Covid-19 impact: Politicians log on to tech to get past lockdown hurdles

File photo of a meeting between chief ministers and Prime Minister Narendra Modi over video conferencing | Photo: Twitter/ ANI
As the coronavirus outbreak and the resultant curbs bring sweeping changes to everyone's life, ministers and politicians in Maharashtra have taken to technology in a big way to keep in touch with their constituents, conduct meetings and carry out official responsibilities.

With social distancing becoming the new way of life and lockdown forcing people to stay indoors, they are extensively tapping social media platforms and new-age tools to reach out to members of the public and political workers.

According to Abhijit Sapkal, general secretary of the Maharashtra Congress and head of its social media cell, the lockdown has made politicians take the corporate route to conduct their activities. For long, the corporate sector had been using technology to conduct meetings and remote working. The buzzword 'remote meetings' has been a norm in some segments, especially the information technology (IT).

Face-to-face interaction and political gatherings have been replaced by virtual meetings. The 'Zoom' app has emerged as one of the most favoured technology platforms for such sessions, since it has some key features like an admin being in command of a meeting, and the sharing of data in the form of powerpoint presentations.

During the past month or so, the app, a paid service, has become immensely popular.

Sapkal said this app was used to hold political meetings of the Congress. "The party has subscribed to this serviceand has got the licence to use it. If you havent subscribed, there are security issues and you get only 40-minute time," he said. A recent meeting of state leaders with AICC general secretary in-charge of Maharashtra Mallikarjun Kharge lasted for five-and-a-half hours on this app, he said.

Meetings of the state Congress taskforce on Covid-19 and sub-committee on the pandemic were also held on Zoom, Sapkal said. "Initially, the social media team had to call up all participants to inform them about the password, ID and to give other instructions. Now, most leaders and office-bearers have got used to the system," Sapkal said.

State PWD Minister and Congress leader Ashok Chavan, who is in his hometown Nanded, told PTI over phone that video conferencing as the new means of communicationas was much easier.

Video conferencing had been widely used in the corporate world, but not in politics. Now, various apps have emerged as the new tools of communication and these are used for ministerial works and party meetings. "My daughter helps me in case I need assistance with this new technology, even though I do use iPad and other digital platforms for communication," Chavan said.

Leader of Opposition in the Assembly Devendra Fadnavis said he was using 'Zoom' for internal party meetings and the audio bridge to interact with a larger group of workers. The senior BJP leader uses 'Webinar', a software tool, to interact with representatives of different sectors like health, agriculture and realty.

"I will compile a report on their recommendations on how to revive the economy post the coronavirus and submit it to the central and state governments," Fadnavis said. The former chief minister said he had been able to reach out to 50,000 people, despite the lockdown, through digital platforms like Skype, Facebook Live, Twitter and Instagram.

"Every day, the BJP core committee meets via 'Zoom' in the morning. Then some Webinar or category-specific interactions are held. I have a packed day even in the lockdown," he said. "It's true we have to be among people, but we can use technology wherever travel is not required. This is one positive side of the lockdown."

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray was holding video conferences with bureaucrats, district collectors and also ministers whenever needed, an aide said. "Thackeray communicates with the general public on Twitter and Facebook," the aide said

State NCP president and minister Jayant Patil said he was using audio conferencing and 'Zoom' for political meetings. For official meetings with respective departments and other ministers as well as Cabinet meets, the official video conferencing platform was being used, he said.

The NCP leader said he had been using audio conferencing since the 2019 Lok Sabha poll campaign. "I (at that time) addressed booth-level presidents. Here you speak to an audience of 200 to 300 people. If the audience wants to ask questions, they have to dial a number. Political parties and politicians have been now introduced to this 'Zoom' app which is a new featurefor us," Patil said.

The minister, however, doesn't think technology like 'Zoom' is a convenient way to communicate politically. "We are habituated to meeting people in person. But we will have to usetechnology for communication for a while now due to the coronavirus," he said. Use of technology was good for government meetings and it should become a regular feature after the state becomes free of the coronavirus, Patil said.

"Government officials from every nook and corner of the state need not come to Mumbai for meetings, especially for briefings during legislature sessions. Technology will save crores of rupees which are otherwise wasted on travel of officials," the NCP leader said. Ministers can brief officials through video conferencing during legislature sessions, he added.

Maharashtra minister and state Congress chief Balasaheb Thorat and NCP leader Supriya Sule, who is the Lok Sabha member from Baramati in Pune, have also been using 'Zoom' to interact with workers of their respective parties.

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