Punjab goes to polls on February 4 and a clear shift in terms of canvassing strategy is discernible. The election war room has shifted, at least in part, to the digital space. It is here that Intelligence is gathered, opinion built, and strategies devised against the rival camp as parties try to get the smartphone charged young voter on their side. With PM Modi forcing the pace with his use of the Twitter Mirror and other web gadgetry, why not?
While hoardings dot the landscape, nukkad meetings, rallies, and traditional door-to-door campaigning pervade, engaging the young, opinionated voter has been the real challenge.
There are 10.5 million young voters on the list of 19.7 million registered votes in Punjab.
Parties in this three-sided contest – the SAD-BJP, Congress and AAP – say they are up to the task.
Social media, Facebook, Livestreams, Hangouts, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds, WhatsApp messages, blogs, Google forms – they are exploiting it all, in the local vernacular too.
Congress using a mix of tools, says engagement unprecedented
The Congress party is using a mix of social media tools, with party president Capt Amarinder Singh personally monitoring Facebook, virtually 24/7, and interacting with relevant posts, informs Raveen Thukral, Media Strategist to Capt Amarinder Singh. Their Twitter handle, too, has received a stupendous response as have their live feeds, claims Raveen.
“Engaging with the electorate, especially the youth, is an important part of our social media campaign strategy spearheaded by Nirvan Singh, grandson of Capt Amarinder Singh. We have several poll campaigns and schemes (Smart Connect being a shining example) designed to reach out to the young voter in particular, as we believe that this segment of the population plays a significant role in deciding any poll outcome. So whether it’s `Har ghar vich naukri’ or the `Chalo Lambi’ campaign (which we initiated through Google form), we have used the social media platform to make our campaign impactful. The overwhelming response we’ve received endorses our digital strategy,” he explains.
From the Congress party perspective, this is a first. “In Punjab, I would say the engagement we have struck with the social media this time is unprecedented. This is the first time that we have gone the social media way so aggressively and in a focused manner. In fact, you will find a lot of Congress party candidates also using the social media in a big way to take on their rivals and to connect with the digital savvy voter, particularly the decision-making youth,” says Raveen.
From the party leadership’s perspective, the social media is also evolving as a source of Intelligence gathering, helping in collecting relevant inputs for deciding the way forward on a day-to-day basis across specific assembly segments, explains the Congress Media Strategist.
Always been on social media, says AAP
AAP claims it is far ahead of its competition in the digital space and very familiar with the medium.
“Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, AAP is everywhere. Our content is going viral on FB daily, our Twitter team is running daily campaigns, and on WhatsApp, we have a proper structure through which we spread our content (based on political lines and creatives) across Punjab,” says Manpreet Randhawa, AAP Media Coordinator for Punjab and Chandigarh.
“We are a young party and have relied on social media from the start. Be it the Delhi polls in 2013, the General Elections of 2014, or the 2015 Delhi elections, we have always campaigned aggressively on social media and used it to raise national agendas. Now, in Punjab, we have used it to expose the Badal-Capt understanding and to propose solutions to the problems of Punjab. Even so, there are no dedicated digital media spends. We do not use hi-tech software/tools, our content is the winner,” explains Manpreet.
A picture on the Aam Admi Party Facebook page shows an exhausted party president and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal take a humble meal in the corner of a tent pitched for one of his rallies, all by himself. The reactions are on expected lines: strong and positive.
Manpreet says they have not relied on digital media ads at all and haven't spent a penny on any of the platforms. “Our social media reach is completely organic. Our rival parties in Punjab have been spending a lot, yet they are far behind us in terms of reach and engagement on Facebook as well as Twitter. As of today, our Punjab page on Facebook has a weekly reach of 19 million. We are running a winner's campaign. Our campaign is 90 per cent positive and the Punjab youth connects with it,” adds the AAP Media Coordinator for Punjab and Chandigarh.
SAD logs in, but swears by traditional canvassing means
The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), though allied to a digitally forward-thinking BJP, has dedicated social media teams and bloggers committed to the party’s ideology to take the message forward, but swears by traditional means such as print ads and door-to-door campaigning. “People do not want to read much. Besides, English is an issue. Therefore, small messages in the local vernacular work in Punjab, but not more. We have used Facebook and Twitter to take our perspective to the young voter, tell them about our leaders and to expose the reality of the opposition, but in Punjab, people essentially connect better with the traditional Akali ways,” says Jangveer Singh, Media Adviser to SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal.
The SAD got a documentary on SYL canal, a key poll issue, certified by the EC. Television, radio, print ads and OOH remain the preferred canvassing tools.
On the digital front, WhatsApp has been the more popular medium for the Akali party even as young Akali volunteers regularly upload party related content on the Internet for greater reach and penetration, adds Jangveer.
BJP banks on FB, Twitter, and WhatsApp
Alliance partner BJP has the larger task of living up to the standards set by the digitally ambitious party leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In Punjab, party president Vijay Sampla is himself spearheading the social media team for the elections and has a dedicated slot – between 12 midnight and 2 am – wherein he personally writes blogs conveying the party’s standpoint on issues and responds to queries.
“The young voter is mostly found online, and wants to make his own decisions. We have used this knowledge for maximum impact, reach and connect. Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are great tools for building opinion and we have tried to capitalise on their power,” says Subodh Verma, Assistant Media Secretary, BJP, Punjab.
Subodh says the traditional media, with all its pluses, has limits such as pre-certification by the Election Commission to contend. On the other hand, the Internet presents a forum for personal expression and parties exploit it to get across their points of view, the failures of rival parties and to build support as part of a targeted, guided campaign with much better results.
The February 4 vote will decide the power swing in the state of Punjab. Whether or not the SAD and Congress keep up the alternate term pattern the Akalis managed to break in the last election or AAP manages to play spoiler remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the dynamics of pre-poll political game-play in Punjab have changed, with the digital space as the new interactive, real-time war room in addition to the traditional on-ground canvassing for support.