning. With over 800 million internet users in India, the digital landscape has become a battleground for political parties
By Geeta Singh
  • Once, jeeps blared, drawing children for party badges. Now, politics shifts, adapting new promotional strategies for outreach
  • Google data reveals concentrated INC ads in Maharashtra, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Their focal slogan: “Haath Badlega Haalat”
  • Since 2014, the ‘Election War Room’ concept has prompting questions about their operations, contributions, and strategic significance in elections
  • To avoid previous electoral setbacks, Congress has nominated many new candidates. War rooms are now providing extensive support

MOUNTED on a steed with a turban adorning his head, Kirti Jha Azad is conducting a vibrant campaign in Bardhaman, West Bengal, under the banner of the Trinamool Congress. His campaign kicked off with a cricket match at Radharani Stadium, heralding his unique campaign style. Azad has since maintained a dynamic presence in the area, leading elaborate parades and organising rallies. His campaign is a kaleidoscope of colours and sounds, featuring TMC flags waving in street dances and the resonant beat of the ‘Mandal’ drum, a traditional clay folk instrument resembling the Mridang. Whether he’s riding horseback, moving to tribal beats, or reciting “Ram Naam,” Kirti Azad is not merely campaigning; he’s orchestrating a fusion of tradition and modernity, enchanting voters with every exuberant event.

In contrast, the BJP’s prominent candidate and former state president, Dilip Ghosh, adopts a distinct approach to campaigning. He continues to connect with voters through morning walks, temple visits, tea-time conversations, and direct public engagements. Dilip Ghosh comments on his campaign style, stating, “Which other candidate in India hits the streets at six in the morning? I don’t spend any money on my campaign. That’s why I prefer personal, face-to-face interactions.”

CELEBRITY CANDIDACIES

In the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, several prominent figures are capturing attention with their unconventional campaign strategies. For instance, Naveen Jindal, an industrialist who switched from Congress to BJP, to connect with common people in his constituency – Kurukshetra, was seen in the role of daily wage labourer at Radaur grain market where he picked up three sacks of wheat and kept them in the truck. 

Like Naveen Jindal, Hema Malini, a famous Bollywood actress and the perfectly groomed BJP candidate from Mathura, often accused of being an “absentee MP”, was seen in a wheat field, holding a sickle in her hand, ostensibly harvesting the crop. There are many more such field trips prominently listed in her campaign. The party is rooting hard for Hema Malini’s victory, although her attendance in Parliament in the last term was the lowest at 49 percent. Whereas, in Ghaziabad, Congress candidate Dolly Sharma cooked rotis on an earthen stove while campaigning. Their reels and photos were then flooded on the various social media platforms. Similarly, Dr Sushil Gupta of the Aam Aadmi Party is taking a grassroots approach by using an e-rickshaw for his campaign trail.

These campaign strategies appear to be aimed at humanising high-profile candidates, portraying them as engaged in painstaking work that influences voters.

BJP is channelling significant energy into its election campaign with top national figures, including PM Modi, Yogi Adityanath and Amit Shah, actively engaging in a series of public meetings. The party’s campaign strategy includes enlisting the star power of Bollywood celebrities to draw large crowds. Notably, international wrestler the Great Khali recently toured Rajasthan to support the BJP’s efforts. Added to the celebrity lineup, Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut, who has also emerged as a political leader within the BJP, is slated to hold roadshows in Hindi belt region. She has been nominated by the party to contest from the Mandi Lok Sabha seat in Himachal Pradesh. Known for her bold statements, she has consistently made headlines, including for her recent remark describing PM Narendra Modi as a modern embodiment of Lord Vishnu.

TRADITION MEETS MODERNITY

There was a time when jeeps fitted with loudspeakers would reach villages and towns. Children would start running behind them to collect badges from different parties. The photographs and election symbols of the candidates were printed on them. At that time, there was a different craze among children and youth for collecting badges. But now reels of candidates are visible on social media and information is available through WhatsApp messages. This is a big change in promotional material with time. Like before, even banners and flags are no longer visible. Not only this, the paper posters pasted on the walls are also not visible in this election.

Election campaigns have undergone a significant transformation. Door-to-Door engagement and grand public gatherings have given way to a digital era. Today, candidates are increasingly turning to social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp to engage with voters

Election campaigns in the country are undergoing a significant transformation. The traditional landscape of cities adorned with posters and flags during election season,  door-to-door engagement and grand public gatherings has given way to a digital era. Today, candidates are increasingly turning to social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp to engage with voters, share their messages, and rally support. This shift reflects the changing dynamics of voter interaction and campaign strategies in the modern age.  However, a pivotal transformation in campaign tactics emerged in 2019 with the strategic use of social media giants WhatsApp and Facebook for political communication. The ongoing general election is notably the first instance of artificial intelligence being employed in the electoral process in India.

In India, the digital landscape has seen a remarkable expansion, with approximately 900 million individuals now having internet access. A study by the Esya Centre in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Management indicates that the average Indian dedicates more than three hours daily to social media platforms. This surge in digital connectivity coincides with the country’s vast electorate, which is approaching the one billion mark.

BJP’S DIGITAL DOMINANCE

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launched its 2024 election campaign by releasing a video featuring the song ‘Sapne Nahin Hakikat Bunte tabhi toh sab Modi ko chunte’  dedicated to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The campaign song says India’s situation was deplorable and then the country chose NaMo (Narendra Modi) as the PM. The campaign song showcased PM Modi’s projects for various sections of the people and featured Ayodhya’s Ram Temple, Bharat Mandapam built for G20’s Delhi summit and Ahmedabad’s newly developed Narendra Modi cricket stadium. The video ends with thousands of people coming together to form a giant collage of PM Modi. In a statement, the BJP said that the song has been sung in 12 different languages. The song was launched in January this year, at NaMo Navmatdata Sammelan (First Time Voters Conclave).

After this BJP launched another campaign song-video around PM Modi asserting ‘Bharat ka beta Modi chala, Bharat ki mann badhne ko’.

Political parties have made significant strides since 2019, when digital ads were not as prevalent. It’s expected that we’ll see a further increase in digital ad spending in the coming years. This year, digital campaigning has taken the forefront, reflecting the evolving landscape of political communication. Since March this year, all political parties have ramped up their spending on digital advertisements on Google. However, the ruling party had a head start, launching image and video ads on Google as early as January.

According to data released by Google as part of its political ads transparency initiative, a total of ₹52 crore was spent on political advertisements on the platform from March 1 to April 9, 2024. This is also six times the political ad spending on Google recorded during the same period in 2019 at ₹8.8 crore. During this period, the BJP emerged as the top advertiser, spending ₹8.8 crore on over 73,000 ads. The largest portion of the party’s digital ad spending was during the week of March 25-31.  

A RACE TO THE TOP

In this year’s digital campaign landscape, a notable shift has been observed: political advertisements are increasingly tailored and focused. For instance, a significant portion of the BJP’s advertising efforts were concentrated on key states such as Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, and Andhra Pradesh. Aligning with PM Modi’s rally schedule, there’s a noticeable spike in campaign activity in regions he’s slated to visit. For example, in the lead-up to PM Modi’s rally in Chennai on April 9, approximately 27% of the BJP’s digital advertising budget from April 1 to April 9 was allocated to Tamil Nadu, totalling more than ₹14 lakhs. Moreover, from March 1 to April 9, a vast majority (84%) of the BJP’s advertisements were video-based, disseminated in a variety of regional languages, all echoing the rallying cry of ‘Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar’.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has been a major player in the digital advertising space, investing ₹7.9 crore through its agency, Populous Entertainment Network. A substantial part of this investment, exceeding 70%, was made in the span of just nine days, from April 1 to April 9. Remarkably, on April 2 and 3, the party spent close to 80 lakh each day. The digital advertisements from DMK showcase a mix of image and video formats, spotlighting the array of initiatives launched by Chief Minister MK Stalin’s administration over the last three years. These ads are centred around the ‘Dravidian Model’, underscoring the government’s commitment to this ideology.

The Indian National Congress (INC) ranks third, with a total spending of ₹6.8 crore during the period. More than half of this amount was spent between April 5 and April 9, with a notable ₹2 crore spent on April 7 alone. Google’s data indicates that most INC ads were targeted in regions such as Maharashtra, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. The majority of INC’s ads revolve around the slogan ‘Haath Badlega Haalat’ and raise concerns about reforms undertaken by the current regime.

Google’s political advertising comprises image ads appearing on various websites and video ads on YouTube. The dataset is updated dynamically.

Political parties are increasingly turning to Artificial Intelligence to share content on social media platforms. This content serves various purposes, including promoting campaigns and mocking opponents

To actively engage with voters BJP has sent personalised Letters ‘Viksit Bharat Sampark’  from PM Modi via WhatsApp. These letters outline the government’s accomplishments and solicit feedback from voters. However, this initiative has faced criticism from opposition parties. This WhatsApp dispatch containing PM Modi’s letter reached millions of Indian citizens. In an unexpected turn, individuals from countries such as Pakistan, the UAE, and Britain also reported receiving the message. Recipients of diverse nationalities expressed their surprise at getting a message on their smartphones. The opposition has labelled this outreach as a severe breach of the electoral code of conduct.

ELECTION WAR ROOMS

Ahead of the polls, state units of major political parties, including the BJP and Congress, have established their war rooms to enhance their election campaigns and amplify their messages. Since the 2014 general elections, the concept of the ‘Election War Room’ has garnered significant attention, sparking curiosity about how these war rooms operate, their functional contributions, and the strategic roles they play. The book ‘War Room: The People, Tactics and Technology behind Narendra Modi’s 2014 Win’ by Ullekh N P shares intriguing anecdotes by the author, who worked for BJP in their election war room during the recent parliamentary Election 2019, in which the BJP secured a resounding victory. It casts light on the methods employed, most importantly the use of the mobile network, as well as the people tirelessly involved in the process, most importantly Amit Shah and the many volunteers that helped the BJP claim victory. This illustrates how war rooms orchestrate one of the most impactful content dissemination processes in the general election of the largest democracy in the world, with an electoral size of 97 crore Indians.

For 2024 Lok Sabha polls BJP is expanding a successful strategy from previous assembly elections of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh. They have started getting more workers and voters involved all over the country since November last year much before the official general election campaign begins. The main goal is to convince 800 million people who benefit from government programs to vote for the BJP.

They’ve set up more than 500 call centres, mainly in district BJP offices, to reach out to 5 million people who showed interest in the BJP. They plan to focus on these beneficiaries next and want to add 70 million more people to this group. PM Modi also started his campaign to reach out to these beneficiaries in January this year right before the main election campaign kicks off.

Union Minister Bhupender Yadav and BJP general secretary Sunil Bansal are overseeing this project, with help from Diggaj Mogra’s Jarvis Consulting. The BJP aims to get 350 million votes in the Lok Sabha elections, which is 60% more than the 220 million votes they got in 2019.

The BJP’s strategy, which centred on engaging party workers and reaching out to those who benefit from welfare programs, proved to be a game-changer in the assembly elections of three states. Now, the party plans to apply this successful approach nationwide. During the assembly elections, the BJP employed a strategy with three key components.

SCALING UP A WINNING FORMULA

Telangana BJP’s social media war room has launched a targeted campaign, delivering content directly to approximately 20 lakh voters, party workers, and members of ideological groups such as the VHP, Bajrang Dal, Sevika Samithi, Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, and Hindu Vahini. With a robust online presence, the party is crafting shareable content, including short videos, reels, graphics, infographics, and image-based material. To aid in this effort, they’ve enlisted the help of a third-party agency to develop campaign materials. Leveraging extensive data banks of beneficiaries of Central schemes, the party is utilising social media platforms to reach them directly. During their ‘Gruha Sampark Abhiyan’, the 34,000 booth presidents, who recently attended a meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah, are identifying and recruiting local influencers to expand their outreach. And has identified around 200 speakers who will be trained to speak on the party’s ideology, achievements of Modi and failures of the Opposition. Each of them will be tasked with addressing small gatherings of 100 to 200 members.

Conceptual illustration of political parties campaigning for vote in front of a huge hand with electoral stain

Additionally, BJP is also making use of its website ‘My First Vote For Modi,’ which allows visitors to pledge to vote for the Prime Minister and submit a video stating the reason behind their choice.

The party  has developed state-specific apps that build upon the Saral app, offering customised information for each state. At the national level, the BJP utilises the Saral app for membership and booth-level connectivity. These state-level apps serve as extensions of Saral, providing more localised information. The primary goal is to establish a unique platform for the party’s workforce, especially during elections.

The BJP allows people to become party members with just a missed call, but not all actively engage. This strategy proved successful in three state assembly elections held last year. The party has conducted a campaign through call centres in these states to engage with members and identify those willing to actively support the party. As a result, they recruited 1 million new active party workers across the three states. Additionally, the BJP has developed separate mobile apps for three states: Sangathan (for Madhya Pradesh), Vijay Sankalp (for Rajasthan), and Sangathan Shakti (for Chhattisgarh). At the national level, they continue to use the Saral app for membership and booth-level connectivity.

In addition to this, BJP’s victory can be attributed to its excellent election management and its “panna pramukhs” serving as brand ambassadors.

STRATEGY OF CONGRESS

However, this time Congress has been hobbled in this election by its inability to access money. In all the 11 bank branches where the Congress has its party accounts, the money cannot be withdrawn. But recognizing the significant influence and impact of social media platforms, including reels, the party has mobilised content writers, video editors, and telecallers to work tirelessly in its ‘War Room’. 

A source close to the party has highlighted that the Congress’s war room is tasked not only with promoting the party and its state government’s initiatives but also with combating fake news, propaganda, and political accusations. In a strategic move to prevent a repeat of past electoral setbacks, the Congress party has introduced a significant number of fresh faces for the elections. The war rooms are now providing comprehensive support to most candidates. This includes identifying key Congress workers in each constituency. Leading the war room efforts is Sasikanth Senthil, a former IAS officer from the Karnataka cadre who resigned in 2019 to join Congress. Senthil is also contesting in the Lok Sabha elections from Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvallur.  With nearly five lakh foot soldiers deployed across states, the Congress aims to reclaim its stronghold at the booth level, recognizing its pivotal role in shaping electoral outcomes.  

The BJP’s strategy, which centred on engaging party workers and reaching out to those who benefit from welfare programs, proved to be a game-changer in the assembly elections of three states. Now, the party plans to apply this successful approach nationwide

RISE OF CANDIDATE WAR ROOMS

In this election, similar to political parties, numerous candidates have also established their war rooms. Take, for instance, Mahua Moitra, a dynamic leader with a background in investment banking, who has solidified her campaign approach with the aid of a cadre of youthful experts. Moitra orchestrates her campaign operations from a dedicated war room operated by a small team of 6-10 individuals. Moitra and her team meticulously oversee every facet of the election process, from supervising individual polling stations to handling the intricacies of social media campaigns. In Krishnanagar, the constituency Moitra represents, there are over 1,800 polling stations. “Election campaigns unfold in distinct stages, akin to an examination, and our preparations are tailored to each phase. We actively seek and incorporate feedback,” explains Moitra.

RALLIES -PULSE OF DEMOCRACY

Public rallies continue to serve as a gauge of popular sentiment, with the crowd’s gathering seen as a reflection of people’s feelings. While political observers acknowledge that crowds at these rallies can sometimes be organised and transported by party supporters, they remain a preferred platform for leaders to communicate their messages. 

BJP has been known for its effective use of slogans in election campaigns, which are often catchy and resonate with a wide audience. Some notable BJP slogans like ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ and ‘Mera Booth Sabse Mazboot’ aim to motivate party workers to bolster their local presence and ensure robust grassroots-level support.

The slogans of the BJP are often centred around themes of progress, resilience, and inclusiveness, contributing to a narrative that portrays India as robust and forward-moving. These slogans stand out for their broad appeal and succinct expression of the party’s principles, which has provided them a strategic advantage in the arena of political messaging, rendering their campaign communications more memorable and persuasive. On the other hand, the slogans from opposition parties typically respond to the policies or leadership of the incumbent government. 

During an election, India is plastered with posters from hundreds of political parties and thousands of candidates. And there’s a surge in demand for political merchandise, prompting flag makers to expand operations. Garment manufacturers are also shifting focus to produce election flags and banners, vital for political campaigns. Temporarily converting factories usually dedicated to saris, they’re now hubs for flag and banner production. Surat, a textile hub in Gujarat, PM Modi’s home state, serves as a major centre for election merchandise, alongside smaller hubs like Mathura in the north and Hyderabad in the south. Elections inject a significant boost into the economy as political parties invest in a wide range of goods and services, from small merchandise to helicopter rentals. Gulshan Khurana, the general secretary of a traders association in Delhi’s Sadar Bazar market, estimates that political parties spend between Rs 30,000 to 50,000 lakh on election merchandise, generating up to 10 million jobs. Khurana notes a nearly 30 percent increase in business compared to the last election in 2019, attributed to the BJP’s record spending to maintain power. 

Regional  parties are still relying on rallies along with digital outreach. Arvind Kejriwal and Hemant Soren, both currently in jail, have thrust their wives, Sunita Kejriwal and Kalpana Soren, into the political spotlight. These women, who typically remained behind the scenes, are now playing significant roles in the opposition camp.

INFLUENCERS & ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

However, Communist Party of India (Marxist), traditionally known for its conventional campaign methods and scepticism towards automation, has made a quick shift to embrace technology. They have introduced an AI anchor named ‘Samata’, symbolising equality, to enhance their campaigning efforts for the Lok Sabha elections in 2024. This move has drawn criticism from rival parties, who highlight the CPI(M)’s historical opposition to mechanisation and the use of computers in West Bengal.

With over 800 million internet users in India and a significant presence on platforms like Instagram and YouTube, it’s logical for political parties to engage with top influencers to promote their agendas. PM Modi has been actively reaching out to hundreds of social media influencers since last year, many of whom have substantial followings on platforms like Instagram and YouTube. These influencers, ranging from those with millions of followers to those with smaller audiences, are offered opportunities such as ministerial interviews, photo opportunities, and themed posts to amplify Modi’s message. Before general elections, these YouTubers and influencers from various niches including travel, food, religion, and technology have been enlisted to leverage their reach. The BJP’s election team organised influencers’ meetings since last year across different segments to educate them about the party’s policies, achievements, and implementation of government initiatives over the past nine years. The aim is to encourage influencers to share their own experiences, thereby lending credibility to the party’s message through third-party voices.

CPI (M), traditionally known for its conventional campaign methods and scepticism towards automation, has made a quick shift to adopting technology. They have introduced an AI anchor named ‘Samata’, symbolising equality, to enhance their campaigning efforts in the elections this year

Political parties are increasingly turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to share content on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter. This content serves various purposes, from promoting their campaigns to mocking opponents and sending targeted messages to voters. The integration of AI in electioneering is expected to reach new heights in this election cycle. In southern India, Congress leader Vijay Vasanth’s team has created a 2-minute audio-video clip using AI that was shared on social media platforms and shows his now dead but more popular politician father, H Vasanthakumar, seeking votes for him.

In another incident two fabricated videos have recently circulated online ahead of the initial voting phase, featuring look-alikes of Bollywood celebrities criticising Modi and endorsing the opposition Congress party in the general election. One video, lasting 30 seconds, appears to show Aamir Khan, while another, 41 seconds long, seems to feature Ranveer Singh. Both clips show that Modi has not fulfilled his electoral promises and has neglected important economic challenges. Experts recognize the difficulties associated with AI technology, especially the swift spread of fake news or misinformation. Controlling this issue poses a considerable challenge. Deepfake technology, a sophisticated application of AI, can generate realistic fake images and videos, leading to serious security and credibility concerns. The dissemination of these videos highlights the emerging influence of AI-created content in major elections, such as the extensive Indian election that commenced on 19th April and is set to run until June. The use of AI and its capacity to generate convincing forgeries, known as deepfakes, is becoming more prevalent in political campaigns around the globe, including those in the United States, Pakistan, and Indonesia.This shift from physical to digital is not just a change in medium; it’s a change in dynamics. As political parties navigate this new terrain, they are not only competing for votes but also for likes, shares, and viral moments that could define their electoral success.

Geeta Singh

Geeta Singh has spent 20 years covering cinema, music, and society giving new dimensions to feature writing. She has to her credit the editorship of a film magazine. She is also engaged in exploring the socio-economic diversity of Indian politics. She is the co-founder of Parliamentarian.

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