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Election 2022: From Door to Door to Digital

February 05, 2022 16:51 IST

Digital canvassing is expected to benefit from political money looking for alternative blow horns.

IMAGE: A Bharatiya Janata Party election ad on Facebook. Photograph: BJP Uttar Pradesh/Facebook

The Election Commission of India's decision to extend the ban on mass rallies reshaped the contours of poll canvassing in ways hitherto unseen.

In 2017, when Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Goa, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh had legislative assembly elections, India's two biggest parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, splurged crores of rupees on chartering private planes and hiring media agencies to place ads in newspapers, radio and television.

Five years later, the same states are on the verge of yet another election.

But the rules of the game may have changed not just by the ECI's ban on mass campaigning, but also by quantifiable and much cheaper ways of innovative digital media outreach.

Almost half the expense of these parties was on hiring planes and for advertisements across mediums.


"We did good business during the 2021 elections. This time charters by political parties have fallen by more than 50 per cent. Even before the ECI announced the ban, charters were down compared to last year. Our non-political business charters doubled during the pandemic. But this third wave has hit hard. We can only hope for the best," said Deepraj Mehra, CEO, Saarthi Aviation, one of the most sought after private flight charter companies during the election season.

In the 2017 assembly elections in these states, the BJP and Congress had spent almost Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) in hiring private planes and choppers to ferry their top guns from one rally to another, often on multiple sorties a day.

Two-thirds of this amount was spent by the BJP from its much bigger war chest than the Congress.

Saarthi Aviation did bulk of the flying for the BJP in both 2017 and the assembly polls in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry in 2021.

It along with other private charter companies like Arrow Aviation, AR Airways, Red Sparrow, Air Limousines and others also leased their planes to the Congress for flying their top leaders to various rallies.

Almost a fifth of the total election expenditure of both parties in 2017 was on hiring private planes for their top leadership.

The trend continued in last year's elections in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry despite the fact that the BJP wasn't a serious contender in half of these states.

Both parties spent almost Rs 80 crore (Rs 800 million) on private planes -- over 20 per of their total expenditure.

In fact, the BJP was so aggressive in flying its top leaders in the elections in East India that during the Assam campaign, there was always a chopper with a BJP politician every eight hours over Assam's skies during a 45-day period in March-April 2021.

Flight tracking data shows that planes registered with some charter companies which were frequently landing at airports in West Bengal in 2021, aren't doing so in Uttar Pradesh with same frequency this time around.

As the ECI's ban took a toll on physical campaigning, political parties will have more funds to divert from their general propaganda which involves holding rallies, paying organisers, mobilising entire villages to rally sites, printing flags and other paraphernalia.

All of these account for almost half of their expenditure at times during election season.

Normally, big parties employ some of the biggest names in the advertising business to devise and push their ads across various old-school mediums.

For instance, the BJP paid Mumbai-based Madison Rs 57 crore (Rs 570 million) for its 2017 assembly election campaigns.

While big creative agencies are likely to gain from the redrawn paradigm of campaigning, the digital canvassing space is also expected to benefit from political money looking for alternative blow horns.

"Since the election battle will be fought on media platforms, it is logical to expect that there will be more business for creators of campaigns and innovative ways to use TV and digital media this time," said Gopal MS, creative director, Minority Brand Solutions, a Mumbai-based ad agency.

"For me, the things to watch out for are: Use of creators and influencers in the campaign in each state outside of the agency structure. There will be intense hyperlocal electioneering, but on digital media and shared on mobile phones," Gopal added.

"Since these elections are for state assemblies, expect the creator and influencer segment of advertising doing experiments that will set the stage for the campaigns of general elections in 2024," Gopal predicted.

Last year, both the BJP and Congress paid crores of rupees to small agencies and call centres to send bulk messages on WhatsApp, SMSes, automated calls and post YouTube videos.

The BJP had already experimented with video vans in southern states where its Hindi speaking star campaigners like Modi and Adityanath carried little heft.

The mobile video vans decked up in BJP symbols would be parked in strategic locations and beam Modi's speeches in various villages, towns and cities in Kerala and Tamil Nadu -- at times drawing a motley crowd of curious onlookers in addition to the usual sprinkling of party workers.

While the Congress trailed the BJP on the adoption of such measures, a bare perusal of the political ads posted on Facebook and Google platforms would show that it is catching up with the saffron party this time around.

This could also increase the influence of these American technology giants in Indian elections.

Faced with flak for exercising undue influence in US elections, Facebook has made public all political and election related advertisements along with the money paid by various parties for the same on its platform.

One of the firms employed by the BJP last year was an entity named Awedience Connect with its registered office in a heavily congested locality in East Delhi bordering Noida.

In 2021 alone, it received almost Rs 8 crore (Rs 80 million) to devise and place ads in newspapers, TV and more importantly digital platforms from the BJP.

Run by ex-Madison hands, they were quite active in pushing the BJP agenda on social media platforms.

"On Facebook I have a readymade profile of millions of voters whom I can reach individually. For every single campaign, I will have the metrics that can precisely gauge its impact. I don't know how many people would have seen those ads in newspapers" said Harit Pant of Awedience Connect.

Similarly, the Congress paid Mediamate Advertising, a Thiruvananthapuram-based agency, Rs 14 crore (Rs 140 million) for its 2021 assembly campaign in the state.

Its role was primarily confined to placing party ads in newspapers, television and digital websites of news organisations.

Ajith Kumar, the agency's vice-president, believed that the impact of Google and Facebook in Indian elections would be no match to the physical mobilisation prowess of political parties.

"The ECI restrictions will temporarily boost the influence of these platforms. But only half the population have smartphones in India. Probably even fewer voters have such devices. In terms of impact on voter behaviour, they cannot replace the influence of physical campaigning," said Kumar.

"Digital political targeting has been huge for several years now in India and will grow even more in the times to come," Pant added.

"I can target an 18 year old precisely with political ads on Facebook. After all, they are the biggest advertising platform in the world. Even India's most widely circulated newspaper would not be able to achieve that."

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

Sai Manish
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