The election battle for Tamil Nada is being fought more fiercely on smartphone screens than on the streets. Fears of a second wave of Covid-19, changes in demographics and high smartphone penetration in a country that exceeds 50 percent have forced ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to invest more than ₹ 100 crore and an army of a thousand paid and volunteer warriors, just in digital campaigns in the month before the vote on April 6, 2021. The digital campaigns are cunningly crafted (a heavy surprise given that both sides have access to Kollywood talent), deployed and targeted with a great deal of sophistication and spiced up like the best map from Chettinada.
A two-sided narrative
The AIADMK campaign has two key themes. First, to trumpet Edappadi Palaniswamy’s achievements with a sunny series of videos called ‘vetrinadai podum Tamizhagam’ reminiscent of the NDA government’s ‘India Shining’ 2004 campaign. Second, to constantly remind people of the “dark days” of DMK rule and party “excesses” when they are out of power. “Nearly 89 lakh voters were enrolled after 2010. They may not immediately remember how bad DMK rule was. We need to constantly remind young voters, ”says K Swaminathan, head of AIADMK’s IT wing, who also leads the teaching for the exams and claims to be IIM-Ahmedabad’s first graduate in the party. A new series of videos of the theme groups “Thillu mullu company” or a fraudulent company (direct reference to the acronym DMK), shows a group of DMK men in starched white news and shirt asking different groups of people – students, housewives, farmers and traders – to vote for their party, just to drive them away because everything works great and well under the rule of AIADMK. Swaminathan says AIADMK’s strong IT wing of 1 lakh, not counting the thousands of freelancers it employs to create videos and memes that are sharper, runs nearly 75,000 Whatsapp groups, or roughly one for each voting booth that allows a party to deliver content with great precision. For example, several IT wing teams are ready every time DMK chief MK Stalin speaks. “He is a gift that he constantly gives. We make fast video comedies and lure all the gaffes. It is a great material for us to strengthen the message that Stalin is Pappu Tamil Nadu, ”adds Swaminathan.
“No party in TN can match us when it comes to digital,” opposes PTR Palanivel Thiagarajan, a former investment banker who is now the head of the DMK’s IT wing, an MLA member and a candidate from Madurai Central. Thiagarajan is open in his admiration to the kind of communication platform that the BJP has built over the years. “Yes, they have huge amounts of money, but we get there with far fewer resources. According to Thiagarajan, he built a digital team of 28,000 workers and mapped them, starting from the top to the cabin level with rigor, training and a structure that would make the corporate house proud. Thiagarajan makes the startling claim that to train many of those 28,000 in jobs in digital campaign management, the party nominated “independent” candidates in all 39 locations in Lok Sabha whose campaigns were led by DMK’s digital team in the 2019 elections. In addition to the military, DMK also has the services of IPAC, Prashant Kishore’s political advisory firm. The IPAC Election War Room, on the eleventh floor of a posh building a few hundred meters from Ana Arivalayam, the DMK headquarters, houses nearly 400 employees, mostly between the ages of 25 and 35. The IPAC office plastered in DMK red and white has posters longer than life Stalin of various vintages shines in you. As a sign of the changing weather, the IPAC War Room is significantly busier than Ana Arivalayam. Young team members are constantly feeding DMK spokespersons who appear on television with “attack” points. Social listening is key to launching digital attacks and counter-attacks. IPAC teams are constantly monitoring budget conversations on social media and receiving a constant flow of information about the issues that people and journalists are discussing that day.
Of the nearly 400 employees, 40 are video editors who broadcast hundreds of videos daily that worsen Stalin’s image or refute and punch holes in AIADMK’s claims. With a fee of around ₹ 350 kroner for the entire campaign that began in 2019, IPAC certainly seems to have given a great shine to DMK’s campaign, whether it was creating some glitter around big rallies, Stalin Ani (Tim Stalin), dedicated an application to present a leader or a bunch of websites like WeRejectADMK, OndrinaivomVaa, a help and reach portal for those affected by the Covid-19 lock, a membership called Ellorum Nammudan launched on the DMK official website or simply knocking down AIADMK or BJP campaigns trying to move on social networks. The Stalin Ani application is aimed at making DMK content go viral. App subscribers are rewarded with good karma points every time they share a video or article. As party believers accumulate reward points, they unlock new levels of achievement. The passage of each of the 25 stages brings an award, ranging from a certificate to the final award of the personal audience with “Talabatia” Stalin. IPAC claims that nearly 48 easy new members have joined the party online in the last 200 days. By comparison, the official AIADMK website looks quite domestic, and the MuttrupulliForDMK guerrilla campaign (DMK) point to oppose WeRejectADMK often fails to load.
“IPAC and the party’s IT team have a symbiotic relationship. In the next few days, we will launch a new campaign that no one in India has seen, “added Thiagarajan. Get ready for a more spicy and forbidden Dravidian political battle on the digital.