Digital outreach may well be the new norm for political parties in future elections. Given its well-oiled propaganda machine, it is not surprising that the BJP was the first off the blocks in launching virtual political rallies to stay connected with its workers and supporters in the time of the coronavirus pandemic. Although virtual rallies may not have the same groundswell and atmospherics, they serve an important purpose — to keep cadres motivated and energised. The pandemic has pushed the political parties to look for newer avenues to reach out to people. For internal meetings and discussions, they are switching to video calling platforms like Zoom and closed WhatsApp groups. Facebook Live, on the other hand, has replaced public meetings which has a wider reach although it lacks the tactile feel of a gathering and personal touch. Over the last few days, the saffron party had held four virtual rallies of which, three were by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal and one by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in Jammu, with high digital footprint. While leveraging technology to reach out to the people even in the midst of a national crisis is desirable, what the present exercise has done is to divert public attention from the NDA government’s inept handling of the pandemic and its economic fallout and push the blame on the opposition for politicising the pandemic.
Though the ruling party had initially claimed that the virtual rallies were aimed at connecting with the people with the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ campaign, Shah’s rally in poll-bound Bihar had all the trappings of an election rally with a bombastic claim that the NDA will return to power with two-thirds majority under the leadership of Nitish Kumar. As expected, the West Bengal outing served as a bitter face-off with an equally aggressive Trinamool Congress. The issues unrelated to the current pandemic like Article 370, Citizenship Amendment Act, Ayodhya and Triple Talaq were highlighted at these rallies. Over the last three months, it was all about coronavirus, deaths, migrants, job losses and the faltering economy. These virtual rallies are now serving up a different agenda— of politics, vote banks and electoral victories. The hologram technology was first used to hold public meetings during the 2012 Gujarat Assembly elections, a trend that continued in the general elections two years later. Now, social media is being used to broadcast such events. A camera and a reliable internet connectivity is all that is required for holding these virtual rallies, with social media platforms being roped in to amplify the message. With a laptop and a giant LED screen, similar rallies can be conducted at all the polling booths in a State.
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