25/04/2019 4:06 PM IST | Updated 25/04/2019 4:09 PM IST

Online Ad Spend Shows BJP Pouring Cash To Fend Off Regional Rivals

Increased spending by state parties like the TDP in Andhra, and LDF in Kerala bolsters theory that Elections 2019 will be fought between Modi and powerful state-level leaders.

Bloomberg via Getty Images

BENGALURU, Karnataka — As Kerala went to polls, the Left Democratic Front spent 17 lakhs on Facebook ads, making it the second highest spender on Facebook that week. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spent 44 lakhs, while the Congress spent only 11 lakhs on Facebook that week.

Taken as a whole, the BJP is the biggest spender on Facebook, having spent Rs 1.3 crore since the first week of April, the highest amongst all political parties.

Yet, the LDF’s outlay adds credence to the theory that the 2019 election is likely to boil down to several head-to-head contests, with the BJP hoping that its sole credible leader, Narendra Modi, will win out against regional fronts.

A similar trend was observed on Google. Here too the BJP is the single biggest spender, with a total declared spend of Rs 5.9 crores since February 22, and the second biggest spender is Tamil Nadu’s M.K. Stalin’s Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) with Rs 4.07 crore, while Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh has spent Rs 2.3 crore. The YSR Congress is fighting this election by itself, though it is expected to tie up with the BJP after the polls.

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Chandra Babu Naidu’s Telegu Desam Party (TDP) is another big spender — though the party prefers to work through third party digital services companies. Taken together, the TDP’s total Google spend is close to Rs 5.6 crores — meaning that while the DMK looks like the second biggest spender after the BJP, that title should actually go the TDP.

Finally, it must be noted, the BJP’s actual spend is likely to be significantly higher than declared. Earlier this month, HuffPost India reported on how the party covertly operates a network of websites and Facebook pages that have also taken out advertisements on behalf of Narendra Modi, but are cunningly designed to obscure their connections to the BJP.

State-wise battles

Google ad spend data also gives us a sense of the key battleground states as this multi-phase election rolls on. Of course, these spending trends are most pronounced in states where a larger proportion of the electorate is likely to spend time online.

The upcoming elections will be fought on the mobile phone.Amit Malviya, head of BJP’s IT cell

Here Andhra Pradesh leads in spending, with a total Rs 5.2 crore spent in the state (up from Rs 1.7 crore at the start of the month), while Tamil Nadu which was pretty low in spending earlier, is now one of the states that has seen heavy advertising, rising up to Rs 4.3 crore.

The numbers are indicative of India’s digital divide — with Telangana seeing a Google ad spend of Rs 2.03 crore, compared to Rs 75 lakh spent in Uttar Pradesh, and Rs 67 lakh spent in Maharashtra thus far. To be sure, Telegana was a single phase election, while voting in UP and Maharashtra will continue well into May.

Delhi, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat also saw a rise in spending, with Delhi having hit Rs 71 lakh, Gujarat at Rs 65 lakh, Bihar at Rs 37 lakh, Rajasthan at Rs 58 lakh, and MP at Rs 57 lakh.

Messaging apps

While Facebook and Google’s advertiser transparency protocols are to be welcomed, HuffPost India reports have shown that WhatsApp remains one of the most popular, and hard to monitor, platforms for political propaganda.

While WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook) technically does not offer advertising services, HuffPost India has detailed how the BJP automated political propaganda on WhatsApp to enable the broadcasting of hate speech and targeted messages.

It is safe to assume that other political parties are also approaching WhatsApp in the same way, and so it’s no surprise that Amit Malviya, head of BJP’s IT cell, said, “The upcoming elections will be fought on the mobile phone. In a way, you could say they would be WhatsApp elections.”