For some time now the BJP has promised a “Congress-mukt Bharat” – a pledge to wipe out India’s largest opposition party. To a large extent, the BJP has been successful even beyond its own projections, with not only the Congress but the opposition in most other states unable to meaningfully counter the saffron party.

One exception to this however remains the Trinamool Congress. As Bengal heads to the polls, it is clear that the state will see a proper political contest. For a change, the BJP will be challenged.

Given these stakes, the limited turnout at Narendra Modi’s Kolkata rally on Sunday was notable. Held at the city’s historic Brigade Parade Ground, the prime minister managed to fill up significantly less than half of the maidan.

A view of the largely empty Brigade Parade Ground while Prime Minister Narendra Modi was speaking. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Firefighting with fake news

So small was the turnout that the BJP, strategically, withheld bird’s eye drone footage that would show the true extent of the crowd. Instead, low angle shots from the stage were put out which obscured the actual turnout. Finally, as a fire fighting measure, a large number of BJP handles on social media shared fake photos of the 2019 Left rally at the same ground – which unlike today’s BJP rally was a truly massive affair – trying to pass it off as their own.

A large number of BJP handles on social media shared fake photos of the 2019 Left rally at the same ground trying to pass it off as their own.

In sharp contrast, the Trinamool gladly shared a bird’s eye view of its rally in Siliguri on the same day.

It seems a good proxy to measure rally turnout would be mapping it with the willingness of parties to broadcast bird’s eye footage taken by drones.

Social media to the rescue

Should the BJP be worried about this low turnout? It might seem counterintuitive, but maybe not.

Note that Prime Minister Modi had a modest Brigade turnout in 2019 as well, just before the Lok Sabha elections. And the Left’s turnout the same year was significantly bigger (with its images now being ironically recycled by the BJP as misinformation). Yet, as was clear from the Lok Sabha election results, the BJP is a far more popular party amongst Bengali voters than the Left.

What then explains this disconnect between turnout and votes? The answer lies in a sea change in how Bengal does politics. Left-style shows of street strength are on their way out and media control is on the ascendence.

As is widely acknowledged, the BJP has the largest and most sophisticated social media network of any party in India. As Union Home Minister Amit Shah has publicly boasted the party can make any news, real or fake, go viral. as part of its reporting on the 2019 election found that social media was key to the BJP’s remarkable rise in Bengal. Even as Trinamool cadre tried to block party work on the ground, the BJP smartly bypassed these restrictions by taking its outreach online. In this, it was helped by its powerful social media team, that occupies an extremely prominent position in the party organisation.

The fact that the BJP has a strong network of sympathetic, national media houses also added to its control over the narrative in Bengal.

These factors, in fact, could be seen in play on Sunday itself. Even as much of the ground was empty, what was broadcast to the rest of Bengal and India was a narrative of a blockbuster turnout.

Even as the ground remained largely empty, the BJP successfully blitzkrieged social media with the narrative of blockbuster rally.

Ever since the rise of the Left in the 1960s, massive rallies at the Brigade Parade Ground have been a feature of the politics of West Bengal. Even after the demise of the Left, in fact, the Trinamool kept up this tradition, jamming up Kolkata at frequent intervals as a show of strength. For decades, it was seen to be common sense that a good show at the maidan was a sign of a party’s vitality. But has that correlation now been broken in the West Bengal of 2021?