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With Only 32/100 Internet Subscribers, Is Bihar Ready For A Digital Election Campaign?

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Is India ready for virtual election campaigns?

With the entire election campaign for Bihar shifting to a virtual mode, let’s explore its implications on ground level politics. Bihar is the first Indian state to go to election since the pandemic struck and this will be a huge test of India’s digital literacy. The Election Commission has refused to acknowledge the concerns of opposition parties requesting the postponement of elections. The elections will now be held in several phases in October and November to elect representatives for the 243 seats in the Bihar Legislative Assembly.

With Bihar battling floods, and a migration influx with natives returning to their home state after employment especially in the informal sector dropped down abruptly, how smooth will elections in Bihar be? Let’s have a look.

Problems Of The Migrant Labourers Of Bihar
Representational image.

Bihar has a teledensity of 54.25 that is much lower than the national average of 81.82. This is largely due to the lack of infrastructure and development in the state.

The 3rd most populous state has a literacy rate of 70.9%. While the male literacy rate is 79.7%, the female literacy rate is 60.5%. A similar divide can be observed in terms of digital literacy as well. This divide is in line with the digital gender gap nationwide. Only 33% of the total internet users in India are females. Thus, women in Bihar not only do not have adequate digital access but also with the campaign shifting almost completely to virtual mode may now lack enough political awareness necessary for making an informed decision to vote fairly.

Further, only 4% of households in rural areas and 23% of households in urban areas possess a computer. This difference in digital access is bound to show real-time differences in terms of the reach depending on the resources of the party. The parties which have an inherently rural vote base may find it difficult to reach out to their regular voters. The state which has the country’s youngest population is disappointingly insufficient in terms of digital access for youth.

In the age group of 15-29, only 24% rural population and 56% urban population posses the knowledge of operating a computer. The inherent gender discrimination especially in the rural areas discourages women from gaining awareness about modern-day technology. The wide gender pay gap which believes in paying women less especially in the informal rural sector has inhibited women’s reach to digital access.

Bihar has the highest share of women who lack access to digital media and the second highest share with regards to men.

Both the election candidates and the major population in Bihar are at present ill-equipped for an efficient digital election campaign with regards to infrastructure and digital access.

The opposition parties have mourned that lack of digital knowledge and resources will negatively impact their chances of a fair fight in elections against the large level national parties who have experienced social media teams to run their campaigns. Bihar is a state that has since the introduction of elections, depending on real-time interaction with their leaders in large scale rallies. The crowds that emerged for the rallies of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the President of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) are a famous example of the traditional campaigning structure in the state.

Further, the low teledensity, dismal internet penetration and lack of digital awareness, have kept elections in Bihar an almost exclusively offline affair.

The present Election Campaign guidelines permit groups of a maximum of five people for door-to-door campaigning and roadshows have been restricted to five vehicles. To reach a significant population to guarantee a mandate in the election, virtual mode seems to be the best hope and only efficient hope for campaigning.

RJD spokesperson, Mr Mrityunjay Tiwari stated, “We had pointed out the issue to the Election commission of India and urged it to allow a level playing ground to all parties. Our party is not that resourceful and neither are its voters. RJD leaders have already started holding meetings in small groups at panchayat levels”.

Representational image.

A fairground for election campaigns remains a relatively utopian affair in the state considering the facts and figures provided by TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India). Internet penetration in Bihar is 32 subscribers per 100 people which is the lowest among the 22 telecom service areas in India.

Bihar registered the highest growth in internet users across both urban and rural areas, registering a growth of 35% over last year. The internet boom created largely by Jio and the digital incentives of the government like Digital India has led to 12% active Internet users in India, which is the second-largest base after China (21%). We are slowly moving toward a wider digital reach especially in terms of bridging the digital divide between rural and urban, male and female population. While this is a positive step towards development in the state, it is still not enough to make Bihar ready for an almost exclusively digital election campaign.

The Congress has launched “Bihar Kranti Virtual Sammelan” and has organised over 100 virtual meetings across the state. BJP has kickstarted “Atma Nirbhar Bihar” campaign, an offshoot of the “Atma Nirbhar Bharat” vision of the ruling party at the Center.  Janata Dal-United began its campaign “Nischay Samvaad” (determine through dialogue). Rashtriya Janata Dal represented by Tejaswi Yadav has continuously raised jibes at the Nitish Kumar led state government for avoiding key issues like lack of employment in the state in his interviews.

The extensive IT cell that the BJP has been employing for elections will serve as a major advantage in terms of digital reach and resources. Besides the recent breaking story by the Wall Street Journal which quoted Facebook employees stating that Facebook did not remove the post of Mr T Raja Singh, a BJP leader from Telangana even after the relevant employees at the social media giant had confirmed that the post was dangerous and violated the hate speech rules of the company. BJP is the largest Indian political spender on advertising on Facebook.

With reports of Russia using Facebook to influence American elections doing the rounds, we must question how much easier will it be to create and influence propaganda when platforms like Facebook become the only means of campaigning.

When Facebook could influence an American election that largely depended on physical rallies and crowd-interactions, how difficult would it be to influence an Indian election that now lacks this real-time physical interaction almost completely?

Former Chief Election Commissioner, S.Y. Quraishi stated that “virtual rallies require expensive communication devices like projection screens” “and the arrangement of such facilities is evidently going to be a costly affair and the richer political parties will have a gala time in mobilizing voters, putting small regional/local parties at a disadvantage”.

The Election Commission has assured the nation of a timely election process. One can now only hope that the process is fair as well.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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