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.
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.