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Karnataka elections: Congress, BJP lock horns beyond dusty campaign trail, heat up social media to attract urban voters

Bengaluru: The All India Professionals’ Congress (AIPC) was launched August last year under the chairmanship of MP Shashi Tharoor. It was dubbed by the Congress party as "India’s first political platform focused on the needs and aspirations of working professionals in the country".

"The Congress had always been a party of professionals. Even Gandhiji was a lawyer who made a lateral move into politics," points out Anshul Chodha, Karnataka head of the AIPC. Chodha says Congress has realised that the representation of professionals in the party had gone down in the recent years, and it wanted to reverse the trend.

 Karnataka elections: Congress, BJP lock horns beyond dusty campaign trail, heat up social media to attract urban voters

Engaged in virtual battle. Reuters

It is to democratise political space and invite the participation of those seen to have grown apathetic to it that parties across the divide are trying to engage professionals.

Nikhil Cariappa, who heads the professional cell of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), says the idea is to the bridge the gap between professionals and policy. "I have been a serial entrepreneur for 23 years. In the political arena, professionals may be seen somewhat as paper tigers." He says the cells were created to take up challenges they face and address them directly to policymakers.

BJP has been ahead in the game though. In Karnataka, what started off about a decade ago as BJP’s 10-member IT cell, which primarily worked on email and SMS campaigning, maintaining the party website, its content, creatives and social media, has now morphed into a whole other animal. Thanks to the large support base of IT professionals in the city. Social media got a wing of its own only last year.

"Unlike others, our 20,000-strong team is not confined to IT activities," says K Amaresh, state convenor of BJP’s IT cell. He says the team has now started seeing more engagement and resource mobilisation in non-technological activities.

He says when it comes to the kind of contribution that youth and IT wings can bring, BJP has no comparison. "The idea was to build something along the lines of (BJP’s) Yuva Morcha, Mahila Morcha, Raitha Morcha, etc., for the large IT population that is congregated here. Prior to this, none of the parties were engaging with this population. And considering that many are immigrants from other states, they often don’t connect with Kannadiga issues. There was cynicism among professionals about coming out to cast their vote or participating in politics," says Amaresh.

From campaigning door-to-door and organising conclaves to connecting with NRIs, the "huge army" has always proactively and passionately taken part in many of the party’s critical functions. "These are professionals, you can’t expect them to sit in dharnas," says the convenor of BJP’s IT cell in Karnataka. "But they are for good governance and want a forum where they can work towards accomplishing that."

The Professionals’ Congress currently has over 3,500 members across southern India, with five active chapters in Bengaluru alone (each with 25-100 members) and a handful across the state in cities like Mysuru and Chikmagalur.

"The IT force in the city is represented in AIPC too," says Chodha. He says their growth has been organic and there have been no special drives to recruit members. "A lot of people are warming up to the idea just by the virtue of the work that is being done and projected. And this is just the beginning. We have been a bit distracted by the elections. Especially the political members have been too busy to take things forward. Once the elections are over, our true work will begin."

Focus: Elections vs Policy

Amaresh says BJP’s IT cell is also intimately involved in crafting the party’s election manifesto. This February, they started identifying over 1,000 non-political leaders, influencers and intelligentsia from across Karnataka's 224 constituencies. "We called them, wrote to them and met them at local events that were organised in each constituency. We then collected all the inputs, segregated, prioritised and condensed them to three pages."

To be able to contribute to the manifesto, which is very much the face of the party during election times, is something Amaresh is very proud of. "While we have always been involved in electioneering in the past ten years, we wanted to deliver a more critical service to the party this time," he says.

Amaresh says since BJP had executed a lot of critical online campaigns from Bengaluru during the previous Lok Sabha polls in 2014, the IT cell here is of special significance to the national leadership. "Prime Minister Modi wrote to us personally to thank us. We met Nirmala Sitharaman when she became the defence minister. Similarly, when Union minister Piyush Goyal was in the city, we had an engagement with him. We have met IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. So we get a lot of face time and engage with national leaders."

At AIPC Karnataka’s inaugural meeting in Bengaluru in January, members got to meet and interact with a litany of state ministers and senior leaders like Veerappa Moily, DK Shivakumar, Dinesh Gundu Rao, Rizwan Arshad, Geetha Reddy, among others. When asked how AIPC was being deployed during Karnataka elections, Chodha says, “We are professionals oriented towards professional activities.”

He says the Congress body wasn’t formed with elections in mind. “Our work will continue irrespective of whether it’s election time or not. That is to ensure our inputs and recommendations are sought for policy decisions.”

Representation of Bengaluru's IT community

Amaresh says engaging this segment of the population in the campaigning process is also done with an eye on improving urban voting records, which has been consistently low in Bengaluru over the past elections.

He says though they have undertaken voter awareness campaigns, true change can only come if the urban voter connects with the people on the other side. "When an IT professional realises that the person campaigning or running for elections is one of them, they will connect with the process.

"Because these Lingayat, Mahadayi issues may not matter to them. Their priorities are infrastructure, pollution, crime, green cover, etc. Which is why we have been suggesting to the core committee that professionals should be given tickets to contest BBMP elections," Amaresh says.

However, he acknowledges that no parties have worked towards this. "This has to be addressed so that those working for us don’t get demotivated, and also so that the IT community can feel like it is also being represented."

The author is a Chennai-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

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Updated Date: Apr 19, 2018 15:52:02 IST

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