Should election campaigns

Should election campaigns be made virtual?

India is witnessing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with record numbers of new cases and deaths every day. At the same time, States holding Assembly elections have seen mass rallies by political parties. In most such rallies, especially in West Bengal, which still has two phases to go and where campaigning is still on, COVID-19 protocols such as masking and physical distancing are blatantly flouted. In view of the COVID-19 surge, and the fact that public rallies are super-spreader events, should campaigning be restricted to virtual mode — at least until the pandemic is behind us? In a discussion moderated by G. SampathSanjay Kumar (a political analyst, psychologist, and co-director of the Lokniti Research Project at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi) and Neelanjan Sircar (who teaches political science at Ashoka University and is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi) explore this question. Edited excerpts:

Should the Election Commission (EC) have made campaigning strictly virtual in view of the pandemic?

Sanjay Kumar: I’m not sure whether the situation, when the elections were announced, required the EC to make such an announcement. It could not have anticipated how things would turn out. But it needed to ensure that people at these rallies wear masks. The problem is that even political leaders are not wearing masks.

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Neelanjan Sircar: Once things got bad, there should have been some consideration of protocol. At least with regard to those political actors over which the EC has some power, it should have demanded that protocols are followed. The banning of certain kinds of rallies or at least limiting their size could have been considered, especially because much of the campaign is actually not in rally form.

How important are public rallies in terms of the campaign communications mix? There are many ways to put out your message. Why is it so important to gather a big crowd?

Neelanjan Sircar: The average person on the ground does talk about who showed up at a rally, how big the crowds were, how the energy was, and so on. All this has political impact. Yes, there are other forms of media, but communicating via television isn’t as localized as rallies are. Mass rallies are also a tool to energies the party cadre, because you have to aggressively get people to a rally. In fact, the strength of a party cadre, or individual party workers, is often associated with their ability to get people to rallies. So, rallies play an important part in communicating with the voter and within the internal logic of a political party.

Is there a correlation between turnout at rallies and votes garnered? If not, doesn’t that strengthen the case for virtual campaigns?

Sanjay Kumar: I do believe that the crowds at any given rally don’t necessarily vote for the party whose rally they are attending. But rallies have an important role to play. Look at how the election is being contested in West Bengal. It is a contest not only between the candidates on the ground or between the big leaders; there is also a mind game going on. You have to psyche your opponent and create a perception that you are winning — show that a lot of people are with the candidate, people are supporting you, and want to vote for your party. And this whole perception and aura can only be created through huge crowds. And such crowds can only be gathered if there is a big rally or public meeting.

So, mass rallies are basically a tool to build optics?

Sanjay Kumar: Absolutely. How do you show that a candidate or a leader is hugely popular unless you can show massive crowds, which cannot be shown on an online platform?

The number of likes on a YouTube video or shares of a social media post are an indicator of popularity as well.

Sanjay Kumar: There are different worlds out there, and the people who are on Twitter and Facebook cannot be compared with the kind who come for big rallies. Social media platforms are no substitute for the kind of optics that you can create from a mass rally. When a leader says something, and there is massive applause — that cannot be replaced.

With public rallies, you are dealing with segments of society that are unlikely to be reached by social media. Also, since rallies take place in a constituency’s key locales, they have constituency-specific effects.

In Bengal, [Congress leader] Rahul Gandhi has called off public rallies, the Left has also done so, and [West Bengal Chief Minister] Mamata Banerjee has curtailed public meetings as well. Only the BJP seems intent on having rallies. Are there party-specific factors that make mass rallies more essential as a mobilising tool for the BJP?

Neelanjan Sircar: The Trinamool certainly has a comparative advantage in the strength of its local cadre. The BJP is a new entrant in the State. It’s also taken in a lot of defectors from all sides. So, it’s an unwieldy force on the ground, it’s not organised. It does require the sort of energy that comes from having its top leaders come over. It’s been important for the BJP to bring big names, even big actors such as Mithun Chakraborty, to build an energy around its campaign in a way that I don’t think is required for the Trinamool or even the CPM.

Sanjay Kumar: I don’t agree that parties with a strong party cadre would not like to hold rallies because they know they have a lot of support on the ground and can therefore win without even holding a rally. No, all parties want to hold rallies. In Hindi, we have this saying about a half-empty vessel and a full vessel. If you drop a coin into it, the half-empty vessel creates a much bigger sound than the vessel which is full. So, the party which has solid support on the ground, with lots of workers, will still hold the rally. But it may not make an extra effort to create that loud noise. But the party which is not very confident of ground-level support has a much more urgent need to create that buzz around big rallies. This is why we have seen lots of rallies being held in Bengal by both the Trinamool and the BJP.

What if campaigning is restricted to virtual mode? Will it queer the electoral pitch, giving undue benefits to some while disadvantaging others?

Sanjay Kumar: It will disadvantage candidates from deprived socioeconomic communities, and candidates in rural India. We keep talking about the role of money power in Indian elections, and how a wealthy candidate has better chances compared to one with limited resources, rendering the contest uneven. In a virtual campaign, this form of unevenness will be minimized, but there will be other kinds of unevenness with regard to Internet and social media access, and the ability to use new technology to one’s advantage.

Neelanjan Sircar: While you may even out economic disparities in a virtual campaign, you’re certainly creating other disparities. The BJP might require the ability to do larger rallies in order to gather attention in places where it’s finding it hard to break into. If the Trinamool has an advantage in terms of local cadre, the fact that virtual rallies do not have the same impact locally that in-person rallies do would give the Trinamool an advantage. In places where the reach of a virtual rally might be less, there will be concerns of creating disparities in favor of whichever party organization is stronger on the ground.

If the pandemic situation doesn’t improve, does the EC have the powers to mandate a virtual campaign?

Sanjay Kumar: The EC has the powers to set the terms and conditions of the campaign. If those are very tough, political parties may go to the court against the EC’s decision. But the EC does have the powers to set the rules for how an election is to be conducted. For instance, campaigning normally stops 48 hours before polling, but now in Bengal it’s getting stopped 72 hours before polling. The EC can take such decisions. But you can’t change the rules when half the election is already over, as is the case in Bengal. However, nobody can stop the EC from being strict in asking leaders to follow COVID-19 norms, and in this respect, it has been very, very weak. It has not even issued notices to leaders who are moving around without masks.

Neelanjan Sircar: In some sense, the idea that the EC wields police powers and certain rule-making powers during the elections is predicated upon the idea that when elections happen, everything else stops. Unfortunately, illnesses don’t stop, COVID-19 doesn’t stop. So, we have to consider to what extent the EC even has the capacity to think about what policing powers look like in an era of COVID-19. How does one even think about the security and policing infrastructure in the middle of a calamity, when there are other things happening alongside an election? If we consider the measures other States have put in place right now to curb the spread of COVID-19, we must think through how much of that is now being compromised because there’s an ongoing election in Bengal. And if it comes to pass that we are in election mode again soon, we need to ponder what are the relative policing powers that can get us out of this kind of trouble, and not make us completely dependent on the EC, which has no specialization in the kind of policing work needed in a pandemic situation.

There seem to be two different considerations here: democracy and electoral rights on the one hand, and public health and the right to life on the other. How do we reconcile the two?

Neelanjan Sircar: It’s an incredibly difficult question. We have to think about what the security architecture of India looks like at the time of elections. We may then find we can’t have fair elections at a time like this because we’re too afraid that either the Central or the State government bureaucracies would be biased. So, when the conditions are not appropriate for mass gatherings, just don’t hold elections. If we’re unable to change our set architecture of elections being run by the EC, even in the middle of a pandemic, then, as we’re seeing now, it is not good for the EC’s credibility.

So, you’re saying that if elections are due in the middle of a pandemic, then the EC should go with one of two options: either all campaigning is virtual or no elections.

Neelanjan Sircar: Absolutely. I agree with Sanjay that you can’t change the rules in the middle of an election. But let’s not pretend that the possibility of COVID-19 coming back in a serious way wasn’t in the background. Choosing an eight-phase election at this time, for whatever reason, was just playing with fire, and unfortunately, it looks like we’re getting burned.

So, the next time an election comes due, which is less than a year from now, and the pandemic is unlikely to have receded by then, should the EC declare at total ban on mass rallies, right at the beginning?

Sanjay Kumar: Definitely. Elections are due in U.P., Punjab, and Uttarakhand early next year. The EC should take lessons from what is happening now. I would welcome a complete ban on big rallies, with only door-to-door campaigning permitted.

Neelanjan Sircar: You cannot fault any political party or candidate for trying to win the election using the tools that are legally at their disposal. So it is up to the EC to set the ground rules that do not put parties, party workers and ordinary citizens at risk.