Coronavirus | COVID-19 may change election scene forever

Digital campaigning may replace big rallies; handbills and pamphlets are likely to return

Published - April 20, 2020 04:04 am IST - NEW DELHI

BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav. File

BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav. File

The COVID-19 outbreak has put India’s electoral calendar on the back burner.

The absence of a vaccine or therapeutic intervention against the disease has necessitated a long period of physical distancing and sanitary measures, all of which, say experts, will change the great Indian poll circus forever.

Speaking to The Hindu , BJP general secretary Ram Madhav pointed to the recent national election in South Korea and said the conduct of elections should not be completely written off in India either.

He did, however, caution that the manner of campaigning and polling must reflect the changed reality.

“There seems to be no question whether big rallies of the past will be able to survive this disease. Without mass vaccination, organising big rallies would be a hazard. I see more digital campaigning, and micro, man-to-man marking gaining ground. With the digital, I also see a return of the print, that is, handbills and pamphlets which used to be distributed a lot in the past,” he said.

Polling issues

Congress MP and former Union Minister Manish Tewari agreed that much of the campaign would have to shift to the digital sphere, but expressed more concern over the polling part of the electoral exercise.

“There has been much talk of developing software to hold polls digitally, and in the Atlantic Council (of which Mr. Tewari is a member), we did explore this, looking at the example of Estonia. The main question is never the technology, but the ways in which it can be subverted, and how to ensure the integrity of the process,” he said.

Mr. Tewari also expressed concern over the fact that a notified election to the Rajya Sabha was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak by the Election Commission of India when only polling remained.

Away from political parties, pollster Pradeep Gupta, who heads AXIS-My India, located the whole issue in two spheres: one is of campaign, which he said is not a huge issue as there are many ways of reaching out to the people, and the second is to devise technology to ensure that proximity is not a factor in polling.

“Our voters list is not updated, we were hoping that the new census exercise with its extensive use of technology would lead to a better set of data. I feel that to a large extent the connection between the voters list, Aadhaar number and mobile phones should be attempted. It stands at barely 30% now and needs to be extended,” he said.

New trends in elections

Mr. Gupta also sees the acceleration of certain trends , which he has observed over the past few elections.

“It is no longer enough to play the identity card, it is a trend for many elections now that delivery on welfare and development matters a lot. After the COVID-19 outbreak and the role of governments being assessed so closely, this trend will completely overshadow identity politics,” he said.

The next big election in India is the Assembly election in Bihar due in October-November. If it takes place on time, it will be the precursor to just how a pandemic affects electoral democracy.

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