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It is boots on the ground, and not bots, that win poll battles

A dedicated cadre is irreplaceable. Only a sustained campaign can bring in the votes, not sponsored social media hype

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Social media is now well integrated into Indian politics and its newest political avatar is the “IT cell”, which generates paid-for trends. But, such trends cannot impact elections. Only a sustained campaign works and that is why a dedicated cadre and network of volunteers is irreplaceable, even in the age of social media.

 It is boots on the ground, and not bots, that win poll battles

An election official displays badges, key chains and mugs to be distributed among the people to encourage them to cast their vote, in Kolkata, India, April 5, 2019. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri - RC153C878700

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) model is a good example of effective use of social media. AAP’s volunteers, not bots, sustained a narrative on social media, influencing the poll outcome. Another instance is the online buzz created for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014.

Sponsored social media has none of the shelf life a volunteers-led political campaign has. Two political outfits can boast of such a network: the BJP and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM). Arguably, its cadre is the reason why the CPM was the second-biggest outfit until the BJP crashed the party in 1984.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) emerged as the third-largest party after the 2014 election. It is her party cadre, and not her social media presence, that makes Mayawati critical to the mahagathbandan (grand alliance) in Uttar Pradesh. In the Kairana, Noorpur, Phulpur and Gorakhpur bypolls, the BJP lost even though its vote share was intact. It was the strength of BSP’s cadre that caused the upset.
Of course, the BJP is organised differently. The differentiator is the party’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS keeps a distance from the BJP but at the same time, its outfits have their own extensive social network in the real world.

Today—and most people fail to understand this—the RSS argues that it does not even want a government that favours it. The RSS says it is happy to deal with any government as long as its keeps away from its affairs.
The RSS-BJP ties have had their moments. In 2004, the sarsanghchalak, or RSS chief, Sudarshan and former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee didn’t see eye-to-eye. And this is what differentiates 2004 from 2019.

Today, the RSS is in sync with the BJP, and for good reason. The 2004 defeat kept the BJP out of power for 10 years and the RSS felt the pinch. Second, the Hindu terror cases alarmed it. It was better, the RSS concluded, to have a government that was not anti-RSS, even if the prime minister was not someone they would pick.

Also, the RSS has no reason to be upset with Narendra Modi. He and sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat have given each other enough space, unlike Vajpayee and Sudarshan. The RSS does not interfere much in government and expects the BJP to do things which it sees as critical.
Modi has delivered on that front -- the triple talaq bill, which some see as a move towards uniform civil code, and setting the ball rolling on Ram Mandir, to name a few.

Don’t forget it was the RSS that propelled Modi to the Centre. He is a child of the RSS, a full-time pracharak, and that he will never forget. As long as he propagates their values, the RSS will let him be. The RSS also understands that in Modi they have the best vote-catcher they can hope for.

Today, the BJP has a cash-rich and well-oiled poll machinery but that was not always the case. The RSS collects money annually but its pracharaks subsist on little – they are encouraged to win enough trust to be “allowed in kitchens”, so that they don’t starve.

The Congress once had this advantage, when its Seva Dal reached out to tribals and the Dalits. It is sourly missing the Dal’s outreach. The Congress has become so dependent on election funding that an income-tax raid paralyses the party.

It took the RSS decades of work before it found the right leader in Modi. Of course, the BJP may get into trouble later. The party is lucky that there is a parallel network and Modi, which together make a formidable combination. Take for instance, Tripura. It is not Modi or BJP president Amit Shah who swung the state but a full-time pracharak who spent his life working in the Northeastern state.

Today, the RSS has created a scenario that no party can appear to be “anti-Hindu” The Congress has gone soft saffron. Green flags at party president Rahul Gandhi’s rally in Wayanad became a liability as BJP volunteers created a “green buzz” on WhatsApp. These volunteers believe in BJP’s ideology and are not paid for.

Consider the Congress Nyay scheme, a great disruptor but its not buzzing. If it had come from Modi, his supporters might have even called the 2019 election by now. Bhakts, or whatever you choose to call them, once convinced, go on and on. The bottomline: if you want to do kirtan, someone has to play the manjeera.

(Yashwant Deshmukh is a psephologist and founder of CVoter)

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