On 25 September, the Election Commission of India announced that voting for the Bihar assembly elections will be conducted in three phases, between 28 October and 7 November. The EC had earlier released broad guidelines for the conduct of elections during the COVID-19 pandemic and some recommendations for Bihar specifically, which heavily restrict physical campaigning. As a consequence, political parties in Bihar are increasingly reliant on digital campaigning and social media to connect with the voter and shape the political narrative.
Five days before the announcement, Sushil Modi, Bihar’s deputy chief minister and senior member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, was interviewed by The Lallantop, a Hindi online news platform owned by the India Today Group. In a conversation that stretched for over two hours, Modi answered questions about his government’s response to COVID-19, the goods and services tax and development, in a convivial setting. Modi also included barbs about Lalu Prasad Yadav, the head of the Rashtriya Janata Dal—Bihar’s largest opposition party—and his son Tejashwi Yadav. The same day, Modi tweeted a clip of the interview from his account. That day he also tweeted two press notes, both of which were covered by daily newspapers, which Modi duly retweeted as press pickups.
The synergy between Modi’s use of social media and its feeding into mainstream media is indicative of a wider trend in the Bihar, one which allows the BJP to have an overbearing role on the media narrative of the election. Over the past five years, the BJP has built a formidable social media infrastructure, one of the largest in terms of recognition, reach and influence. This includes a larger number of verified leaders on social-media platforms, and a larger network on WhatsApp. The BJP and its ally the Janata Dal (United) have also been able to use the financial incentive of government advertisements to ensure that mainstream media reports positively on them. The BJP does not outspend other political parties for social-media advertisements, but it benefits from third parties that push content aligned to its narrative. The digital campaign highlights several major lacunae in India’s campaign finance laws.
The BJP’s dominance on social media can be gauged by the fact that at least 23 BJP leaders from the state have verified accounts on both Twitter and Facebook. This includes Modi; the BJP’s Bihar president, Sanjay Jaiswal; the union ministers Ravi Shankar Prasad and Giriraj Singh; members of parliament and state cabinet ministers. A verified account tends to have a larger following on social media, and due to its authenticity, it is more effective at shaping a political narrative. The combined following of these 23 BJP leaders on Facebook and Twitter stretches to over several million.
The feedback loop between social and mainstream media ensures that posts from the verified accounts of BJP leaders are picked up by mainstream media, which in turn are re-posted as press pickups by these accounts. This leads to a situation where the BJP is able to have an overwhelming influence in determining the agenda that would be discussed by the mainstream media in their election coverage.