Mobile Politics: Why I think Lok Sabha 2019 was not a post-Mandal but a post-Jio election
India's information revolution, with affordable communication, made political messaging that much more personal and vastly widespread. Only the BJP understood and seized the moment.
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Many reasons have been offered by analysts for the huge win of the BJP in the recent national elections. Among the reasons have been the Pulwama-Balakot cycle, generating a muscular nationalist sentiment, Modi's popularity, no opposition candidate with much credibility, money and cadre working for the BJP and so on.
Some commentators have asked whether this was a post-caste and post-identity mandate, and thereby, a post-Mandal one. Others have noted the breach in class segments that voted for the BJP.
If not Modi, then who? WhatsApp messages replaced loud, thumping campaigns this time. (Photo: Reuters)
I would agree that India has changed and shifted its axis dramatically. But I believe that the change has been driven by technology in general, and the telecom revolution ushered in by Jio in particular.
In the first term of Narendra Modi, India became the nation with some of the cheapest data tariffs in the world. Jio, launched less than three years ago by Reliance Industries, turned the local mobile phone market into the world's largest consumer of wireless data. A story in the Wall Street Journal published in September last year begins with the sentence that India's richest man is catapulting hundreds of millions of poor people straight into the mobile internet age. The story noted that Mukesh Ambani, head of Reliance Industries, "one of India's largest conglomerates, had shelled out $35 billion of the company's money to blanket the South Asian nation with its first all-4G network".
By offering free calls and data at the time of its launch, the telecom latecomer sent the industry into a tailspin as cheap internet flooded the country.
The plunge in prices led to surge in data traffic to 1.5 billion gigabytes a month, according to Amitabh Kant, chief executive officer of the NITI Aayog. In December 2017, Kant posted on his Twitter account: Mobile data consumption is higher than USA & China put together.
Amazing! With 150 cr gigabytes per month of mobile data consumption India is now world’s no 1 mobile data consuming country. It’s mobile data consumption is higher than USA & China’s mobile data consumption put together.— Amitabh Kant (@amitabhk87) December 22, 2017
Jio's subscription growth has continued even after the company began charging for data services. According to its website, in March 2019, Jio had 306 million subscribers. Consumers have benefitted as other telecom companies have been forced to reduce their prices. The Jio effect is there for all of us to see: today it is par for the course to see farmers, labour, drivers and domestic help watch content on their mobile phone when they get a moment away from their hard day's work.
That, I believe, is the big transformation in India — and only the BJP understood it.
Many journalists who travelled in Uttar Pradesh did not see any overtly-pitched campaign on the old ideological issues. Indeed, in West Uttar Pradesh, the 'Romeo squads' had shut down and there was no clash reported over cows or love jihad during the campaign period. If Hindutva storm-troopers were roaming the state, shouting 'Jai Shri Ram', they did not enjoy any high decibel visibility.
But the messaging that had an ideological sub-text was being spread through an altogether different medium.
People were getting fiery and motivating WhatsApp messages. The only action they were encouraged to take was not to agitate but to press their fingers and thumb and forward the messages to as many people as possible. Yes, technology was being used to din it into people's heads that they must vote a certain way. National-level content was being produced officially from the headquarters, but there was also district- and constituency-specific content being churned out by motivated cadre. And yes, anyone who has been on a WhatsApp group of the 'bhakts' would know that the content can be blatantly communal, incendiary and full of false facts.
But that is only part of the story.
It was the snappy messages about the lack of any other choice and the superhero powers of the PM that was smartly done. It was packaged differently for different segments and made by those who understood that attention spans are short in the age of phone addiction, and the message has to be snappy but reinforced repeatedly. People should get familiar with the incantation. Modi! Modi! Modi! No choice, no choice, no choice!
That is how the cookie crumbled.
Mobile Politics: This is a new game. And only the BJP figured out the rules. (Photo: Reuters)
The nationalist post-Pulwama-Balakot sentiment was equally simplistic and powerful stuff to spread through data.
Let us accept this too that most people don't get attracted to content which talks of joblessness and poverty. They take recourse to their mobile phone to escape all this dreariness and get entertained.
The BJP and the semi-autonomous groups understood that and prepared content that was actually of escapist fare. But it could be easily understood and consumed.
Technology took people to the realm of admiring one individual as the sole political saviour, set against a backdrop of him having fixed the enemies of the nation. The omnipotence of Narendra Modi was at the heart of the messaging.
Here's the thing about technology. It can just be a medium for making calls and watching entertainment. If you wish to use it for political messaging, then you have to understand the psychological triggers of the people and create content that would be absorbed. You also need to know your target audience.
Since the defeat, several illuminating stories have appeared, suggesting that the Congress did not have the accurate data from the ground. So they apparently went into the election arena not knowing head from tail, their elbow from their knee and so on. Equally, parties like the SP, RJD and BSP were clueless in this new age. They work on the patronage structure of cadre/volunteers who are expected to deliver the caste and community voter blocs, and then get something in return.
But technology had changed the playing field — and only the BJP knew the new rules of the game. It was, therefore, substantially, and very fully, a post-Jio election.