Published in Mint on July 31, 2020 with the title “How the pandemic will drive digital politics“
[Translations in other languages are also available: Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam.]
The pandemic has upset the normal in many aspects of life. It threatens to undo even the slow progress that India has been making. In one fell swoop, many who have experienced better lives now face the prospect of being pushed back into a world they thought they had left behind forever.
Migrants in search of prosperity who had moved to cities are now back in their villages subsisting on Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
Livelihoods have been disrupted for many across the services sector—because services cannot be stored or retrospectively consumed. These ripples will inevitably cascade through the world of politics also.
Politics, by its very nature, is a touchy-feely exercise—a contact sport. Politicians are the “doers”—they are out there meeting with people, doing small events to large rallies, and managing a steady stream of daily contacts. They have to be seen among the people. For them, the interaction and response from the people is their energizer.
What the pandemic has done is to change all of it. For politicians, social distancing means that direct contact with people becomes much more limited. Large gatherings are a no-no.
Every decision of going out and mingling with people now needs an evaluation of risk.
If there is an election coming up, the challenges mount. How does campaigning work during times of a pandemic? Does appearing on a single mobile screen stir up the same passion as an open ground with tens of thousands chanting in unison?
Against this backdrop, what will the new post-pandemic politics look like? What will be the impact of the digital-first voter for politicians and their parties? Will the already big get even stronger, or will it create new challengers?
To start, let us see how politics has changed in the past decade, digitally speaking.
The rise of tech
The 2009 elections saw the use of SMS and outbound voice calls in a big way. But for the most part, politics was still in the offline domain—dominated by big rallies, traditional media and boisterous physical world campaigning.
By 2014, social media adoption had grown. Facebook became an important part of campaigns. Data started playing a role—with an identification of which seats, booths and voters had to be targeted for favourable outcomes. (Disclosure: I was an actor in this election via media platforms like NitiCentral.)
The 2019 elections moved up a notch in the digital engagement ladder with the widespread use of WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. It was India’s first “social media election”. If BJP had its Namo app, Congress had Shakti. The name of the game was to empower the intermediaries (party workers and motivated volunteers) who could deliver the message to the chosen supporters among the voters.
Voters can be segmented into three categories: the loyalists (or committed voters), the non-aligned (or swing voters) and the non-voters. As it turns out, each of the three buckets account for about a third of the voters. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, about 27 crore voters did not vote. According to Lokniti’s post-poll survey, of those who voted, nearly half made up their mind either during the campaign or in the days or hours before they voted. That leaves us with the loyalists—for whom the candidate does not matter; only the party symbol does.
Thus, we have a split of roughly 30-30-30 in the 90 crore voters: 30 crore loyalists who vote and vote based on the symbol for their favourite party, 30 crore non-aligned (NA) who wait until close to polling day to decide whom to vote for, and 30 crore non-voters (NV) who skip the vote.
The key challenge that politicians will face is how to persuade the NA and NV segments. Think of the NA as those who can swing the election—they delivered the extraordinary victory for the BJP in 2019 (BJP won 230 of the 303 seats in 2019 with a vote share greater than 50%; a winning percentage even better than what the Congress did during its 1984 victory.)
The NA voters are especially critical because they need to be persuaded. The hawa is critical—and this is created through the various events that take place. In a subdued pandemic-time election campaign, how will these voters be persuaded becomes the big question.
The NV segment can also become important—should they decide to change their mind and turn up to vote. They may be hard to predict and may spring a few surprises. Many migrants are now back in their villages—where presumably they are registered as voters. In most elections, few bother to travel back to their villages to vote. Which way will they swing if they do vote now? The same applies to the young—many who are now back home where they are likely to be registered as voters.
The basics of every election campaign are constant: identify, register, persuade and turnout the right voters. What the world of data and digital does is bring precision to the process of targeting. This is the world which digital technology will impact and transform even more in the months and years ahead.
In pandemic-infected India, life is now almost impossible without a smartphone. Want to get on a train—you need the Aarogya Setu app. Want to learn—the school is now online. Want to check where hospital beds are available—the app will tell you. Want to order something without the risk of visiting a store—there is an app for that. Want to just pass some time—there are many apps for that too.
Until a few years ago, India was in the digital stone age. The launch of Jio and the ensuing price wars created the opportunity that delivered an affordable phone with cheap data to most Indian households. This is the digital foundation that politicians can now leverage to get their jobs done.
At a basic level, politicians have five key jobs to be done: manage a hierarchy of workers and volunteers; build a voter file of their constituents; communicate with their supporters (loyalists and some of the non-aligned) to get their message across; get feedback from voters on their pain points and expectations; and manage the booths for the get-out-the-vote on election day.
Digital can now help them do each of these tasks more efficiently. There are many parallels with the corporate world and businesses creating customer relationship management (CRM) systems to track engagement. The one big difference between politics and business is that in politics there are no prizes for coming second—one has to spend five years figuring out what went wrong and preparing for the next election.
In this winner-take-all world of politics, digital will now be the differentiator. Voters already have gone digital for their other activities—it is now time for the politician to become digital-first.
This offline-to-online shift mirrors what has happened in the past few months for many consumer-facing businesses. For many businesses, it is not even about being omnichannel—they have to be only online. For politicians, it is going to be the same story. In a world wary of direct contact, the interface with workers, volunteers and voters has to shift to becoming digital.
One database, three apps
Digital politics will need one database and three apps to do the five jobs that politicians need to get done. The starting point has to be the voter database. Many politicians had already started building these in the past few years. This will now become central to all communications and interactions.
This database is akin to the customer data platform (CDP) that consumer-facing brands have used for many years. The CDP aggregates all customer data into a single repository. This includes identity (name, email ID, mobile number), demographic information (age, gender, location), behavioural data (actions done on the app or website) and transactional data (details of all the purchases made). Taken together, the CDP provides a unified view of every customer.
For politicians, the voter file is the CDP equivalent. For every voter, all the info needs to be collated and put into a single database—voter ID, mobile number, loyalty level and the likelihood of turning out to vote. With the voter records, the politician also needs information about the place and what schemes have benefitted voters. Armed with this, it now becomes possible for the politician to personalize communications to every voter—exactly what businesses do with their customers.
Once the database has been set up, the digital-savvy politician will need an app for managing the intermediaries—the workers and the volunteers. This is typically done on WhatsApp and via a mix of phone and personal contact. An upgrade is needed to a better system that enables hierarchies to be created, tasks allocated and activities monitored. Just as managers in corporations are discovering the need for new apps to monitor employees, politicians will need an app for engaging with their next level.
The second app is for voter communication and engagement. With large shows of strength becoming increasingly unlikely for the near future, politicians will need the equivalent of digital events and rallies to get their face, party symbol and message across. Think Zoom on steroids.
In this process, politicians also need to run surveys to get better feedback on what people are thinking since in-person conversations are out. Campaign initiatives like Chai pe charcha need to become Screen se charcha. We are already seeing early signs of this in the election campaign that has started for the Bihar state elections, which are due later this year.
The third app needed is for booth management. A typical Lok Sabha constituency can have 1500-2000 booths, while a Vidhan Sabha constituency has 200-300 booths. Each booth has about a thousand voters (about 250 households). Close to polling day, booth workers need to be managed and guided on which voters to persuade and turnout on election day. The coming Assembly elections in states like Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal will be a test of how digital booth management works.
Taken together, the voter database with the three apps for coordination with workers, two-way communications with voters, and booth management can lay the foundation for digital politics in the times to come.
Besides shifting the engagement model from offline to online, the pandemic will also bring about three other changes in politics.
First, it could encourage more younger politicians. With older people being more susceptible to the virus, older politicians may be more reluctant to venture out—until a vaccine is available.
Second, with people feeling greater economic pain, solutions that make more money available today may be more acceptable than putting forward the vision of a better tomorrow. In other words, politicians promising money in the present may find more traction than those who offer a better future.
Then, there is a danger of a sentiment shift against politicians. If the pandemic continues its spread and the lock-unlock duality persists, anger could start rising. While Indians are remarkably patient, at some point, the pent-up rage against their conditions could start rising.
Even as politicians make the move to going digital, can challengers create new platforms and marketplaces to create political disruption? If ever there was an opportunity to put India on a new path and correct the historical mistakes that kept Indians poor, this is the moment. Are digital-savvy political entrepreneurs listening?
[Translations in other languages are also available: Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam.]