“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.