Campaigning highs: ECI yet to catch up

The 2019 Lok Sabha elections are witnessing campaigning of a different style. The country, for the first time, will witness its prime ministerial candidates not only on streets, but also in cinema theatres. The political parties are intensifying their fight on social media.

The potential release of biopics Prime Minister Narendra Modi and My Name is RaGa has stirred much controversy in the last few weeks. While the free shows of film Uri set the propaganda machine rolling, the title of the Akshay Kumar starrer Kesari, reminded one of BJP — the saffron party. The PM’s biopic has been questioned before the appropriate authorities.

Every election in India is unique. The 2019 election has grandiose entertainment value and seems an innovative democratic exercise. Extensive violation of the model code of conduct (MCC) with utmost creativity by the political parties, has raised newer challenges to the Election Commission. How will it deal with 76 days of scrutiny during which the election is conducted?

Mission Shakti, the ballistic missile defence interceptor launched by DRDO on March 27 is no doubt India’s pride. However, the question arises with the timing of its launch, and the political interests behind the missile test.

The uproar by the opposition parties as soon as Modi addressed the nation is much justified. Why didn’t any scientist from DRDO address about the missile to the nation? The EC has clarified that Modi did not violate the MCC. Yet, it has not spoken on why the PM did not take permission before making the announcement.

Politics in India is played aggressively. The campaign posters had consisted of phrases such as: ‘Har, har Modi. Ghar ghar Modi’, ‘Revenge for Pulwama’; images of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, airstrikes, explosions and soldiers. Using the armed forces in campaign strategies was another trend observed until EC came down on this. The murky world of digital activism is one more challenge for EC.

Role of social media

The 2014 elections had used social media only as a channel to exchange information. But now, it has become a powerful weapon for propaganda. Having the ability to change the electoral outcomes, social-media strategists and PR experts are using them aggressively. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, ShareChat, TikTok are vibrantly publicising political messages.

In fact, the nuances of political communication have changed. Slogans have made their way to videos and WhatsApp updates. The flagship campaign by the BJP – ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’ - and Congress’ earlier ‘Vikas Gando Thayo Che’, among others, have gone viral on Twitter.

As a testimony to this, recently, Facebook removed 687 pages and accounts on its platform connected to individuals associated with Congress’ IT cell. This step was part of its crackdown on fake accounts. It stated, ‘The accounts were removed not based on content or fake news, but for “inauthentic behaviour” and for pushing spam’. Facebook has also removed a few pages of BJP supporters that had a huge fan following.

Considering such a move by the social media giant, doesn’t the EC need a stronger set of digital protocol to monitor violations of MCC online? Can EC partner with social media service providers in executing digital surveillance?

Further, attractive merchandise to support social media campaigns have added vigour to the propaganda. T-shirts, caps, mufflers, flags, key chains and trinkets are the novelties this season. Every merchandise either has a logo or directly promotes political parties. Modi Again, NaMo again, Main Bhi Chowkidar, Apna Modi Aayega, Congress Progress, I Support Rahul Gandhi, are a few catch phrases. Indeed, 2019 elections have become a platform for businesses to flourish.

When the battleground is social media, political parties can never be transparent. There will always be third-party contracts to market political ideas. These influencers on social media do not come under the scrutiny of EC or Internet Code of Ethics. In fact, smaller online groups like TikTok and ShareChat are the targets for political canvassing. These groups have wider political mobilisation, unpaid subscription, extensive communication, and are not easily bound by legal measures.

Previous elections had seen the distribution of freebies in the form of laptops, wet-grinders, sarees, bicycles, cash and more to woo the voters. With demonetisation, fund transfer has gone online. Today, candidates transfer money through apps like Google Pay, PayTM, Mobikwik, PayPal etc.

How will the EC keep a tab on these activities? Even cVIGIL — the Vigilant Citizen, a mobile app introduced by the EC for fast track complaint reception and redressal system — is insufficient while looking at the level of blatant MCC violations.

Apart from these glaring challenges, innumerable issues beyond the public purview surround 2019 elections. The EC has to be ahead of times in ensuring a fair and unbiased voting choice.

(The writer is PhD scholar,
Department of Journalism and Mass Communication,
University of Mysore)

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Campaigning highs: ECI yet to catch up

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