Election Commission's restrictions constrain the opposition, not the BJP

For the opposition, it is like building dams on a ‘river in spate’, laments a Samajwadi Party 'star campaigner' in Uttar Pradesh, pointing out that both restrictions and digital campaign suit the BJP

Election Commission's restrictions constrain the opposition, not the BJP

Saiyed Zegham Murtaza

Elections are truly a festival in villages when, for once politicians come calling to the doorstep of the poorest villagers. It also provides an opportunity to the poor to earn some easy money by getting involved in poll campaigns. It’s also an opportunity to socialise, an opportunity for taking a day out at the expense of political parties.

But restrictions on physical rallies and outdoor events by the Election Commission of India (ECI) over fear of a third wave, have robbed the people of constituencies going to the polls in the first phase of both money and fun.

The campaign had in fact started long before the EC notified the election on January 08and imposed restrictions on public gatherings. All roadshows and rallies were first banned till January 15 and the ban was further extended till January 31.

Till January 8, all opposition parties were drawing huge crowds to their rallies. While Priyanka Gandhi Vadra proved to be a big draw, Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party was addressing large gatherings long past midnight. The atmosphere was electrifying and the momentum was with the opposition. But the restrictions clearly left the opposition in the lurch.

Without the resources to reach voters digitally or the ability to connect with voters on smart phones and WhatsApp, they lost the momentum. Political parties with support among the poor were left high and dry.

The restrictions benefitted the BJP which not only has imposing offices in every district but also boasts of a unit of its IT Cell in the districts. The voters are already clubbed into different WA groups and there is a well-oiled machinery to forward messages, fake news, instructions etc. So, BJP was the least affected by the restrictions.

The opposition has also accused the media of blacking out or downplaying their rallies. While cursory and short visuals were aired, they were enough to suggest the wind on the opposition’s sail. On the other hand, there were reports of BJP leaders cancelling rallies because of poor turnout.

At dozens of places, people, mostly the young and the unemployed, forced BJP leaders to leave without addressing gatherings. In some places vehicles in their motorcade were damaged. Even deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya had to leave a village abruptly after facing a hostile crowd. The restrictions came as a boon for the ruling BJP, joked many people.

For the opposition now, the restrictions pose a challenge similar to building a dam on a river in spate, quips Samajwadi Party’s Javed Ali Khan. Khan, a former Rajya Sabha MP is one of the star campaigners for his party.

While BJP has an IT cell at the district level, Congress, BSP, Samajwadi Party, Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party, Rashtriya Lok Dal, Mahan Dal and Peace Party are dependent on their cadres for carrying their message. The poor masses too want to travel to the nearest city or town at the expense of these parties and hear leaders speak to them ‘face to face’ and not on a screen.

In 2020, the government had announced broadband coverage in 100 percent of the villages in the state. But the target hasn’t still been achieved. There is a huge gap between urban and rural population when it comes to the coverage of internet and broadband services. A report suggests a national average of 106 connections per hundred inhabitants in urban localities, while rural areas have only 30 broadband connections per hundred inhabitants.

But it is just an average, as the actual picture is even more dismal. The Niti Aayog itself has identified 37.79% of UP’s population as “multi-dimensionally poor”. Obviously, most of them have no internet, no digital screen and no money to buy data.

When it comes to door-to-door campaigns, BJP always has an upper hand. Hundreds of organisations affiliated to BJP-RSS combine emerge out of the woodwork. Outfits like Bajrang Dal, Durga Vahini, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Muslim Rashtriya Manch, Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh, Kisan Sangh are put at the disposal of BJP leadership along with the front organisations like Yuva Morcha and Mahila Morcha.

BJP also has the advantage of being in power. Photographs of Modi and Yogi adorned the ‘ration bags’ distributed free to the poor. After elections were notified, the opposition cried foul following which a flimsy tape was put on the photographs in token compliance of the Model Code of Conduct.

Government-owned media platforms like Doordarshan, Sansad TV and Akashvani offer round-the-clock coverage to PM Modi and UP chief minister Yogi. Private channels, their digital arms and social media units are often accused of airing videos, photographs and information shared by the BJP’s IT Cell. The opposition also accuse the media of running fake opinion polls and misleading the voters.

While the Election Commission may point out that the restrictions affect all political parties, the effect on them is not the same. Not all parties have similar resources. Smaller parties stand to lose the most because of restrictions on outdoor gatherings.

“BJP has more than 1.5 lakh booth level WhatsApp groups in the state”, claims Mahendra Singh, a BJP worker in Meerut. He also boasts the party’s strength to organize several 3-D virtual rallies at the same time, in which party leaders can be seen addressing the voters from the podium. How many national or regional parties have similar capacity, exclaims Krishnakant, a journalist, who goes on to ask, “Even if parties manage to get the technology to broadcast, how will they reach the target groups if the latter lack access to the internet, electricity and digital devices?”

Until physical rallies resume, parties like BSP, SBSP, RLD, Nishad Party and Mahan Dal, the Left parties and even the Congress will face handicaps in coping with BJP’s screens on wheels. It is not a level playing field.

And at the moment, it is advantage BJP.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

Click here to join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines