Faceless Ambedkarite groups from across the country are running BSP's election war rooms, writes Archis Mohan.
Behind the massive public rallies and roadshows of key leaders, a world of war rooms of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance exists, which revels in outsmarting the other but also exchanges notes and even gives rivals a pat on the back for a job well done.
Of late, the friendly enemies of the two war rooms have also discovered a common challenge -- a strident but amorphous social media offensive by the supporters of the Bahujan Samaj Party.
The BJP and SP-Congress war rooms are mostly run by paid volunteers and professionals. The BJP campaign strategy is being run by the Association of Billion Minds.
Until 2014, several in the team were key members of the Citizens for Accountable Governance, headed by Prashant Kishor. He was then an important cog in the wheel of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha campaign, and has since been a strategist for the Janata Dal-United and the Congress. Kishor's team -- now called the Indian Political Action Committee, or IPAC -- is currently managing the joint Congress-SP election campaign for the UP polls.
But the BSP has lately surprised the BJP and the Congress-SP strategists with its social media offensive. Twitter handles, Facebook posts and WhatsApp forwards from BSP supporters have increased in the past week, attacking all parties.
The BSP war room
BSP’s social media presence is led by Ambedkarite groups, particularly students in universities, and it also has support among journalists. Paresh Mishra, son-in-law of senior BSP leader Satish Chandra Mishra, and other second-generation leaders are the faces of this social media campaign.
The BSP’s official social media presence has coined tame slogans such as “Behenji ko aane do”. The team has projected her as the “iron lady” and highlighted her record as the chief minister of UP.
The real bite in the campaign is provided by faceless Ambedkarite groups from across the country, particularly in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, Aligarh Muslim University, Banaras Hindu University and Hyderabad Central University.
These groups have no single war room, but the presence of supporters in Uttar Pradesh and across India. There are also news portals like National Dastak, which provide reportage and videos from a 'Bahujan' perspective to counter the perspective of the upper caste-dominated mainstream English and Hindi media.
Such a vibrant social media presence is also the first for the BSP, which until now has believed in traditional method of canvassing for votes. According to sources, Mayawati started taking notice of the power of social media after the suicide of young Hyderabad Central University scholar Rohith Vemula, and when videos of Dalits beaten up in Una, Gujarat, went viral and shamed the government.
Trained to attack each other, both the BJP and the SP-Congress are still grappling with strategies to attack Mayawati without angering the Dalits, a group that comprise a fifth of UP’s electorate.
A top strategist of one of the other two war rooms conceded how the BSP and Mayawati have trended better than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi on several occasions after phase-II of the elections.
Those associated with the Ambedkarite movement also point out that unlike the other two war rooms, the BSP social media presence was primarily because of their ideological commitment.
“The Dalit cadre is politically the most enlightened. It knows the history of the Dalit movement and adept at exposing the lip service that other parties pay to the Dalit cause,” said a Dalit journalist associated with the cause.
The SP-Congress war room
Janeshwar Mishra Trust, a modern building abutting the sprawling Samajwadi Party office on Vikramaditya Marg, is the address of the SP-Congress war room.
In October, Akhilesh Yadav and his followers had made it their headquarters when briefly thrown out of the party. Until the finalising of the SP’s alliance with the Congress in late January, Ashish Yadav and his small team handled the SP war room.
The SP war room was pushed into a smaller space on the first floor of the building when the IPAC, led by Kishor, shifted to the building from its one room office in Lucknow’s Jopling Road. Nearly a hundred volunteers, mostly young men and women, sit in front of computer terminals here, and another 300 are spread across Uttar Pradesh.
Currently, Kishor’s team is working on a letter from Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi that volunteers would distribute among the electorate. A senior team member disputed that the idea for a letter, detailing what the Congress-SP alliance stood for, has been borrowed from the BJP, which recently distributed a letter among people to explain the demonetisation decision.
“We had distributed such a letter in Uttarakhand, signed by Congress chief ministerial candidate Harish Rawat,” a team member said. Nearly 50 volunteers per assembly constituency will distribute the letters to each household, with each volunteer covered 150 households in a day.
The team claims this is just one of its strategies that has clicked. The other being the PM forced to claim that he was the “adopted son” of Uttar Pradesh, to the SP-Congress campaign of “UP ke ladke” (boys of UP), for Rahul and Akhilesh.
But the joint election strategy of the SP and the Congress has lacked the synergy of the grand coalition during the Bihar polls, which was also managed by the “PK” team.
“Here the alliance was sewn up very close to the election dates,” the team leader said. Until now, the team has helped organise two joint press conferences, two roadshows and three joint rallies. It also coordinates with the 233 vijay raths.
The BJP war room
Unlike the SP-Congress war room, which handles everything from designing publicity material to public rallies and social media, the BJP’s war room is more decentralised. Located in a smaller room, it has 20-odd terminals and takes care of social media and WhatsApp messages. The party has learnt from its Bihar debacle and tried to be less centralised, and allowed local leadership in districts some leeway in organising rallies and roadshows. The BJP war room also tries to keep local party leaders in the loop.
But cadres of all three parties complain how local leaders no longer have access to top leaders but call centres. In Congress and SP’s case, any access to top leaders is also meaningless as they have little voice in determining their respective parties’ election strategies.
BJP’s social media campaign in Lucknow is led by Sanjay Rai. Beyond Twitter and Facebook, the campaign constantly supplies content to 8,000 pro-BJP WhatsApp groups across the state to target specific age groups.
The Varanasi face-off
Both the SP-Congress as well as the BJP are now preparing for spectacular roadshows of their respective leadership in Varanasi, the Lok Sabha constituency of the PM. Varanasi, along with 40 seats, polls in the last phase on March 8.