A Web of Ties: How BJP workers use mobile apps to campaign in Maharashtra

Tabassum Barnagarwala, Gargi Verma
The BJP has woven a systematic mechanism for feedback. Each voter contacted by ground workers have to give a missed call on a toll-free number. This ensures the count of voters the workers have been able to contact. (Express photo by Vishal Srivastav)

Uday Veer Singh hardly uses a mobile phone, but the senior citizen spent days learning to use a mobile application ahead of the Assembly election.

Singh, an RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) worker since his teenage years, handles 10 booths as a ‘Shakti kendra pramukh’. Initially, he chased younger party workers to understand each feature of the app. Having mastered the interface now, he checks it daily to see what instructions have come from the BJP command. This week his task is cut out for him: to ensure newly-printed pamphlets, outlining nine important works completed by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are distributed to all households in his area.

As the election draws closer, the BJP’s mobile apps for Maharashtra have activated local cadre — from daily text messages directing them on different responsibilities to app interface, allowing the lowest cadre to communicate with party leaders.

“People talk about ‘Modi Wave’ and an undercurrent. But we in the party know what has turned votes in our favour. It is this work,” says Nilesh Mhatre, who is strategising the campaign for Belapur, where his mother Manda Mhatre is contesting.

The mobile apps — BJP Maharashtra Booth Pramukh, BJP Maharashtra Shakti Kendra, BJP Maharashtra Vistarak — became active a year before the Lok Sabha elections. More recently, since October 1, there are daily notifications, even text messages for those who forget to open the app.

“Years ago, each party worker would go about campaigning without coordination during elections. There would be confusion and no one knew who was doing what. With these apps, each of us has a defined role,” says Navi Mumbai’s Booth Pramukh Jayshri Chitre, who manages four booths. Under her, each booth has 25 volunteers who handle 25 families each.

The apps are also used for nationwide discussions among party workers. A year ago, Chitre says, discussion on Article 370 was floated and party workers were asked to gauge community reactions on the subject and provide feedback.

The BJP has woven a systematic mechanism for feedback. Each voter contacted by ground workers have to give a missed call on a toll-free number. This ensures the count of voters the workers have been able to contact.

These days, the daily task is to distribute pamphlets, conduct door-to-door visits, and file reports on the work done through the app. A few months before elections, Belapur zilla secretary Sakshi Sawant said a list was published, booth-wise on the app, of various schemes that Modi floated and its beneficiaries.

“Our job was to visit these beneficiaries and inform them about the scheme,” Sawant says.

So much is the micro-level planning that on voting day, party workers will also receive a wake-up call to report to booths. Konkan region-based Vasant Sutar says the mobile app helps the party high command to reach out to ground workers directly and question them about their booths.

“Even booth workers can give suggestions through the app to topmost leaders.” Sutar is a Vistarak, a post created by Amit Shah in 2017, to monitor a region.

Funds have been directed to strengthen the technology within the BJP infrastructure.

“Through these apps, I know which booth is handled by which worker, or which family is beneficiary of which scheme. This helps us strategise our campaign. When we visit the voter, we tell them about government schemes they are benefitting from. The BJP is far ahead than other political parties in using technology,” Sutar says.

There are apps for every candidate too. Sanjay Kelkar, the BJP candidate from Thane, does not forget to remind his followers about it. “You should download our app. It has all the information on my work and background,” he tells them

Anand Thakur, a private app developer, who developed apps for several political parties, says not just the BJP, many political parties and candidates have now entered the world of mobile apps. Available on both Apple and Android phones, apps are made for a single individual, it has their contact details and their personal information, for the party, and contains information on all senior leaders, and for internal use.

Thakur says app developers are the new-age ground workers. “We provide the technological support after gathering the type of data that earlier used to be gathered by local workers. Sometimes, the party workers help with the data but mostly, it falls on us to gather and then use the data,” he says.

But unlike ground workers, the app developers charge money. “All apps cost upward of Rs 35,000 per application. Depending on the work it needs and the number of people it needs to employ, the cost can go to Rs 60,000 as well,” says Pratipada Ghewade from Chanakya Election Management, a Navi Mumbai-based firm that specialises in political apps.

While the apps may have made the work of the ground workers smoother, the phenomenon has just set in.

“These apps have existed for sometime now but they came into vogue after our Prime Minister Narendra Modi used apps to successfully campaign in 2014. Now, for this Assembly election, all local leaders have managed to get personalised apps too,” says Manish Pandey, a Pune-based app developer.

Rahim Narsingdani, the app developer for the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi, says it is developed by party members as well as voters. “Instead of waiting for a chit of paper telling you where you have to go to vote, now users can just log in and get all information on the app. Our booth management app also lets workers update the voter turnout, helping us understand the pattern of voting,” he says.