In democratic societies, there has been a method of political mobilisation.
Political parties are formed when a group of people with common interests and common ideological beliefs come together. They seek to expand by reaching out to other citizens, by articulating these beliefs and bringing them under a common umbrella. This is mostly done through door-to-door campaigning; through events which see the participation of a large number of people; through the distribution of pamphlets and propaganda material; and through public marches, mass meetings, and large-scale rallies.
As elections approach, these activities become more intense and pronounced — and there is a concerted outreach to every constituent to convince them of the validity of a particular worldview. Those in opposition seek to build an environment against the ruling party; those in power seek to defend their record in office — what is common between them is the use of familiar political techniques of campaigning. Each Indian election has seen a variant of this method being deployed by all sides concerned.
But it is not just parties. Civil society outfits too play a key role in spreading awareness and picking up issues relevant to them. They build opinions through smaller meetings, seminars and conferences; they organise marches and make demands for laws or changes in policy; and they protest, within the legal and constitutional framework. A range of progressive changes in India — from the Right to Information Act to the employment guarantee scheme, from stronger laws against crimes against women to relief for farmers — has come from these methods.
But this was the world before the coronavirus pandemic. It is now recognised that the pandemic, and the restrictions that have accompanied it as the most effective way to battle the disease, will change the international system, the economic order, how businesses are run, and even the way people live and work.
But one other element it will impinge on significantly is the method of political mobilisation, especially in democracies. Even after the lockdown is lifted, social distancing will continue to remain an established norm.
This means that mass rallies (where hundreds of thousands of people jostled in a common area); mass protests (where thousands of people marched together, standing next to each other, and even pushing each other along); and small public meetings in urban neighbourhoods or village squares (where political leaders and civil society campaigners relayed their message to residents) may not be possible anymore — at least for the foreseeable future. It will be much harder to get a sense of where public opinion stands.
This does not mean that democracy will necessarily suffer, but it means that all stakeholders in a democracy — political parties, the administrative machinery, civil society groups, and citizens — will have to find new ways to continue with the task of political and social mobilisation. There will also have to be new ways to ascertain public opinion. What will this entail?
The first, obvious, element of the new form of campaigning will be the increasing reliance on technology. Over the past decade, the online medium in general — and social media in particular — has come to play a significant role in building opinion and reaching out to voters. But this will now assume a new urgency altogether. Technological tools may almost become a substitute for a human-to-human interface. It is through video conferences, newly-created customised apps, and social media campaigns that parties will seek to penetrate the homes and minds of voters.
This, in turn, will increase the reliance on data radically. Once again, data has been an important tool in the electoral kit in the last few decades. But now, candidates will begin mining details of each constituent and their preferences at the micro-level — this, in turn, will allow them to deploy technology in what they deem as appropriate ways.
The third will be a change in the way the voting process itself is conducted. South Korea recently held elections, in the backdrop of the pandemic. Voting booths were disinfected; voters had to maintain a distance from each other while queuing up; they were screened for temperature; those who had fever were taken to a separate area, and once they exercised their franchise, they were sent for testing. The United States will have elections later this year — and it is not clear whether it will have to rely substantially on postal ballots or whether regular voting will be held. India will have to carefully look at these examples — the Election Commission is already studying the South Korea polls — and adapt it to its own context.
But, if the form of mobilisation changes, it will also have an impact on the substance of politics. It is premature to draw any definitive conclusions, but here are the variables to look out for. One, in some ways, local leaders will become more important. After all, they know the constituency; they know the voters; and voters have a sense of their track record of delivery. At the same time, given the limits on campaigning, it will be much harder for those who are starting out at the local level — or those who are not already established leaders — to make a dent. There is a possibility that voters will choose the familiar rather than the unknown in uncertain times. Two, there will be an impact on identity politics. In times of crisis, members of particular castes, communities and religions often find solace in community bonds. At the same time, given that this crisis has affected every citizen across identities — with the poor most severely affected — voters may look beyond identity and vote on either class interests or based on their perception of government performance.
The next big election is in Bihar at the end of the year. This will be a test case to understand how political campaigning, voting processes, group identities and voting behaviour have changed in the post-coronavirus times.
What is clear is that politics will not remain the same.