Effectively, communication has flowed in two ways – leader to voter and voter to voter – and both ways have led to informal opinion formulation. Social media has blurred the boundaries for leaders. Politicians have always been held accountable for their utterances, scrutinised for their comments that go into an indelible archive.
In the age of social media, perceptions are created against political opponents without so much as a thought given to propriety. Leaders earlier did not have the privilege of this anonymity if they wished to run a full-fledged slander campaign against their political adversaries.
In the pre-social-media era, leaders could not afford to go wrong with their communication strategy. There was no Twitter to turn to the next day, no follow-up comments could be made, no real-time feedback of the previous speech was available for the leader to make corrections soon after.
Today allegations are hurled without any attribution to authentic sources. In many cases, the politician’s public relations machinery does it for him. Surrogate pages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp forwards are all tools that every political party employs ruthlessly to build its own campaign and demolish its opponent’s.
Who exactly came up with “Pappu” for Rahul Gandhi for the first time? Perhaps we will never know, but its originating source we all know only too well. This casual, spontaneous springboarding of monikers by one political party against its opponents helps it land on a premise that has already clicked with a large vote base. When a public image is being built or broken it depends on whether the propagator or the defender has a stronger social media team.
While the “Pappu” tag has haunted Rahul Gandhi for a good part of his political career, the Congress party’s counter for Narendra Modi, “suit boot ki sarkar”, referring to his pricey hologram suit, did not stick for too long because Modi was quick to take remedial action. Some names stick, some don’t. The question of their ingenuity is another story for another day.
Voter turnout has progressively increased and the consolidation of ideas on social media has translated into landslide victories. More people thinking alike also means more people making the same choices.
Voting figures in the past three decades have gone up ten percentage points, from hovering at 57-58 per cent in the 1990s to 67.4 per cent in 2019. Today even as rural–urban migration has displaced a sizeable section of the voting population, voters are only a call away.
While the Election Commission through its publicity has pushed voters to come out of their houses to cast their ballot, candidates leave no stone unturned to ensure their supporters travel back home during elections to vote for them. Technology has spared no one, not even a reluctant voter. It has, however, positively ensured better monitoring, accuracy and faster counting of votes and safekeeping of the electronic voting machines in CCTV-monitored strongrooms.
Gone are the days of booth capturing that possibly at a hyperlocal level upset what could have been a larger national trend. Something we can retrospectively only speculate, never know for sure. Add to this the gradual demographic shift to a larger younger population that is impacted by social media and technology advancement. If in 2001 there were 21 crore eligible voters in the age group of eighteen to twenty-nine years, in 2019 this figure went up to 30 crore. Voters in the age group of thirty to thirty-nine years increased from 14 crore in 2001 to 22 crore in 2019.
The percentage of young voters has seen a steady rise, displacing old preferences in terms of candidates and political parties and outmoded campaign tools and techniques. So we have more young voters who are out there sharing ideas on social media, evaluating them, propagating them, influencing their contemporaries and sometimes even the older generation, arriving largely at a consensus and delivering thumping majorities.
Social media and 24x7 news channels have invaded the privacy of politicians, putting the spotlight on infighting, blame games and tussles for power within political parties that also end up hurting their own prospects. Social media and 24x7 news channels keep a hawk’s eye on the goings-on in a politician’s life, relaying the nitty-gritties to an ever-inquisitive audience.
Take the Punjab elections in 2017, for instance. The AAP that appeared poised to get 100 out of the 117 seats ended up with just 20 due to the bitter internal tussle in the party that played out in front of a national audience. The Congress made unexpected gains in the four months leading to the polls, and a dormant Captain Amarinder Singh emerged stronger than ever before with 77 seats in his kitty.
In Uttar Pradesh, the infighting in the Samajwadi Party cost them heavily while the BJP that was trailing in the second position in all pre-poll surveys leapt ahead at the last minute, grabbing over 80 per cent of the seats in the assembly. Both these elections gave clear, sweeping verdicts.
That is not to say that the village elders or dominant castes have lost their sway over their communities, especially in north India. When our survey teams hit the ground, they are invariably told that a final call on which party to back will be taken once the community meetings are held. Jats, Muslims and Dalits across the country exhibit the strongest sense of community when they vote.
Communication has come as a boon for them, ensuring homogeneity in their opinion formulation and voting preferences. Earlier fatwas were issued through maulvis to consolidate the Muslim vote but now smartphones have connected everyone.
Victory or loss in most elections is decisive. For instance, khaps in Haryana have a very strong network. They consult among themselves and issue a diktat right before the polls. Earlier the talks would be held over a mahapanchayat, but now the consensus-building starts much earlier, as khaps reach out to one another over the phone, weigh their options and begin building public sentiment, “mahaul”, for the candidate and party of their choice.
In the 2019 Haryana polls, out of 32 Jat-dominated seats, candidates in 24 seats won by a margin of over 10,000 votes, a clear indication that Jat voters made clear choices in favour of a single party despite several Jat candidates in the fray. Interestingly, most seats were bagged either by the Congress or the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP), both led by strong Jat leaders, Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Dushyant Chautala respectively.
On all these seats, the BJP remained in the second spot, in a clear indication that the Jat vote did not get split between the Congress and the JJP. The BJP led by Manohar Lal Khattar, a non-Jat, managed to grab just 7 of the 32 seats. In what would otherwise have been a confusing election, with the JJP, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and Congress all wooing the same community, voters smartly sifted the best options for themselves on a seat-by-seat basis. They ruled out the INLD and chose the Congress or JJP with extreme clarity.
I attribute this maturity solely to a good communication network.
Conversely, in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 in Mahasamand in Chhattisgarh, local heavyweight and former chief minister Ajit Jogi’s strategy to spread misinformation against his contender helped him narrow down the margin. The BJP’s Chandu Lal Sahu, who was expected to win by virtue of the “tsunamo” (landslide victory credited to Modi), ended up getting past the line by a thin margin of 1600 votes as his opponents propped up ten namesakes.
The other Chandu Lal Sahus ate into the BJP contender’s votes, giving Jogi the edge. A hilarious story, from 2003, in Madhya Pradesh comes to mind. In Paraswada constituency, political adversaries of the local heavyweight, Kankar Munjare of the Samajwadi Party, ganged up and fielded a local tribal, Darboosingh Uikey, against him.
Uikey was funded and fuelled to take on Munjare and, in an unexpected turn of events, he ended up defeating Munjare. Uikey, the ragged, barefoot pawn, was so petrified after his victory that he went missing and the divisional magistrate was then tasked to hunt him down. Uikey was dragged back to acknowledge his victory. Poor communication and lack of technology cost some big leaders big heartbreaks for no fault of their own.
Excerpted with permission from How India Votes And What It Means, Pradeep Gupta, Juggernaut Books.