Former Chief Election Commissioner S Y QURAISHI is no stranger to the hurly-burly of electoral politics. India’s 17th CEC, who assumed office in 2010, spoke to SOMA MOOKHERJEE on how political parties are banking heavily on social media and how virtual rallies have become the new normal.

Q: Political parties, especially BJP, which came to power at the Centre in 2014, are relying heavily on social media.During the pandemic, virtual rallies organised by political parties, particularly BJP, are standard. As the former Chief Election Commissioner of India, do you think in the coming days’ virtual rallies will replace political rallies and “Jana samavesh”?

A: While virtual rallies are a modern and innovative way, these have become more relevant to cope with the problems posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. I don’t think they would be able to replace the old-fashioned political rallies. This is because India has only 36 per cent of internet penetration. Not only would it pose execution problems for the political parties to reach every nook and corner via virtual rallies, but it could also prove to be a costly affair if parties engage in arranging for communication devices like big projection screens, internet connections, etc.

Moreover, in a democratic election, while political rallies are its integral component as are door-to-door campaigns, safety protocols would have to be developed which EC must have done already, as it has been keeping a watch on the global experience, especially South Korea and Poland which conducted their national elections with safety protocols with highest-ever turnouts.

Q: What, according to you are the merits and demerits of virtual rallies?

A: In current times, its biggest merit is that it has kept crowd pulling at bay. It will save the leaders concerned from travelling across the state/country to campaign in different constituencies – saving on the transportation cost and expenditure on election materials. The virtual rallies could prove beneficial for smaller parties that don’t have enough funds to host large-scale, in-person political rallies across a state.

However, its merits end here. The virtual rallies will only be beneficial in areas with better internet penetration like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore. However, even in these metros, not everyone owns a smartphone with internet access.

Also, let’s not forget the connectivity issues that persist in many hilly areas and outlying villages. The effectiveness of online communication is also grim when we consider the low usage of smartphones in India, which is just 38 per cent. In a democracy, a political party cannot choose to neglect even one house on its campaigning trail. A virtual rally also closes any opportunity of a dialogue between a candidate and electorate or a candidate/party leadership and the ground workers, as s/he would be confined to a room rather than traversing the constituencies in an attempt to woo voters.

Q: From 2014 onwards, there is a growing trend which shows digital platforms have been gaining ground. Do you think that political parties are more inclined to use social media as an instrument of campaigning rather than the traditional ones like fliers, hoardings and organising meetings?

A: Political parties across the world are realising the power of social media. They have weaponised it to woo the younger voters who are more tech-savvy than any time in the recent past. With increasing social media users across India over the years, it is not a surprise that every party in India is using it to engage with prospective voters.

Let’s not forget that half of India’s population is under 25 years of age, and out of the total 451 million internet users, 380 million are [aged] between 19-49.

Even before Covid-19, the campaign mode was undergoing rapid transformation with the increasing use of social media. In this, BJP showed the way, and other parties [have] followed.

The old-style campaign also continued; though a bit reduced. Posters, hoardings and graffiti have been banned by ECI for years as they cause defacement. Festoons and buntings are however allowed. Party flags on private homes were disallowed as they were being put up forcibly on unwilling citizens leading to unruly situations. Street rallies were allowed but much scaled down from an unlimited number of vehicles to just three, later increased to 10 to minimise traffic chaos and inconvenience to people.

In the existing circumstances, however, EC may  be considering revisiting these regulations.

Q: In West Bengal, especially, graffiti, as a form of canvassing, is very popular.Will political parties in 2021 switch over to digital platforms?

A: Parties have been switching over to digital format in any case, learning from the success of the BJP’s campaign in 2014.

Q: Is it not necessary that the Election Commission of India (ECI) should frame new laws to prevent social media abuse?

A: Yes, social media has been EC’s concern for many reasons, mainly fake news, hate speech and rumours. It has been thinking of ways of regulating it. By formulating the Voluntary Code of Ethics for General Elections 2019, the ECI underlined its concern to monitor the social media platforms.

Its stern action on hate speech on social media sites during Delhi elections was cherry on top. The media platforms have agreed to remove the offensive contents within three hours of being reported by the designated officials. This is a good step forward, but it would be preferable that the time lag is reduced to half an hour or even less as three hours is a ‘lifetime’ in social media in which enormous havoc can be caused in minutes.

Q: In this milieu of the pandemic, will it be judicious to hold elections through Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) since many people will touch the same surface creating ample chances of spreading the virus.

A: [The] Election Commission is aware of the potential risk, and I am sure, it must have found ways to make voting by EVM safe.

Q: Will it be possible to hold elections through the ballot box in such a short period?

A: I don’t think EC would be considering the ballot box option having resisted it all these years. Hypothetically though, it is fully competent to get the ballot boxes ready, if it makes that decision soon enough.