War rooms, social media rooms gearing up in Karnataka

By Smita Prakash | ANI | Updated: Apr 24, 2018 22:14 IST

Bengaluru (Karnataka) [India], April 24 (ANI): The wars of the world are fought with drones, but elections are increasingly about tweet wars and Facebook likes and Whatsapp forwards, fought as about rallies and road shows.

In the 2018 Karnataka assembly elections, opinion polls seem to indicate that it will be a tri-cornered contest, with each side expressing confidence about pulling in sizeable numbers, but just not enough to go on their own.

Congress spokespersons have already blamed the BJP for manipulating poll surveys and influencing media through money power.

In this Spartan war room of the Congress party located in a posh neighbourhood in Bengaluru, volunteers, panelists and party men from Delhi and Karnataka walk in and out with missives and messages.

Momentum hasn't yet picked up for the election, as sitting Chief Minister Siddaramiah was too busy filing his own papers from Karnataka's Badami constituency today.

Madhu Yakshi, Secretary and spokesperson of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) and in charge of Karnataka state, said the war room is just about getting into effect, but adds that for the past few months Rahul Gandhi's message to them has been 'Sangathan Ko Mazboot Karo', and that has had an effect, as volunteers have come in from many parts of the state to be part of the campaign.

The Congress party is quite convinced that they are going to ensure Siddaramaiah's return to power. There is a certain amount of euphoria in the Congress camp in Bengaluru that it isn't just their party that is seeing infighting, the BJP unit in the state is as fragmented as they are.

Siddaramaiah is like William Wallace, going out fighting, leading from the front, while his foot soldiers are falling in line simply because if they don't, they are sunk. He has many detractors in the senior echelons of the state unit of the party, but Sakshi says they all acknowledge that Siddaramiah has ground support that is unmatchable.

In the social media unit, the young guns are quite kicked about Siddaramaiah's sharp and witty tweets.

"We are getting hundreds of retweets, chirps one of the social media office bearers."

The Congress social media unit is quite small, just about 50 volunteers, mainly comprising of journalism and political science students working on graphics, tweets and Facebook posts.

The team is headed by Srivatsa with Bhushan and Kashyap Nandan. It is very small compared to the one run by the BJP. They let me in and allowed me to take pictures and were quite transparent in giving me details about their strategy and game plan. A humble lot, they said their main work is taken up in countering what they call fake news put out by BJP handles.

At a training session for spokespersons of the Congress party in Bengaluru, Randeep Surjewala has one main point of advice. Focus on the message. "Machli Kii Aankh Pey Nazar Rakho", he tells the dozens of spokespersons who have gathered at the party headquarters in Bengaluru.

People who have been recruited for jobs assigned are still unsure about what is expected of them. Some are focussing on their respective communities and targetting messages to them; others are making graphics for Facebook posts that they aren't sure will see the light of day. By this weekend, things are expected to gather momentum.

Ticket distribution is always a cathartic process which leads to anger, frustration and campism. This is happening in the Congress party as much as it is happening in the BJP. Many joined the campaign hoping their district-level satraps will get a ticket to contest, but when that didn't happen, they have left the team, or are sitting idly wondering whether to switch loyalties, or just leave.

In comparison, the BJP has spread its media units in several buildings. Neither Prakash Javadekar, Karnataka in-charge, nor the other party bigwigs stay in the capital for more than a couple of days. They move from constituency to television studios to Delhi, assuring the media that they are confident that a "Congress Mukta" (Congress Free) Karnataka is a matter of weeks now.

I wasn't allowed into their social media room. I guess my reputation as a serial blocker on Twitter has preceded me. But I am assured it isn't just me, no reporters are allowed in. Fair enough. If it is psy-war, it would be more effective if it is off the media glare.

In the TV monitoring room, there are 67 monitors streaming all Kannada channels and just one national channel. There are 45 volunteers who monitor the channels and post information on Whatsapp groups. The social media core team consists of 40 people.

Balaji Sreenivas, an IT professional in the team, says that 98 percent of their social media work is in Kannada. There are over 5000 volunteers spread across the state who work on the BJP messaging. They have been doing this since August 2017.

Sreenivas claims that they have penetration into 23,000 Whatsapp groups that they either control or have got their messaging across to on a constant basis. About 200 workshops have been conducted for these 'volunteers' during the last ten months.

The social media team of the BJP Karnataka unit feels that they will be able to tap into voters of 224 constituencies, which include urban, semi-urban and even some rural areas. Thanks to JIO network penetration, Sreenivas says now rural areas are also within their ambit.

What are the themes of the BJP unit? It is to show that Siddaramiah represents malgovernance, apathy and negativity towards Hindus. Towards this end, they attack the Congress campaign on a constant basis.

Both sides exude confidence, but the subtle difference is that the BJP works on a mission mode, the Congress still believes that intention and ideology matter more than anything else.

It is impossible today not to be a consumer of the social media messaging of both sides, unless, you are not on Facebook, not on Twitter, not on Whatsapp and don't watch TV. (ANI)

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