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Virtual Campaigning in Elections and Its Outcomes

  • Category
    Ethics
  • Published
    18th Jan, 2022

Context

Recently, the Election Commission of India (ECI) came up with a directive of banning physical rallies and roadshows of political parties or probable candidates or any other group related to elections till January 15th. Various political parties have reacted to these directives differently.

Background

  • During 2021 India had witnessed its last five legislative assembly elections in the backdrop of a corona-pandemic which is still hovering around with new variants. 
  • The Madras High Court expressed its dissatisfaction by giving a remark that, the Election Commission should be put up on murder charges. 
  • On similar lines, Calcutta High Court has also raised concern over the enforcement of Covid-19 health safety norms during the West Bengal assembly election process, including campaigning. 
  • This time the election commission has preferred to proactively come up with directives beforehand.

Analysis

  • The Election Commission of India (ECI) is responsible for organising free and fair elections under “Article-324” of the constitution of India. ECI has given ample consideration to its resources and the safety of the voters and came up with the decision of not allowing public gatherings and election rallies.

Article 324: The Constitution provides the Election Commission of India with the power of direction, superintendence, and control of elections to parliament, state legislatures, the office of president of India and the office of vice-president of India. The ECI does not deal with the elections to the urban bodies such as Municipalities and Panchayats in the states and hence, a separate State Election Commission.

  • Despite being considered as a timely measure of giving importance to the health of the people, the move must be appreciated. But going a little deeper highlights some concerns, which may defeat the exercise of conducting a fair election as the said directive creates unintendedly a situation where all political parties are finding it difficult to find common ground except-public health.

Issue with online campaigning:

  • Difficult to reach people in rural settings: People in the rural constituency cannot be reached through smartphones and online meetings. The vote base is largely confined in the rural interiors and a sizable number of voters may not be on social media.
  • Voters and political parties are not versed with virtual modes: Neither the candidates nor the people in rural interiors can adapt to such methods of engagement.
  • No match to the physical meetings: Virtual campaigning sessions are no match to the physical rallies and the bond that get formed with the voter might be a miss during virtual campaigning.
  • Not ample time given by the ECI to adapt to the directives: It needs some time to arrange all logistics and permissions for online meetings, as not all parties have enough budgetary backing to do it on such short notice. 
  • Risk of Bias and Influence opinion formation: There is a risk of bias, manipulation, abusive surveillance and authoritarian control over social networks, the internet and any uncensored citizen expression platform, by private or state actors. Unfortunately, the preparation of the Election Commission in this regard is uncertain when it comes to ensuring vigilance and regulation over social media platforms. Those with the resources will be able to harness technology more effectively resulting in an influenced opinion formation, which may work against the ideals of democracy.
  • Doctored Online-preference surveys: Biased technocratic groupthink may develop doctored online preference surveys to guide the choices of the voters. 

    Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. The Desire for cohesiveness, in a group, may produce a tendency among its members to agree at all costs. This causes the group to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation.
  • Fear of data collection: Rat race toward the collection of (personal) data, poses a grave threat to the privacy of individuals. It has the potential to enable the suppression of many other rights.
  • Disadvantage to smaller parties: There are bright chances that many political parties might not be having better online infrastructures due to the availability of funds, and it positions them at a disadvantage when it comes to the conduct of fair elections. New parties will find it difficult to gain momentum as they might be lacking robust organisation.
  • Mundane way of reaching people: As the online race is relying less on in-person rallies and leaders have to turn to a more mundane way of just a small screen, talking to people. This might not be equally advantageous to those who are not versed with it.
  • Elderly people may not be enthused enough: There are still people even in urban areas who are not active on social media. The virtual campaign will have an impact on young voters but there is doubt about the elderly ones who may not be enthused enough to come out and vote.

A few Positives:

    • Scope for the engagement with those voters who are otherwise neglected: The virtual rallies are going to help political leaders and parties to surpass the limitations of location and accessibility.
    • Wider engagement: Political parties can engage directly with the voters based not just in cities, but across the state.
  • Level playing field (Conditional): Social media and technology can provide a level playing field, especially for the smaller political parties which can now amplify their reach, given they have the right organisational set-up and funds in place to enforce ECI directives in their campaigns.

Bigger Concerns:

  • Some parties are showing their apprehension on the new arrangement of the ban on physical rallies and shows. They do not have any infrastructure to hold virtual rallies. They cannot be expected to hold virtual rallies without the infrastructure in place. This is not in coherence with the idea of giving equal opportunity to the political parties and their leaders to reach out to the voters and engage them.
  • Some parties don’t face similar issues, for example, according to the poll expenditure report submitted by the BJP to Election Commission in 2015 reveal that the 3-D virtual rallies that they had conducted cost them over Rs 60 crore. It highlights how a handful of parties are way ahead in terms of resources and planning when it comes to conducting virtual rallies. Big political parties enjoy a certain edge in the given situation as they have been focussing on social media for the past few years and almost all their leaders are tech-savvy when it comes to ensuring their presence on social media.

Ethical issues involved in the ECI directives:

  • As a public institution, the office of the Election Commission must have faced the dilemma between Preferential treatment and Non-discrimination. Preferential treatment, in this case, involves promoting the ethical value of compassion towards the safety of people and Non-Discrimination involves the ethical value of equality and impartiality among political parties and other stakeholders.
  • Elections, in any democratic system also act as an accountability mechanism, as the representatives become answerable to the public during re-elections. A corrupt and unethical public representative must lose in elections and the only way to ensure this is by conducting a free and fair election, in which “equal treatment and fairness” is ensured for both the stakeholders, that is, the electors and the public representatives. This accountability mechanism plays a key role in fostering ethical governance. The exercise of campaigning supplements the work done by the ruling party and also highlights how the opposition has ensured the answerability of the party that was in power during the time. In a fair election, no political party should have an edge based on its robust funding mechanism to secure the pre-emptive defeat of the other parties participating in the elections.

Alternatives:

  • Though Virtual campaigning sounds like a promising solution to safely conduct the election, is not void of biases. But the ray of hope is that the biases can be worked out to limit their negative impact and can prove to be a blessing in the prevailing circumstances. This will result in better engagement of the political parties with the voter and provide a level playing field for every political party.
  • Free air time on TV channels for opposition parties: The ruling party already has a huge infrastructure. They are in the government. They also get the maximum electoral bonds. They are ahead of all other parties in incurring election expenditure. The election commission should cooperate by giving more time to the opposition parties on the TV channels. The opposition parties should get airtime on these channels for free.
  • Small group meetings in open spaces: Instead of large rallies and gatherings, the door-to-door campaigns and small group meetings in open spaces could be more effective in terms of giving a level playing field to all the parties.

Conclusion: 

The political parties have welcomed the EC decision and said the constitutional body’s instructions would be followed in letter and spirit. They are also prepared that the ban may well extend up to the election dates and are gearing up for that eventuality as well. The technological solution can enhance or erode democracy depending on how it is being used and who holds the authority over it. It can be said that right now, it is controlled by very few. When power is concentrated in the hands of a few, the consequences are not good for the many and it may not be good for the democracy.

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