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.
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”.
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.