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Battle for Bengal Witnesses a Tech-Tonic Shift as TMC and BJP Go All Digital Guns Blazing

The change of climes between January and February was stark in Kolkata. Gone were the cool temperatures and winter’s fleeting kiss, days became increasingly hot even as the second month of the year hastily bid adieu, leaving Kolkatans squirming under a scorching sun on the first day of March. It’s as if the weather gods too feel the heat of the upcoming polls and have revved up the thermostat. The Bengal elections will be held over eight long phases that seem more stretched out than necessary. In the 2011 and 2016 assembly polls, a six-phase election had sufficed. Of all the states, and one Union Territory, going to polls (Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, and West Bengal), the battle for Bengal is equal amounts exciting, acrimonious, and dramatic. India’s fourth most populous state will decide if Trinamool Congress (TMC) matriarch Mamata Banerjee will be awarded a third term in office or if the challenger, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will rule the roost.

With only a few weeks to go, technology is the new-age disrupter that’s greatly influencing the election campaigns of both parties. While on-ground rallies and public meetings continue, tech has emerged as a unique game changer in this year’s elections. The raging pandemic hasn’t deterred sloganeering or ‘michhil’ (processions) in the state, but the application of technology has only strengthened campaigning, adding, for the first time, a hip zing to the otherwise staid style of politics in Bengal. Both parties are busy launching apps and call-in phone lines while kick-starting uber cool buses with digital interfaces.

When I met poll strategist and the brains behind TMC’s ‘avant-garde’ avatar, Prashant Kishor, in 2019 in Kolkata’s Hotel Taj Bengal, he was just about settling into the city and its ways. His team from I-PAC (Indian Political Action Committee) had also kicked off their first online campaign using phone lines to onboard the youth into the party fold. I was told over 5 lakh youngsters of the state had already signed up within a month. A year and a half later, the TMC campaign has moved well ahead, equipped with apps and campaigns such as ‘Didi ke bolo’ (Tell Didi) helpline and the latest offering, the ‘Didir doot’ (Didi’s messenger) app. Over 5 lakh people have reportedly already downloaded the app that shows an animated series on Mamata’s life, live broadcasts of various TMC leaders, gives information about state government policies, earns users reward points for every referral, and, most importantly, enables messages to be sent directly to the Bengal chief minister. Two dozen state-of-the-art buses by the same name are also traversing the length and breadth of the state, proudly displaying a QR code that will enable people to download the app.

‘Didir doot’ takes on the BJP’s ‘Rath’ (chariot) in Bengal. The saffron party has also launched a month-long ‘Lokkho Sonar Bangla’ (Aiming for a Golden Bengal) campaign to crowdsource approximately 2 crore ideas for the party manifesto. 30,000 suggestion boxes will be placed to collect people’s views while the various ‘digital or LED rath’ will also be used in every constituency to collect suggestions digitally. While the BJP has the task of building on its growing popularity, it’s also propounding a sense of including people’s demands and wishes into its campaign promises. Its 2019 gains astonished all political pundits and was eventually justified as a migration of the Left vote en masse to the Right. Not surprising then that the BJP campaign in Bengal is cleverly appropriating popular Leftist symbols such as the closed, raised fist and Soviet-style posters mixing the red with the saffron. With no local face compelling enough to take on streetfighter Mamata who relishes a political challenge, the BJP is heavily relying on star campaigners such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and union home minister Amit Shah. Technology is their favourite tool, too.

Kishor’s strategy from the onset has been to reconnect ‘Didi’ (as Mamata is popularly called in Bengal) back to the people. Whether it was the helpline or the app, the idea was to convince the common man that the intermediary has been done away with and the people once again have access to their elected leader. I-PAC’s role in surveying the performance of the TMC leaders at the grassroots may have annoyed many but it has also helped identify and root out corruption, complacence, and incompetence within the TMC.

TMC lags behind the BJP vis-à-vis social media campaigns with the latter drawing on its super successes of 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls. But with the ‘Save yourself from the BJP’ campaign, Kishor’s team is taking social media drives hyperlocal that is sharply targeted. Since January, the BJP has been attempting to rope in city bloggers and influencers for a three-month political campaign aimed at the smartphone-savvy voter. Mediums of choice would be either Instagram or Twitter and the bloggers would have to put up around 15-20 posts including reels, videos, images, etc. Food blogger Poorna Banerjee declined the offer but confirmed that some within her peer circle had agreed. A blogger, who didn’t wish to be named, told me that the money being offered by the BJP was just too good to refuse, pointing to the party’s deep coffers and budgets for digital spends. The TMC, I hear, has never approached bloggers for campaigns, definitely not paid ones. The party is content using Tollywood stars and cinema glitterati for its ‘Bangla nijer meye kei chai’ (Bengal wants its own daughter) in the ‘insider’ (Mamata/TMC) versus ‘outsider’ (BJP) debate. While both the TMC and the BJP have gone all digital guns blazing, the real fight will be fought on the ground. But technology will be the unsung hero of electioneering during these pandemic times.

(The writer is author of ‘Didi: The Untold Mamata Banerjee’ published by Penguin India. Views expressed are personal)

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