Karnataka polls: In two-party landscape, JD(S) hopes social media, grassroots connect will give it edge

The battle for Karnataka is intensifying. And as 12 May — the day of polling — draws closer, things are heating up, not only on the campaign trail but also on social media. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah of the Congress, with 1.42 lakh followers on Twitter, and BJP's chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa with 2.79 lakh of them, have been having a go at each other unabashedly.

The third player in the game, Janata Dal (Secular), and its leader HD Kumaraswamy, seem far removed from the limelight. But look away from Twitter, and JD(S)'s presence significantly magnifies on other platforms. More than 50 members work round the clock from the terrace of a decent hotel in Bengaluru. For the past two months, this has been their karmabhoomi, or the "war room" as they like to call it. Upon entering the L-shaped room, the first thing you come across is a big whiteboard, on which "nothing is impossible" is written in big letters, along with the number of "days of war" that remain.

A basket along the window carries several used teacups and saucers. Bisleri bottles and plastic glasses occupy a table tucked in a corner. Multiple chargers hang under the TV sets installed on the wall.

Party members, volunteers — all men — are too busy to spare time for an interview. They are hunched over staring into their desktops. "They are the ones who ensure the messages go viral," says Shreyas Chandrashekhar, 25, core member of the JD(S) social media team. "We plan in advance for the next day."

Some distance away, a few more members are immersed in Kannada news channels on six TV screens. "They are the emergency team. If a news breaks, they give us a heads up and we tailor our plans accordingly," says Shreyas, who used to work as a decision scientist in Bangalore, before quitting his job to accentuate JD(S)'s social media presence. "Several of the volunteers have done what I did," he says.

 Karnataka polls: In two-party landscape, JD(S) hopes social media, grassroots connect will give it edge

File image of JD(S) chief and former Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy. Courtesy: Twitter/@jdsforchange

Chetan Abhilash, 22, graduated out of college and has been a member of the core team. "In April last year, we had a gathering called 'Kumara Pathan', where 2,000 volunteers turned up. We discussed social media in detail and decided it would be a key factor in 2018 elections. Immediately after the gathering, we uploaded some of the events of Kumar anna with farmers and auto drivers, and the response we received was promising," he says.

While all parties have used social media, Chetan says JD(S)'s campaign is different. "Congress and BJP have outsourced it," he says. "But we do not have resources like the two national parties do. We are all volunteers. Also, our campaign may be on a smaller level, but we focus on what our agenda is. Ours is a positive campaign. It was a clear-cut instruction from the leadership. Congress and BJP are busy running each other down."

The energy in the room is entirely concentrated on penetrating the masses. "Our vote base is predominantly rural," says Shreyas. "When someone gets a smartphone, the first app installed is WhatsApp, and then Facebook. There are only elites on Twitter, so it gets you media attention, not votes."

Shreyas says the ones in rural Karnataka who are on Facebook may not even have heard of Twitter. "When you have limited resources, it is better to restrict your focus," he says. "We did a survey and realised that if we make a mark on Facebook and WhatsApp, we do not need Twitter at all. It is not popular among those expressing or consuming content only in regional languages."

From the IT cell in Bangalore, 4 lakh WhatsApp users directly get messages in their phones, excluding the groups, says Shreyas. "Those messages are further forwarded to lakhs of users. We have several Facebook pages to promote our work. One page has a following of over 70 lakh. Some of our videos through Facebook have crossed over 2 crore views. We run content that deals with the daily lives of rural Karnataka."

The pages run several ad-campaigns in Kannada that receive lakhs of views. One of them speaks about the electricity problem faced by the state's rural districts; a mother is taking care of the sick father, and the daughter, who is studying, looks on, as the electricity is sporadic during the night. The conclusion of the family is that the situation will not change unless Kumaraswamy becomes Chief Minister.

The serious ads are accompanied by hilarious memes, where Kumaraswamy's face is plastered on the face of a movie star, who is delivering rousing, popular dialogues that appeal to the masses. The social media team claims to have developed the ideas collectively.

Naveen C, who otherwise works in an MNC in Bangalore, was one of the many who worked on the memes. "Humour is a great way of connecting with people," he says. "Even if the person isn't a JD(S) voter, and if you make that person laugh through a video or a photo, you make a subconscious impression."

Chetan says the members here make sure that each and every video, meme, photo and text reaches the 4 lakh users directly on WhatsApp and is pushed and shared incessantly on Facebook. "Apart from the 50 gathered here, we have 200 more scattered around the state who help make content go viral," he says.

Even though the decision to focus on social media had been taken in April 2017, the party had this planned ever since it suffered a defeat in the 2013 Assembly election, which Shreyas says, left Kumaraswamy very "disheartened". It was also the time when BJP had been using social media very successfully in the run up to the 2014 general elections.

In 2013, Congress formed a government with 36.6 percent votes, while BJP was second with 32.2. The JD(S) had 20 percent votes. The challenge for the party would be to hold on to it, and get the incremental vote that would make former Kumaraswamy, a former chief minister, the kingmaker, as opinion polls have been suggesting.

However, it will be easier said than done. In an increasingly polarised and divided election, the third party is often marginalised. The Congress is selling the JD(S) as BJP's B-team of sorts, and the fact that Kumaraswamy had allied with BJP to be chief minister in 2006 does not help. He has also been accused of being autocratic in running the party, and recently lost seven sitting MLAs who defected to the Congress.

Shreyas says the social media effort is working in conquering the hurdles. "The national media, and even the regional media, is obsessed with the two parties. We do not get the deserved coverage," he says, bringing out the phone to show recordings of busy Kumaraswamy rallies, while the TV channels are covering Amit Shah's visit to a temple followed by a Siddaramaiah press conference. "Our leader must have done several temple visits, but the media has not covered it in such detail. But I am sure our reach on social media is compensating, for it is reaching the grassroots."

Another clear indication of this strategy is that party volunteers have also developed a Mario-like game as part of the campaign, and it is only available on Android. It has had 20,000 downloads so far, says Shreyas. "Once the game is downloaded on the phone, we can send updates, push notifications regarding our campaign."

The game is amusing. It has a short figure of Kumaraswamy hopping from one constituency to another and hoisting a JD(S) flag by replacing that of the Congress or the BJP. After each level, a paragraph or a couple of lines from the JD(S) manifesto appear on the screen. As the levels go on, enemies include a lotus-like flower or a fist, and at the end of the 14th level, Kumaraswamy becomes chief minister of Karnataka.

However, the only problem is that more often than not, one ends up not crossing all the levels. And the sight of Kumaraswamy being toppled by a flower or a fist is not a pretty one for the party's supporters.

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Updated Date: May 01, 2018 16:39:12 IST