Tamil Nadu has the second highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country and is grappling to control the pandemic in its cities and towns. Cadre from the ruling AIADMK and principal opposition party DMK, are working on the ground to help the public deal with the lockdown restrictions. However, both parties are conscious about the approaching 2021 state elections and are getting ready for the fight.
One big focus for both parties is their IT (Information technology) wings. Even as they race to trend hashtags and battle each other online, energies are being directed towards strengthening IT teams ahead of elections.
"The 2021 election will be fought on social media," says an AIADMK IT Wing leader. "In 2016, the effect of social media on elections was apparent. From data we have gathered and studied, there was a 5% influence on voters through social media then. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections saw 12-15% influence on voters through social media and in 2020 we expect this to be between 15-18% and that is the winning margin," he adds.\
AIADMK is confident that their social media campaign can penetrate most villages. Within the next month, the party plans to increase its IT teamâ€™s strength to 27,000 members which means the appointment of close to 20,000 people in 30 days.
"We are focusing on Whatsapp and Twitter predominantly. The aim is to reach every villager in the state. For a population of 1000 people in a place, we create 2 Whatsapp groups. We have also streamlined the total number of Whatsapp groups and vetted the administrators of the existing ones," says an IT wing member. â€śFacebook has not proven to be as effective because content gets lost in closed groups. The way we see it, 10,000 tweets are equal to 1 lakh Facebook posts," he adds.
And while earlier the party had to train members on how to tweet and create trends, the process is now smoother, say leaders.
"Coronavirus may have limited human movement but it has accelerated the penetration of social media," says the AIADMK leader.
The DMK meanwhile has 20,000 members within its fold and PTR Thiagarajan is its secretary. He along with deputy secretary Isai, are responsible for managing the party's image on social media as well as collection of data across the state.
"What organisational work the AIADMK is doing now, we completed over two years ago," says PTR Thiayagaran, under whose leadership the IT wing celebrated its three-year anniversary. "Our mandate however is more far reaching and covers various aspects crucial for the party's successful functioning," he adds.
For the DMK, the IT Wing's mandate goes beyond the obvious brand building.
This department is responsible for collecting data from voters and members across the state, analysing information and presenting to the party chief. This in turn helps the party set their agenda.
Various members of the DMK IT wing who TNM spoke to point out that electoral data will be important as the elections loom closer and are required to shape the party's agenda.
"The IT wing becomes more important as movement is restricted in the state. For any party, the focus will be on how to disseminate information to voters. Data collection has been an ongoing process and one of our primary on ground jobs. Based on the information we have gathered, in 2021, we will be using the digital medium to push our agenda. And while there is no replacement for human contact, limited physical interaction will be amplified with a digital push.â€ť," says a DMK IT wing leader.
"The approach towards the election, the kind of connections you make with people and the way you get them to trust your party is going to be very different," says the DMK IT Wing leadership.
For the AIADMK, the IT wing largely looks at two aspects: spreading the word about government initiatives and projects, questioning and highlighting negative news about the opposition.
"Recently, the AIADMK government managed to clear projects worth Rs 2,500 crore that will create 4000 jobs. This is the kind of news we actively propagate," says the AIADMK IT wing leader.
However, he adds that on social media, people are not looking for achievements. â€śThey use it to find who they shouldn't vote for," says the leader. "We also push content that works against the opposition. For instance, we talk about violence and rowdyism by DMk members. We highlight instances which create conservations around this," he explains.
The structure of the IT wings
While the DMK has been developing a robust structure over the last three years, the AIADMK's IT wing has faced several internal struggles.
The wing which initially had 14 members appointed by former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, saw its structure crumble and members at loggerheads when O Panneerselvam formed a rebel camp. It was only recently that another round reorganisation led to the appointment of 5 secretaries, each in charge of different parts of the state.
This includes Aspire Swaminathan who handles Chennai city, Singai Ramachandran who has been made in charge 17 districts including Theni, Cuddalore, Dindugal, Coimbatore, Erode, Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram, Raj Sathyan who is in charge 16 districts including Salem, Namakkal and Karur. Party spokesperson Kovai Sathyan handles 12 districts including Vellore, Tiruvannamalai and Krishnagiri while AIADMK's Vinobal handles other districts including Trichy.
"We have appointed members for each district, town and panchayat for the IT wing and at the ground level we are now working organically and under one banner," says the AIADMK IT wing member. The party currently has 56 district secretaries and 14 members under each of them.