BJP has lost the digital and social media edge, but it is not too late to recover

It would be preaching to the choir if I start talking about the role that the IT Cell played in 2014 General Elections by effectively harnessing digital technology. A more pertinent point of discussion here would be the effort that was deployed in order to do so

After the rout of BJP in the recently concluded assembly elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, a lot has been said about the loss. While there are various political, organizational and perceptional perspectives to the loss, this article deals with that of IT cell or IT department as now it is called.

I had been associated with the national IT cell (National Exec as some call it) and my intention is purely to analyse, of course from my personal perspective, on what went wrong and how things can be put back into order.

It would be preaching to the choir if I start talking about the role that the IT cell played in 2014 General Elections by effectively harnessing digital technology. A more pertinent point of discussion here would be the effort that was deployed in order to do so. It took more than three years and a lot of hard work to reach to that point from where the BJP was considered a global trendsetter in the use of modern technology for digital communication with the masses.

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A bulk of the systems, processes and programs were put together by a techie who not only had a deep tech background but also had an extensive experience of working in Silicon Valley. It is this experience along with technical skills of a very volunteer-driven organization that led to some of the most successful early digital campaigns by a political party. For instance, BJP started an online donation system on its website way back in 2010 making it one of the first political parties across the globe to have such a facility.

I was one of the earliest volunteers of this team and had the first-hand experience of the 2014 campaign where we realized that the role of IT cell was not just of social media management or of trending hashtags. The way we saw the IT cell was as an integration of digital technology, a tool to harness the collective and collaborative creative power for content generation and above that as a brilliant mechanism for running numerous digital campaigns be it on social media or otherwise.

Thus, in effect our work had social media was seen as a part of the overall campaign as it was just one of the mechanisms through which we distributed our message. The focus was to use analytics to evaluate what resonated with the voters and then merge the feedback both online, offline and through analytical tools to construct a common campaign both online and on-ground. Through an extensive network of social media influencers and volunteers, the result of the mechanism was evident as BJP swept the urban constituencies where social media had a key influence.

In early 2015, there were multiple discussions within the party on how the shape and role of IT cell should evolve to cater to politics of the future. I was part of some of these discussions.

At that time, there were two views about the IT cell in the party, one that proposed to convert it into a lean enabler and other was to evolve it into a larger, structured organization, something akin to various morchas in the Party. We all know which view prevailed but the way it has had an impact on BJP in last two and half years is not something that has been analysed or debated as much it should have been. So, let us try to take a look at it.

The most visible impact, which has resulted into a lot of dissatisfaction among the BJP supporters is the downsizing of the IT cell and a top-down approach that has been mostly limited to the dissemination of not so creative content through WhatsApp channels. It is so sad that it has almost converted a very creative and engaging party ecosystem into a digital sloganeering echo chamber. A lot of key influencers and supporters got alienated by this approach and the party lost the alignment it had painstakingly created with them.

Thus, the feedback mechanism has completely been removed and the echo chamber is resulting in miscalculations while designing social media campaigns.

Second and probably the biggest impact, which I would like to classify as one of the primary reason for the poll debacle is a complete lack of an Analytics function in BJP and its IT department. In the last few years, there have been significant advancements in the field of analytics and big data. Congress, as many of us are aware, has set up a high powered Analytics team and there have been rumours of it taking services of controversial international analytics consulting firm to create both broad-based as well as hyper-local strategies that delivered results in the recent elections. Ironically, BJP had a robust set of tools and processes during the 2014 General election that is defunct now. This has cost the party.

Thirdly, where are the new people? In fact, where are the people? Any organization and more so a political organization can only create innovation and differentiation if it has a pipeline of talented people, who not only have the right skills but potential to lead as well. There should be no doubt that we are in an information war and not just a political campaign. BJP needs capabilities, both human and tech, to counter the sophisticated propaganda churned out by Congress on a daily basis. Congress which was no way close the BJP in the game is now far ahead thanks to its allied pages and news platforms.

I would even go on to state that the first two impacts are more or less because of not having an adequate number of right people at national, state and constituency level. A Twitter hashtag cannot be the only strategy. BJP need to build competitive advantage in tech, processes and teams.

So what’s the way forward? Things need to change and change fast. First and foremost, the party should conduct an audit of processes and tools and very quickly fill the identified gaps. There is no dearth of willing and talented supporters who can contribute to building the required capacity. Someone from the party needs to put on the hat of a sanghathan mantri and recruit such people from constituency to national level, people with skills and not just hashtag warriors. Party needs cutting-edge analytics team and a war room and it needs it now.

A separate analytics head and a team is the need of the hour. Last but not the least, Party needs to reach out to real influencers, ones who have the ability to create and set narratives and engage and align with them beyond the usual photo ops social media meeting by ministers and key functionaries. Talented supporters are BJP’s key asset. If things start moving now BJP will be able to recover the lost edge. The time to act is now.

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