Without doubt, the BJP is miles ahead in marshalling digital tools for electioneering better than any other party, observes Virendra Kapoor.
Wiser after the West Bengal experience when public meetings were allowed through the peak of the second coronavirus wave, the Election Commission has rightly banned mass gatherings in the ongoing campaign for five state assemblies.
Voters in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur will miss the high point of electioneering, at least in the early phases of the campaign in UP, the most crucial state in the current round of polls.
Yet, the EC edict has posed another kind of challenge for most political parties.
Allowing virtual campaign on various digital platforms as also door-to-door campaigning by groups not larger than five is clearly advantageous to those already equipped with the necessary wherewithal.
Without doubt, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is miles ahead in marshalling digital tools for electioneering better than any other party.
It is because the saffron party has had a head start in employing the Internet for elections even ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha poll.
The credit for this goes to Narendra Modi.
From the time he was the BJP general secretary under then party president L K Advani, Modi has been a computer buff, using the digital medium to advance the party cause.
In fact, his modest room in 9 Ashoka Road, New Delhi, boasted of a couple of computers, printers, etc in the mid-1990s when hardly anyone in the political world had embraced the new medium of communications.
Therefore, it came as no surprise when in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll the BJP stole a huge march over all rivals in the use of the Internet.
Relying on professional researchers for caste and class groups, voter surveys, their income and professional profiles, etc, digital tools were successfully exploited to reach out to voters.
Prashant Kishore, the election strategist, first earned his spurs working for Modi in the 2014 poll.
Since then, most parties have sought to set up their own dedicated social media departments, but most are still playing catch up with the BJP's hyper-active Internet arm.
The Congress has a well-equipped social media section which is trying valiantly to compete with the BJP in spreading the party message.
However, notwithstanding Priyanka Gandhi's high-profile campaign in UP, the party has little or no presence on the ground.
It is the Samajwadi Party which has emerged the main challenger to the ruling BJP, thanks partly due to Mayawati's failure to launch her campaign, though it may still catch up with Akhilesh Yadav once the tickets are distributed and nominations are filed.
But the undeniable fact is that neither the SP nor BSP have much of a digital presence, at least nowhere near the saturation coverage by the BJP through such platforms like WhatsApp, Instagram, Telegram, etc in disseminating party news and views, laced no doubt with a liberal sprinkling of fake news and hashtags against its targeted rivals.
The BJP social media cell is miles ahead.
Again, the permission to campaign door-to-door during the current Omicron wave too is advantage for the BJP.
Being a cadre-based party, the RSS-BJP can reach out to the voters in far greater numbers than any of its rivals.
In fact, the BSP used to boast of a strong cadre, a lot of them full-time paid, till some years ago.
Their numbers have since come down due to Mayawati's failure to build on her mentor Kanshi Ram's legacy.
Yet, her own fellow Jatavs still root for her and can be relied to campaign for the BSP.
In the case of the SP, Yadavs and Muslims can be trusted to vote for the party, but it will be handicapped when it comes to door-to-door campaigning.
In short, if the EC was criticised for allowing public rallies in the second wave in the West Bengal poll, now in the third wave critics might fault it for permitting the use of the Internet and door-to-door canvassing, both of which put the BJP at a great advantage vis a vis other parties.
An impartial referee needs to have a thick skin.
BJP's Gayarams not from the Sangh Parivar
The poll-eve defection by a few ministers and legislators in UP has again spurred an internal debate in the Sangh Parivar about the wisdom of inducting 'outsiders' from other parties into the BJP.
Purists in the RSS-BJP argue that when the party was small it was disciplined and ideologically committed.
Winning elections at all costs not only led it to recruit all manner of opportunistic elements from other parties, but it also sullied its public image.
Absent commitment to the saffron cause, lateral entrants use the BJP as a parking place in good times, the argument goes. Only to dump it when offered better deals by rival parties.
It is notable that none of those who left the BJP is from the regular RSS-BJP stream, most of them having jumped from one party to the other in successive polls.
Modi not obliging Malik with dismissal
Poor Satpal Malik.
Despite his public outbursts against the prime minister, there seems to be no move to dismiss the much-transferred Meghalaya governor.
However hard he may want to acquire the halo of a martyr for the cause of protesting farmers, the minor UP politician is not being dismissed, at least till the end of the poll in the state.
In his last display of desperation, Malik allowed his imagination to run ahead of common wisdom when he suggested that Amit Shah told him that Modi was arrogant and impervious to good advice.
Whether he himself believed what he told the media is in doubt.
Not even the worst critics of Modi would believe that Shah called the prime minister arrogant and crazy.
Speculation was that by repeatedly speaking out of turn the governor was keen for a ticket from the Rashtriya Lok Dal-SP combine to contest the UP assembly poll.
But despite provocation and clear breach of gubernatorial propriety, the government is unwilling to oblige him.
Curiously, some commentators see the refusal to dismiss Malik as a sign of Modi's weakness.
Clearly, the PM's critics believe that whichever way the coin drops they emerge the winner.
For, if Malik were to be dismissed the same critics would have accused Modi of being intolerant and arrogant.
Now that he is not being dismissed, they say Modi is weak.
When Mann forced Kejriwal's hand
AAP boss and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is forced to declare Bhagwant Singh Mann as the party's chief ministerial candidate in Punjab.
The so-called telephone survey to find out voters' choice is a mere ploy to mask Kejriwal's reluctance to anoint Mann as its chief ministerial candidate, fearing he would emerge as a leader in his own right and overshadow him, especially when Punjab is a full-fledged state unlike Delhi.
Since Kejriwal has systematically weeded out anyone who wasn't deferential to him, or could emerge a challenger -- Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan, for instance -- allowing Mann to grow in stature was not acceptable to the AAP supremo.
Kejriwal keen to show that he was the boss, told newsmen that Mann told him, 'Sir, I will leave the CM decision to you.' Notice the appellation 'sir'.
All those who did not sir him, addressing him as Arvind, were systematically weeded out of the party.
But the fact remains Mann virtually forced Kejriwal's hand at the pain of rebellion.
Also, with the ruling Congress unable to declare its chief ministerial candidate, AAP going into the poll with a clear leader gives it a certain advantage.
Meanwhile, it is a predicament of the Punjab voters that they are confronted with a Hobson's choice.
For the choice is virtually limited to Mann and Navjot Singh Sidhu.
The mature and experienced Captain Amarinder Singh, was cast aside by the Gandhis, thus jeopardising the Congress's chances in the one state of the five going to the polls where it was reasonably sure of returning to power.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com