'No helicopters, public rallies': Bihar campaign to go fully digital in COVID-19 era, says Sushil Modi in exclusive interview
Elections are slated to be held in the state of Bihar in October this year. With social distancing norms not likely to go away anytime soon, the election campaign is likely to be an innovative one, and may mark a paradigm shift from the earlier norms.
Sushil Kumar Modi, Bihar's deputy chief minister and the seniormost BJP leader in the state, spoke exclusively to Firstpost on the issue. He said that he believes the poll campaign will be well and truly digital, with big public rallies and helicopters becoming a thing of the past. He suggested that the Election Commission should take note of the situation and think of an online polling system which would avoid crowding at polling booths. He noted that new ideas and processes often emerge from a crisis.
Edited excerpts follow:
The number of migrant workers returning to Bihar is huge. A Bihar government advertisement said that by the end of this month, about 20 lakh people will return to Bihar through trains and buses. How are you coping with the situation, especially since many people who came from outside, especially from Delhi, have tested positive for COVID-19 ?
In the last 10 days, many people who returned from red zones have tested positive, and returning migrants have accounted for 70 percent of the total coronavirus cases. But most of them are young people below 40 years of age. Their immunity system is strong and they are otherwise hale and hearty, and so, their chances of recovery are high.
Those who have returned from red zones are placed in block quarantine centres, while those coming from orange and green zones are being placed in village quarantine centres. In villages, people have become conscious, and they do not let anyone enter without going through precautionary measures.
Do you believe the Bihar elections will be held on time, considering social distancing norms may have to be followed for a long time to come?
We are presently focussed on fighting coronavirus , and are not thinking about the election. But since you have asked, I believe the elections will be held on time.
How will poll campaigning be conducted while maintaining social distancing norms?
I do not foresee large gatherings being allowed in India in the near future. If such a scenario emerges, Bihar will see something different. For example, in the last 8-10 elections, helicopters have had a big logistical role in campaigning. Political leaders would often travel by helicopter to address public meetings and rallies. In fact, for a lot of people, seeing a helicopter used to be among the reasons to attend rallies. However, I don't think such social gatherings will be allowed in the months to come. So, the usage of helicopters will also be much lesser than earlier.
How will you connect with voters during the campaign?
We will have to use digital platforms to the maximum, including video or audio conferencing, WhatsApp and SMS. Earlier, the digital campaign only constituted about 10 percent of our poll strategy, but now, digital mediums will dominate. In recent years, there have been many advances in technology, and you can expect to see it at play in the upcoming election. Perhaps large rallies may not be seen this time.
Political parties use rallies not just to connect with voters, but also to show the party's strength and boost the morale of grassroots workers. Through rallies, parties are also able to get direct feedback from people. Won't you miss out on all of that?
Yes, but we have to keep the current situation in mind. With social distancing norms in place, we have to find new ways and go digital.
What campaign styles do you think Prime Minister Narendra Modi will adopt?
It is difficult to say what alternatives may come up. While it is certain that he will address the people, one cannot say whether he will do so through online mediums or TV or some other means. Now, about 80 percent of households own television sets. Although big rallies can attract crowds of up to one lakh, through TV, one can reach out to people directly in their homes.
What about the voting process? Do you foresee voting taking place through means other than EVMs?
When campaigning can be done online, online voting is also possible. Even at present, for some categories of people, there is a provision of postal ballot. In the 2020 Delhi elections, the Election Commission had made special arrangements of postal ballots for elderly people above 80 years of age and persons with disabilities. Volunteers went to their homes and secured their votes, after the consent of the persons concerned was taken.
Your suggestion on considering online voting in Bihar may spark a big debate. After all, EVMs have also come in for criticism from some leaders of the Congress and other Opposition parties
Whether or not to opt for online voting is a call that the Election Commission will take. The panel should certainly try to find a new way. We must remember that new ideas and new processes often emerge from a crisis.
Several questions arise about online voting. Will voters be comfortable with the new method and will they have the secure tools to do so? Will the Election Commission be able to make entirely new polling arrangements for a big state like Bihar?
Most people are now acquainted with online systems. In Bihar, we transfer all benefits to people online, through direct benefit transfers. It is for the Election Commission to decide, but it should mull over possible options.