2019 elections: It’s a campaign with a difference

Chennai: Looking back at the high-voltage electoral campaign in Tamilnadu that technically draws to a close today after a month of continuous bombardment of ideas, views, claims, promises and  fake news on people’s minds through a variety of communication channels, one realises that ‘election 2019’ is a different ball game altogether.

Though the broad contours of electioneering did not undergo much of a change, the use of digital technology to reach out to the poor and the illiterate had a tremendous impact.

Memes, videos, messages and other visuals landed in the handsets of unsuspecting voters, whether they wanted them or not, and made them think before they decided on whom to vote for.

It was not that the roadshows, the public meetings and the door-to-door canvassing were missing. They did happen and the traditional campaign vehicle with the candidate standing atop with folded hands and a star campaigner seeking votes for their candidate was making its rounds through the roads. Handbills bearing the photograph and symbol of the local candidates can be spotted strewn on the roads, indicating their distribution through various means, including the unauthorised insertion in the morning newspapers.

If the messages that landed through social media made many ponder over their political decisions and even urged them to change their views, some of the goof-ups on the stages of political meetings turned out to be rib-ticklers in the otherwise grim campaign, in which the old-time professional comedians from the film world were conspicuous by their absence.

It all started with the translation of Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s speech at Nagercoil. For TNCC president K V Thangkabalu, who was given the task of the translation, goofed up so badly, providing comic relief to those present at the meeting, that he inspired meme creators, who let their imagination take wings and came up with jokes that went around through social media.

A series of messages was unleashed on social media under the headline ‘BJP Manifesto’. Readers took some time to figure out that they were indeed part of the ‘fake news’ campaign, in which all parties excelled.

One of them showed a mustachioed man wearing a saffron scarf with a lotus emblem on it and said it was Wing Commander Abhinandan, who was in the news after he was caught by the Pakistani forces, and that he had voted for the BJP in the first phase of elections 11 April.

WhatsApp groups circulated lengthy polemics, sermons, lectures and political messages by known and unknown people advising people on how to vote, which was, in fact, a new trend this time. Both the pro-Modi and anti-Modi sections indulged in the exercise with both sort of messages often landing on the mobiles of the same person. In fact, the entire political narrative of the 18 April elections in Tamil Nadu is focused on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Should he be elected again or not is the question.

The pro-Modi messages stress on ‘national security’, need for a strong Indian Prime Minister, teaching Pakistan a lesson and so on, while the anti-Modi messages remind people of demonetisation, GST, failure on promises to create jobs and bring back black money, pampering select super-rich industrialists, his penchant for pomp and grandeur and so on.

Of course, it is the same drivel that can be heard in the public meetings of the two main alliances, the pro-Modi group led by the AIADMK with the BJP, PMK and DMDK as partners and the other spearheaded by the DMK with the Congress, Communists, VCK and MDMK as partners.

However, public meetings are not drawing big crowds and even the one addressed by BJP president Amit Shah at a village near Pudukottai under the Sivaganga constituency saw people walking out as Shah’s arrival was delayed. In fact, many meetings by various parties were cancelled due to lack of crowds.

That does not mean that people are fumbling in the dark about the elections. They are updated through television news, social media updates, by word of mouth and by party foot soldiers who visit every nook and cranny of the area they are assigned to work in. Thus, many local issues, too, get discussed in political forums.

Perhaps it was the realisation that local issues like NEET, farmers’ protests, police firing at Thoothukudi, etc., can swing voters prompted the state’s latest prime entrant to electoral politics, actor Kamal Haasan, that his party, Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) had bought a front page jacket advertisement in a leading newspaper, presenting itself as a champion of those local causes. Does the advertisement indicate a surge in anti-Modi sentiments in Tamilnadu that the MNM wishes to exploit?

G Babu Jayakumar