It’s 8 PM in Malleswaram, the local home to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) headquarters in Bengaluru. At a popular coffee shop, barely 100 metres from the headquarters, battle-ready strategists, both in-house and external, sit with their laptops open, racking up the numbers on Excel. They get up, wander around the shop. Make frantic calls. Take smoke breaks every 30 minutes.

The setting isn’t so different from the coffee shops in Koramangala or Indiranagar, where some of Bengaluru’s hottest startups took off. There’s an air of intensity about the place, even on a Sunday evening.

After a two-hour wait, Balaji Srinivas, the party’s social media convener in Karnataka, arrives at the coffee shop. He explains that his tardiness was in most part due to an event featuring the party’s chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa, and also, Bengaluru’s infamous traffic.

With less than three weeks to go for the Karnataka assembly elections, these scenes are more the norm than the exception. A few kilometres away, on Cunningham Road, the incumbent party in Karnataka, the Congress has a similar war-room. Members of the digital communications team, led by Srivatsa YB, troop in and out of the office, as they accompany candidates filing their nominations. And soon after they return, a prominent “central” leader from Karnataka starts his press conference. And thus begins an unending torrent of WhatsApp updates, Facebook Live and live tweets, with quotes from the leader.

While the two parties seem poles apart, hurling the most frivolous electoral barbs against each other, they see a point of convergence—how the Karnataka assembly elections’ digital campaign could become an important test ground for the grandest battle of them all. In 12 months. The 2019 general elections. “This is by far one of our most important campaigns. The last time when we had elections in 2013, social media and other digital platforms weren’t as big, nor were they as influential,” says Srinivas. “Today, at both BJP and the extended Sangh Parivar, we have shown that we are keen to change with how society changes, both in terms of use and adoption of technology.”

That importance is not entirely misplaced. Karnataka is one of the more digitally progressive states in the country, both in terms of penetration and usage of platforms—with nearly 30 million subscribers as of December 2017, as per Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai). Of this, 23.54 million are urban and 6.42 million are rural subscribers.

Compare this to the total number of voters in the state, which according to the official Election Commission rolls, stands at 51.2 million. At the very best, political parties can access nearly 58% of the electorate through social platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter. In addition to these numbers, as per the internal party estimates of both the Congress and the BJP, the state is home to at least 20-25 million smartphone users, a majority of whom, i.e.

AUTHOR

Venkat Ananth

Venkat is currently in his tenth year in journalism. Prior to The Ken, he was Deputy Content Editor at Mint as part of the newspaper’s digital team. He also wrote in-depth features on the business of sport for the newspaper. His earlier assignments include Yahoo! (as a columnist) and the Hindustan Times, where he began his career. Born in Mumbai, Venkat holds a Bachelor of Mass Media (Journalism) degree from SIES College of Arts, Science and Commerce, Mumbai and a Master of Arts degree in International Studies from Goldsmiths, University of London. He currently resides in New Delhi, where he moved nearly five years ago.

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