The impression is that the ongoing Lok Sabha election is being fought over digital campaigns, and more precisely through the apps on the mobile phones of the voters. Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, Twitter, TikTok, Helo and so many others are not just household names in big cities but even in smaller towns and rural areas. Some of these like Helo are, in fact, focused primarily on Indian languages, making it a hit in smaller towns, irrespective of all the regulatory heat on many of them.
The Google app store throws up multiple download options when searched for elections 2019.
ShowUpIndia, RankNVote, Chunav’19, Cricket Battle Politics, ModiSurfers, Indian Election Learning Simulator are among the social networking apps capturing the spirit of the polls, either through games or awareness initiatives. More than anything else, it gives you a sense that 2019 election is virtual. But is it?
The statistics available with the Election Commission
(EC) is an indication of the scale of things. It shows that the real campaign is out there in the open, outside the comfort zone of the apps. The number of star campaigners, who fly in and out of constituencies in helicopters and chartered flights, is pegged at 40 each for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress in 2019. Then there are other campaigners crisscrossing the country without a worry. The number has certainly not declined from the previous election in 2014 even though the reach of social media and digital campaigns has risen exponentially. The projection is that the 17th Lok Sabha election, with seven national parties and 52 state parties, will incur an expenditure of at least $8 billion, compared to $5 billion in 2014.
Had it been an election of digital campaigns, the cost of 2019 election should have been less. That’s because the travel cost of the campaigners, public meetings/rallies and media advertisements form a major component in the overall election expenditure. While the 2019 expenditure figures are not available as the election is underway, the EC data for 2014 Lok Sabha polls gives an idea of the cost breakup. According to EC, out of the gross expenditure of Rs 487.03 crore by the BJP on campaign and propaganda in 2014 (from the date of announcement of election to the completion of polls), travel of star campaigners cost the party Rs 77.8 crore. Travel of other BJP leaders meant a spend of another Rs 10.89 crore. Public meetings and rallies were estimated at Rs 70.68 crore, while the BJP’s media ads accounted for as much as Rs 304.5 crore. The party’s estimate of its publicity cost was Rs 14.6 crore while other expenses for propaganda came to Rs 8.5 crore.
As for Congress, of the total gross campaign expenditure of Rs 369.6 crore in 2014, the cost of star campaigners’ travel was estimated at Rs 104.6 crore. Other campaigners for Congress spent another Rs 1.3 crore. Congress public meetings and rallies were pegged at Rs 21 crore, media ads including television and SMSes Rs 231.24 crore, publicity Rs 11.32 crore and additional expenses on candidates Rs 1.63 crore.
While the BJP’s declared expenditure for 2014 general election was Rs 714.28 crore, that of Congress was Rs 516 crore. The numbers show that campaigns and propaganda made up for a chunky share of the total spend for these parties. And if a long list of helicopter companies flew VIP campaigners from one venue to another, and one speech to another in 2014, it isn't any different this time, despite the digital hype.
Another sign of how elections are more conventional than breaking out of tradition, EC has given out a time schedule for all parties in relation to their propaganda on state broadcasters Doordarshan and All India Radio. The party-wise time slots, with the ruling party BJP getting the maximum, show that airing speeches, views and campaigns on DD and AIR is of much significance even in the day and age of social media. The controversy over NaMo TV, reported to be backed by the BJP, is another pointer that traditional media continues to hold charm for both politicians and voters even as digital is all over.
So, 2019 election may not be about digital campaign versus rallies. Digital is not in lieu of the rallies, just like the apps on mobile phones are not replacing the star campaigners who continue to fly from Jammu to Wayanad and back in a jiffy. The star campaigners from Narendra Modi to Amit Shah, Nitin Gadkari to Rajnath Singh, or Rahul Gandhi to Priyanka Gandhi
Vadra to Manmohan Singh remain the stars of 2019 polls. Not the internet-led businesses that have rattled the government for no clear reason.