WhatsApp groups, virtual rallies and war rooms: BJP’s upper hand ahead of Bihar polls

Amit Shah, the union minister for home affairs, addressed a virtual rally, the Bihar Jan Samvad, from the headquarters of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Delhi, on 7 June. It was the first rally by any political party for the upcoming assembly elections in Bihar. The BJP is a part of the ruling alliance in the state led by the Janata Dal (United). Arun Sharma/PTI
12 September, 2020

“We have formed over one lakh WhatsApp groups in order to circulate positive news to influence voters,” Manan Krishna, the convenor of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT cell in Bihar, said. The upcoming assembly elections in Bihar, expected to be held in October or November, will be the first polls held in India during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The Election Commission of India has released broad guidelines for the conduct of elections during COVID-19, and some recommendations specific to Bihar. These include restrictions on physical campaigning. As a result, political parties have ramped up their digital infrastructure in order to connect with voters, and the BJP, which is a part of the ruling coalition in the state, seems to be far ahead of all its rivals and allies.

The term of Bihar’s legislative assembly ends on 29 November, and the ECI has said it will hold elections to vote in a new government in time, though the dates have not been announced yet. However, according to Krishna, the BJP has been in poll mode since the beginning of 2020. “We started preparing in February, and now it looks like we will need to rely more on the virtual medium,” he said. In fact, the BJP kicked off its virtual electioneering with the Bihar Jan Samvad, a virtual rally by the union minister of home affairs, Amit Shah, from Delhi, on 7 June. According to a PTI report, around ten thousand LED screens and more than fifty thousand smart televisions were installed across the state to reach out to voters. Sanjay Jaiswal, the state BJP president, claimed that around forty lakh people across Bihar watched Shah’s rally. While these numbers have been contested, Krishna told me that the speech was live streamed at all the 72,227 booths in the state.

According to Krishna, the BJP’s WhatsApp network is expected to reach two crore people, and will cover every single polling booth in the state. “We wanted to penetrate till the booth level, which we have successfully done,” he said, and added that “the content on these groups will be completely positive.” He told me that they were given explicit “instructions to keep it that way by the party leadership at the central and state levels. Our government has done a lot, which we will be highlighting.” The ruling alliance currently consists of the Janata Dal (United)—led by Nitish Kumar, the incumbent chief minister—the BJP, the Lok Janshakti Party and five independents. “Whatever we put on Facebook and Twitter is what we will push on WhatsApp,” Krishna claimed.

In contrast, the Congress—in alliance with the main opposition party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal—has 3,800 WhatsApp groups for the whole of Bihar, according to Sanjiv Singh, the Congress’s IT cell head for the state. Singh told me that they have a target of creating 10,000 groups in the next two months. “The BJP has access to resources and money. The Congress doesn’t, and relies on a committed cadre of party workers, there is bound to be a difference,” he said.

According to Krishna, the BJP’s WhatsApp network in itself is a disciplined and strategically structured poll tool. He said that this network is multi-tiered and will be administered by a total of 9,500 IT team heads. The state IT cell team has 45 district teams under it and 1,099 mandal teams—units that make up an administrative district. The mandal teams are responsible for all communication within their areas. Similarly, Krishna said that below this structure lies the party’s basic unit for digital outreach, known as the “Shakti Kendra.” He said that there are 9,500 shakti kendras and each of them has a team head who is responsible for panchayats and wards. It seems that the party will be relying on this extensive information network to help its prospects in the elections.

The Congress on the other hand, has a different approach. Singh elaborated on the Congress’s digital mobilisation and told me, “We have developed our own software and also an app. It generates a link which can be shared via WhatsApp.” He said that their “target is to connect with ten to fifteen thousand people in each constituency.”

The JD(U) was not very forthcoming regarding their digital strategy. Amardeep, who is the president of the party’s media cell, told me that “the JD(U) media cell was formed three years ago, which was when we started our social media outreach.” He added that they “have formed separate WhatsApp groups for districts, panchayats, urban wards and polling booths. In addition, the party’s 30 different cells, for women, students, Dalits, minorities, farmers, et cetera, all have their own WhatsApp groups from the state level down to the booth level.” Amardeep refused to provide numbers and details.

Apart from social media platforms, the BJP has been very active in organising virtual rallies. Krishna said that the party aims to do virtual rallies in every single one of the state’s 243 constituencies at least once before elections. In contrast, Singh said the Congress’s target is to hold 100 virtual rallies till election day, with two mega rallies scheduled to be addressed by Rahul Gandhi, while the ruling JD(U) held its first virtual election rally on 7 September. 

Nitish Kumar and other JD(U) leaders addressed the party’s rally, called the Nischay Samvad. The party has built a separate website and Kumar’s rally was streamed live from the party headquarters in Patna. Amardeep told me that the party has “a database of 30 lakh people, party workers and JD(U) supporters and we were sending them links to our rallies.” According to a report in The Wire, based on the digital reception of his speech, Kumar’s rally may have been a failure. The rally was almost three hours long and Kumar spent considerable airtime comparing his term with the alleged “lawlessness” of the Lalu-Rabri years, a reference to the 15 years when the RJD’s Lalu Prasad Yadav and his wife Rabri Devi ruled Bihar.

Meanwhile, on 7 September, the Congress kicked off its own virtual rally—Bihar Kranti Mahasammelan—on its Facebook page with leaders from the party’s Bihar unit, including Madan Mohan Jha, who is the state president, Raj Babbar and others. “Unlike other parties, we planned to link the virtual rally from three places: the All India Congress Committee headquarters from where the national level leaders spoke, the Bihar state Congress office from where state-level leaders joined in and district-level leaders from the constituencies,” Singh, the IT cell head, explained. For instance, Shashwat Gautam, a Congress ticket aspirant from the Madhuban seat in East Champaran, joined in with a speech from the constituency.   

The BJP meanwhile is using a variety of platforms, including Zoom and Cisco Webex for its virtual meetings. “Our vidhan sabha virtual rallies are broadcast on the BJP zilla facebook pages, our leaders do a Facebook live from their verified pages and our workers connect via Zoom. We share the link with journalists,” Krishna said.

Even in terms of human resources, there seems to be a difference between the mobilisations by the BJP versus other parties. According to Singh, the Congress has 40 people working in its “war room” in Patna, designing creatives and videos for social media, doing research and analytics. They are divided into teams that scan social media for daily trends and go through print and television media to look for issues that will resonate with voters. One team works on Twitter and another creates content for Facebook. He added that all the content created by these teams is also circulated on WhatsApp. Gunjan Patel, the head of the Indian Youth Congress’s Bihar unit, claimed that two of the issues the party is focusing on, the floods in Bihar and unemployment, have generated Twitter trends that question Kumar’s government. “The reach of Twitter in Bihar is less. People don’t use Twitter here as much as they use Facebook and WhatsApp,” Singh added.

The BJP, however, has 200 people working just in its “social media war room,” according to Krishna. Amardeep refused to give specific details and told me that in total, the party had mobilised 1,500 people for its media cell. He also dismissed the reach of social media and the apparent advantage that BJP seemed to accrue. “The election will be fought on the work our government has done over the past 15 years. Social media can only amplify the message.” 

But SY Quraishi, a former chief election commissioner, was far more circumspect about the difference in the capacity for digital outreach by all the parties in the fray. “In Bihar, due to the prevailing COVID-19 situation, virtual rallies and social media are going to be a dominant feature of campaigning. Digital campaigning will be costly and it is likely that richer political parties will benefit while regional and local parties may lose out.” He told me, “During the Lok Sabha elections last year, the BJP reportedly spent Rs 27 crore on political ads on Google, Facebook and associated platforms, while the Congress spent Rs 5.6 crore. These figures are most likely grossly under-reported and the real numbers are likely to be much more.” He was of the opinion that these figures hold some lessons for the Bihar polls.

I tried to reach out to the chief electoral officer of Bihar, HR Srinivasa, about the ECI’s role in ensuring a level playing field given the unprecedented nature of election campaigning this time around. He did not respond to calls or messages. When I asked Quraishi the same questions, he said that “digital campaigning cannot entirely replace traditional means of political canvassing. In Bihar, internet penetration is 37 percent while smartphone usage is 30 percent, so digital campaigning will have its limitations.” But he added, “The ruling coalition is likely to have more resources than the opposition and thus has an inherent advantage when it comes to mobilising voters through social media.”