Delhi elections: In EC-silent zone, phones buzz with bulk text messages

Karishma Mehrotra
Delhi elections, delhi voting today, delhi assembly elections 2020, delhi election commission,  arvind kejriwal, AAP, BJP, indian express 

Poll officials with EVMs at Gole Market in New Delhi, Friday. (Express photo: Praveen Khanna)

Even as campaigning for the Delhi Assembly polls officially ended at 6 pm on Thursday, B-tech graduate Jitesh Bhardwaj (27) said the silent period doesn’t affect his “business” with candidates from all three parties. Equipped with booth-wise electoral rolls and phone numbers which, he said, are easily available in the market, he acts as a middleman between telecom operators and candidates. He sends an average of 1 lakh SMSes or voice-recorded messages per candidate, at a price tag of 9-11 paise per message.

On Thursday, as CM Arvind Kerjiwal’s now-recognisable jingle played nearby, Bhardwaj picked up his phone and said: “That won’t ring after today, but this will.”

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As roadshows wind up and hoardings come down across the capital — which votes on February 8, with results on February 11 — the 27-year-old still has four candidate contracts remaining, and more calling him for bulk tele-messaging. His busiest day was when tickets were announced; the next will be polling day itself.

He is working with 20 candidates from all three parties. In one seat, he has managed to work with both AAP and BJP candidates. Another candidate has sent out a total of 30 lakh SMSes through Bhardwaj’s company, which he requested to keep anonymous.

Most vendors like Bhardwaj started political “tele-marketing” work a decade ago, but now offer services such as social media profile boosting, graphic design, and WhatsApp messaging.

“Some four candidates in Delhi have also told us to seat a person in their office so that people can see they have an ‘IT team’. Nothing much happens — we give one guy a laptop, and call him the data manager,” said Bhardwaj.

In the five or so years that the digital ecosystem has really taken off, none of the vendors have seen any crackdowns from the Election Commission on their work. In fact, the biggest hit to their business was last year, with WhatsApp’s limit on five forwards and Facebook’s new advertisement authorisation process.

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Still, while very few vendors still send WhatsApp bulk messages, a Delhi-based businessman told The Indian Express that he has managed to make WhatsApp bulk messaging work for seven candidates this election. But since he is worried about the risk to his other corporate clients, he refrains from messaging during the ‘silent period’.

“WhatsApp has become more difficult, but some like us are still doing it. Just like there are sites that are more difficult to hack, but no site is unhackable. Everything has a loophole... WhatsApp is used more in the silence period because you can’t track an unknown number to a bulk message from candidates. But SMS can be tracked.”

Experts agree that tracking the particulars in this new era of digital campaigning can perhaps be beyond the reach of the Election Commission.

“The EC has not even defined social media,” said professor Jagdeep S Chhokar, one of the founders and trustees of the Association for Democratic Reforms. “It is very difficult to monitor. What the EC needs to do is not to monitor everything that every candidate does 24 hours a day for the entire silence period. Instead, it should take cognizance if something is reported to it, and take exemplary action.”