Author Milan Vaishnav sees Covid-19 reshaping political campaigns in India

The pandemic will push all parties further in the direction of digital campaigning, says Vaishnav
Covid-19 is pushing Indian political parties to quickly look for alternative ways of mobilisation. Does this mean a new kind of politics is in the offing? Milan Vaishnav, director of the Carnegie Endowment's South Asia programme and author of several books on Indian politics, tells Aditi Phadnis some things will remain the same but some will change.

Covid-19 has had at least one definite and predictable effect: mobilisation by Indian political parties will never be the same again. What do you think?

What we have seen so far is that Covid-19 is further entrenching some key political trends we were already witnessing in the pre-pandemic era — heightened degree of social polarisation, centralisation of power, and emaciation or atrophy of accountability institutions. Similarly, the pandemic is helping to consolidate previously apparent trends in political mobilisation. Since 2014, we have seen a pretty significant shift to­wards digital campaigning, micro-targeting, and online mobilisation, be it on Fa­ce­book, Twitter or perhaps most consequentially WhatsApp. The pandemic will push all parties further in the direction.  

Does the pandemic mark the end of noisy rallies, (or raila as Bihar’s former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav used to call them) that gave politicians the chance to stand at the pulpit and make stirring speeches and rash promises?

I would not be so quick to sound the death knell of the traditional campaigning, consisting of large rallies and jan sabhas. Look at what is happening in the United States. For weeks on end, Americans were locked in their homes, observing social distancing and home quarantining norms. And yet in the wake of gruesome police brutality against African-Americans, we are seeing thousands throw caution to the wind and line the streets of major cities in protest day after day. In India, the combination of economic dislocation caused by the pandemic and the communal polarisation simmering beneath the surface means that one cannot write off the possibility of large mass gatherings, even in the near future. The balance of digital and physical might tilt towards the former, but I would be extremely cautious in dismissing the importance of the latter. At the end of the day, many parties and politicians in India derive authority from street power — think of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar or the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi. I don’t think this link will be severed easily.

The brake on physical public gatherings, which could become a turning point in deciding the outcome of elections, means parties will have to rely much more on luring voters through digital and electronic means. So will parties that are poorly prepared to embrace the digital modes of propaganda go back to the basics: caste and identity politics?

Let’s stipulate one important fact: the Bha­ratiya Janata Party (BJP) has an enormous digital advantage over its rivals, both national and regional. The BJP has embraced technology in a manner no other party has and it can use its control of the central government, resource advantage, and its organisation — both official and unofficial (the Sangh Parivar) — to further build upon this advantage. We are seeing some signs of catch-up — look at how the Co­n­gress is using social media, for ex­ample — but the BJP has a clear first mover’s advantage. I would expect convergence over time, but we are not there yet. What does this mean for the opposition, whi­ch seeks to displace the BJP? It has a unique opportunity to go hammer-and-tongs at the ruling party on the economy. Anyone who looks at Indian data can see the slowdown preceded the pandemic, whi­ch has made a bad situation truly awful. I don’t think caste and identity are going to give the opposition the ammunition they need — if 2014 and 2019 are any guide. We have seen an ex­haustion of the Mandal politics that prevailed over the last three decades. The real question is whether the opposition has the wherewithal to articulate two things: a simple economic critique of the (Narendra) Modi economy and a viable future alternative. Right now, to be fair, we are seeing neither. I would refer here to Neelanjan Sircar’s brilliant argument that 2019 was an election about vikas (development). The people have a faith that Prime Minister Modi will take the right calls for the country on the economy, and foreign and domestic policy. The opposition has to undermine this premise — caste and identity alone will not get you there.

Will this in turn spawn a new generation of the entrepreneur/IT czar political manager? Just like, after the rise of Rajiv Gandhi, a new term for politician was the “political executive”.

Undoubtedly, we are already seeing that. The rise of the ‘campaign consultant,’ who is a ubiquitous character in most Western democracies, is apparent in India too — albeit with a lag. The new digital politics will accelerate the creation of this relatively new career pathway but could also lead to, frankly, a lot of charlatans flooding the space. It is pretty easy, with the kinds of big data available today, to develop a kind of data-driven certitude that is totally devoid of history, politics, culture, and context. Again, coming ba­ck to the American experience, consider the lessons of the 2016 election. The Clinton campaign  used big data in a way no other campaign had to date. Each night, they were running hundreds of thousands of simulations of the election, with a clear majority of those showing a Clinton victory. And yet, we know what happened in the final analysis; many of our conventional political assumptions were outdated or simply out-of-touch.  

Yes, and to amplify in the Indian context, we have the example of Chandrababu Naidu. No politician in India is more attuned to technology. The Telugu Desam Party just held its Mahanadu meeting via Zoom. And yet, despite technology, despite the promise of delivering a brand new state, Naidu and his party have suffered a political setback.

This is a great example. Perhaps the best way of thinking about te­chnology is that it can be an enab­ler or force multiplier, but ultima­tely it depends on the qua­lity of the product you have. It reminds me a bit of the debates so­cial scientists used to have about the role of so­cial capital and civil society networks. At first, social capital was hailed as a sure-fire positive. But, at the end of the day, so­cial capital empowered fascism in inter-war Ge­rmany but it also fuelled American democracy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Similarly, we can get a bit carried away with the allure of “techno-governance.” Think about many of the welfare schemes the Government of India has rolled out in recent years — if you create an elaborate data dashboard to track toilet construction, this is not necessarily the same thing as tracking modern sanitation practices. You are comple­tely missing out on the behavioural dimension to the problem. So perhaps we are entering an era where technology is necessary, but ultimately insufficient for good governance.

In the realm of electoral politics, I think what the BJP has done is to leverage technology in service of a product — Modi, a very popular product. But technology has not saved the BJP in countless states — be in Rajasthan or Chh­a­t­tisgarh — where the electorate did not view the product favourably. One case that merits closer study is West Bengal, where the BJP used technology as essentially a substitute for a robust party organisation in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Even the BJP officials admit this now. I would love to see a case study of the party’s approach and some thinking about whether it is replicable elsewhere. But again, the product they were selling was Modi (not a state-level figure) and the ground was fertile for such a ploy.

Are we looking at a new app-based politics?

I think we’re looking at a spectrum of activity — from digital to physical. In the political domain, India is moving toward the former but we should not ignore the latter. If you look at  other walks of life — sports, film, music, work  — data and digital applications are all the rage. Why should politics be exempt?

But let’s also not forget the realities of India. There are still barriers to digital communications. Smartphone penetration is highly uneven. There is a tremendous potential to misuse digital platforms, which could spark a backlash. If technology were the determining factor, the BJP would not have lost major state elections going back to 2017.    

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