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4-min read

As Parties Bank on Strategists, Memes & War Rooms for Victory, is it the End of the Dedicated Foot Soldier?

Along with the arrival of poll tacticians, the increasing use of technology has changed how election strategies are now formulated and campaigns planned and implemented.

Anita Katyal |

Updated:June 9, 2019, 12:30 PM IST
As Parties Bank on Strategists, Memes & War Rooms for Victory, is it the End of the Dedicated Foot Soldier?
Congress workers monitor polling at an election campaign war room in Jaipur. (Reuters file photo)

Rattled by the inroads made by the Bharatiya Janata Party in her home state, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has signed on political strategist Prashant Kishor to help her plan for the 2021 assembly election.

The Trinamool Congress chief is the latest political leader to hire Kishor as poll planner. Prashant Kishor, or PK as he is called, shot to fame in 2014 when he played a key role in designing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha election campaign. He followed it up by pulling off a victory for Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar in the 2015 assembly polls when the BJP and its allies were roundly defeated by the Janata Dal (U), Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress combine. And most recently, PK is being credited with crafting a winning strategy for YSR Congress chief Jagan Mohan Reddy, who swept both the Lok Sabha and the assembly polls.

The arrival of professional strategists such as Kishor is only one part of the election story today. Along with the arrival of poll tacticians, the increasing use of technology has changed how election strategies are now formulated and campaigns planned and implemented.

Besides hiring consultants like Kishor, political parties now set up high-tech war rooms which are invariably staffed by data analysts, IT professionals, social media experts and volunteers well acquainted with digital technology. Their job is to devise different strategies to promote a party’s policies to segmented audiences, monitor social media platforms, newspapers and television channels for feedback, get inputs from various sources and prepare counter-strategies in response to what the competitor or people are saying.

The IT cells of all political parties have been beefed up while Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat are the buzz words these days as memes, GIFs and video messages are put across these digital platforms by political parties, especially to woo the young voter and make sure that the message reaches as wide an audience as possible at the click of a button.

So does this mean the demise of the traditional political worker and strategist who pooled their talent to pick candidates and plan poll campaigns?

Those days when veterans such as Kamraj, Nijalingappa, Devraj Urs and later Pranab Mukherjee brought their native wisdom and vast experience to the table to craft election strategies are clearly passé. At the same time, the party foot soldier, who had his ear to the ground and provided useful feedback to the leaders about the issues which were agitating the local populace, may well be reduced to a bit player.

The inputs provided by party workers had proved valuable in drawing up poll plans as also the selection of candidates. There was a reason why earlier politicians travelled extensively across the country and held regular Janata durbars. These helped them understand the land and its people while the interaction with both party workers and ordinary citizens gave them an insight into their thinking. But technology and professional strategists are threatening to take over this role now.

Narendra Modi was the first Indian political leader to understand the power of digital technology and he made effective use of it in the 2014 Lok Sabha election to promote his candidature as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. This election, the BJP and the various voluntary groups promoted by it, took its usage to a new level as the latest technological tools were employed in creative and innovative ways in the high-decibel campaign witnessed recently.

And Modi led this effort from the front. Besides using digital platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram, Modi reached out directly to the people. During the last five years, Modi spoke directly to a captive audience in his weekly radio talk show “Mann ki Baat” and also interacted with beneficiaries of central government schemes through video conferencing to take personal ownership of these programmes.

There was a time not long ago when the BJP depended on the wide network of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh volunteers and party foot soldiers to perform this task and run whisper campaigns during elections. But this task is being gradually taken over by its war room and IT cell which put out content on the plethora of BJP-promoted WhatsApp groups while the party’s cyber warriors were deployed for the same purpose.

In the case of the BJP, its online activities have been supplemented by the tireless efforts of its disciplined workers since it is a cadre-based party. But as technology takes over, it will not be long before its dedicated political worker could well be rendered superfluous.

With the BJP enjoying a clear first-mover advantage in the use of technology, the Congress made a vain attempt to play catch-up in this election. The party also hired Kishor for the last Uttar Pradesh and Punjab assembly elections but it did not turn to be a happy experience.

The Congress has replicated the saffron party’s methods — set up war rooms, hired technical professionals, ramped up its presence on social media and used data to devise strategy.

But this was poor compensation for the missing Congress worker who has virtually disappeared from the field. The lack of a party organisation, poor groundwork and a depleted cadre strength meant that the Congress remained disconnected from the ground realities as it depended far too much on its IT and social media teams to do its work.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal)

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