The Covid-19 pushes Indian political parties to quickly seek alternative means of mobilization. Does this mean that a new type of politics is in sight? Milan Vaishnav, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s South Asia program and author of several books on Indian politics, told Aditi Phadnis that some things will stay the same, but others will change.
COVID-19 HAS HAD AT LEAST ONE DEFINITIVE AND PREDICTABLE EFFECT: THE MOBILIZATION OF INDIAN POLITICAL PARTIES WILL NEVER BE THE SAME. WHAT DO YOU THINK?
What we have seen so far is that Covid-19 is further entrenching some key political trends that we were already witnessing in the pre-pandemic era – an increased degree of social polarization, centralization of power and emaciation or atrophy of institutions of accountability. Likewise, the pandemic is helping to consolidate hitherto apparent trends of political mobilization. Since 2014, we’ve seen quite a big shift towards digital campaigning, micro-targeting and online mobilization, whether on Facebook, Twitter or perhaps more significantly on WhatsApp. The pandemic will push all parties further in the direction.
DOES THE PANDEMIC MARK THE END OF LOUD RALLIES, (OR RAILA AS FORMER BIHAR CHIEF MINISTER LALU PRASAD YADAV CALLED THEM) WHICH GAVE POLITICIANS THE CHANCE TO STAND PULPITE AND MAKE SPEECHES AND QUICK PROMISES?
I wouldn’t be so quick to sound the death knell for the traditional campaign, consisting of large rallies and jan sabhas. Look at what is happening in the United States. For weeks, Americans have been locked in their homes, adhering to social distancing and home quarantine standards. And yet, in the wake of horrific police brutality against African Americans, we see thousands throwing caution to the wind and lining the streets of major cities in protest day after day. In India, the combination of economic dislocation caused by the pandemic and community polarization simmering below the surface means that the possibility of large mass gatherings cannot be ruled out, even in the near future. The balance between the digital and the physical might tip towards the former, but I would be extremely careful to dismiss the importance of the latter. Ultimately, many parties and politicians in India derive their authority from power in the streets – think of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar or the Aam Aadmi party in Delhi. I don’t think that bond will be broken easily.
THE CURING ON PUBLIC PHYSICAL GATHERINGS, WHICH COULD BECOME A TURNING POINT FOR DECIDING THE OUTCOME OF ELECTIONS, MEANS PARTIES WILL HAVE TO RELY MUCH MORE ON ATTRACTING VOTERS THROUGH DIGITAL AND ELECTRONIC MEANS. SO WILL PARTIES UNPREPARED TO EMBRACE DIGITAL MODES OF PROPAGANDA RETURN TO ESSENTIALS: CAST AND IDENTITY POLITICS?
Let us clarify an important fact: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a huge numerical advantage over its rivals, both national and regional. The BJP has embraced technology like no other party has and it can use its control over the central government, resource advantage and its organization – both official and unofficial (the Sangh Parivar) – to pull from this advantage. We see signs of catching up – look at how Congress is using social media, for example – but the BJP clearly has the first-mover advantage. I would expect convergence over time, but we’re not there yet. What does this mean for the opposition, which seeks to oust the BJP? He has a unique opportunity to challenge the ruling party on the economy. Anyone who looks at Indian data can see that the downturn preceded the pandemic, which made a bad situation truly horrific. I don’t think caste and identity are going to give the opposition the ammunition they need – if 2014 and 2019 are any guide. We have seen a burnout of Mandal politics that has prevailed over the past three decades. The real question is whether the opposition has the means to articulate two things: a simple economic critique of the (Narendra) Modi economy and a viable future alternative. Right now, to be fair, we don’t see either. I am referring here to Neelanjan Sircar’s brilliant argument that 2019 was an election on viswas (faith), no vikas (development). People believe that Prime Minister Modi will take the right calls for the country when it comes to economy and foreign and domestic policy. The opposition must undermine this premise – caste and identity alone won’t get you there.
WILL THIS IN TURN CREATE A NEW GENERATION OF ENTREPRENEUR/CZAR INFORMATIQUE POLICY DIRECTOR? JUST AS, AFTER THE RISE OF RAJIV GANDHI, A NEW TERM FOR THE POLITICIAN WAS “POLITICAL EXECUTIVE”.
Undoubtedly, we are already seeing this. The rise of the ‘campaign consultant’, a ubiquitous figure in most Western democracies, is also apparent in India, albeit with some lag. The new digital policy will accelerate the creation of this relatively new career path but could also lead, frankly, to many charlatans flooding the space. It’s quite easy, with the kinds of big data available today, to develop a kind of data-based certainty that is completely devoid of history, politics, culture, and context. Again, going back to the American experience, consider the lessons of the 2016 election. The Clinton campaign used big data in a way that no other campaign had to date. Every night they ran hundreds of thousands of mock elections, with a clear majority of those showing a Clinton victory. And yet, we know what happened in the final analysis; many of our conventional political assumptions were outdated or simply outdated.
YES, AND TO AMPLIFY IN THE INDIAN CONTEXT, WE HAVE THE EXAMPLE OF CHANDRABABU NAIDU. NO POLITICIAN IN INDIA IS ANY MORE ATTENTION OF TECHNOLOGY. THE TELUGU DESAM PARTY JUST HELD ITS MAHANADU MEETING VIA ZOOM. AND YET, DESPITE THE TECHNOLOGY, DESPITE THE PROMISE TO DELIVER A WHOLE NEW STATE, NAIDU AND HIS PARTY HAVE SUFFERED A POLITICAL RETURN.
This is a great example. Perhaps the best way to think about technology is that it can be an enabler or a force multiplier, but ultimately it comes down to the quality of the product you have. This reminds me a bit of social scientists’ debates on the role of social capital and civil society networks. Initially, social capital was hailed as an undeniable asset. But, ultimately, social capital strengthened fascism in interwar Germany, but it also fueled American democracy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Likewise, we can get carried away by the allure of “techno-governance”. Think of the many social protection programs that the Indian government has put in place in recent years – if you create an elaborate data dashboard to track toilet construction, it’s not necessarily the same as tracking toilet practices. sanitation. You completely miss the behavioral dimension of the problem. So maybe we are entering an era where technology is necessary, but ultimately insufficient for good governance.
In the field of electoral politics, I think what the BJP has done is to leverage technology in the service of a product – Modi, a very popular product. But the technology hasn’t saved the BJP in countless states – whether in Rajasthan or Chhattisgarh – where the electorate has not liked the product. A case that merits further study is that of West Bengal, where the BJP used technology essentially as a substitute for strong party organization in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Even BJP officials now admit it. I would like to see a case study of the party’s approach and a reflection on whether it is replicable elsewhere. But again, the product they were selling was Modi (not a state level figure) and the ground was fertile for such a scheme.
ARE WE LOOKING FOR A NEW APPLIED POLICY?
I think we’re looking at a range of activities, from digital to physical. In the political field, India is moving towards the first but the second should not be ignored. If you look at other areas of life – sports, movies, music, work – digital data and applications are all the rage. Why should the policy be exempt?
But let’s not forget the realities of India either. There are still barriers to digital communications. Smartphone penetration is very uneven. There is huge potential for the misuse of digital platforms, which could trigger a backlash. If technology was the driving factor, the BJP would not have lost major national elections dating back to 2017
This article was originally published in The commercial standard.