media, information, the contemporary

Contemporary Political Publicity

Sumedha Chakravarthy

February 2021- August 2022

I read for a graduate degree in Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Oxford. My research dissertation is titled “Contesting the City: Emergent idea of urbanity and political participation in Delhi”. I hold an MA degree in Comparative Literature from SOAS, University of London, and a BA (Hons) in English Literature from the University of Delhi. I worked at the Sarai Programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi (CSDS) and conducted research for two projects funded under Thematic Module 7 (TM7) ‘Media and the Constitution of the Political’ by the M.S. Merian – R. Tagore International Centre of Advanced Studies ‘Metamorphoses of the Political’ (ICAS:MP).

My first project on government publicity in India from 1947-1990 I sought to piece together the urban publicity infrastructure inherited, developed, and created by the postcolonial State in India, broadly between 1950 and 1980. The project has moved through a number of archival sites, and in this process thrown up a range of questions about the mammoth infrastructure of state publicity, while also uncovering constellations of individuals, institutions, and technologies involved in putting together these infrastructures.

My second project on Contemporary Political Publicity has been to explore the multiple linkages produced between a variety of media infrastructures, feedback loops, and local politics through political publicity. I mapped this by closely following the social media site—and vocabularies—that the campaign mobilises: Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook. I also looked at content, use of Twitter data, and how the feedback loops for these work within the party's publicity apparatus. Feedback loops, in context of the political parties, are particularly interesting. The growing import and intersection of user data and electorate data in determining publicity narratives and aesthetic/affective design, situates questions of ‘data campaigning’ as central to understanding emerging campaign forms. Building this question of the importance of data to publicity, I interviewed agents involved with campaigns, and conducted interviews with several political consultants involved with political publicity and agencies, and with beat journalists who covered state campaigns, and party workers involved with carrying out the campaign. In Delhi, I also attended local political events that were accompanied by media roll outs. The corpus of field notes, interview transcripts, and media content—images, videos, memes—reflect some of the key ideas and emergent paradigms of campaign politics and political ‘expertise’ that I tracked through the course of this research. All of them emphasise the growing import of the ‘campaign’ as a rubric of critically understanding contemporary political and media cultures

The offline fieldwork has been concentrated primarily at the very beginning of this new thread of my work through January, February and early March 2020, and consisted of me following campaign events in Delhi during the Delhi assembly election held in February 2020. In this phase of research, I joined campaign WhatsApp groups aimed at building a support base in addition to circulating publicity media, followed meme content generated by the handles of parties—as well as their volunteers—circulating on Twitter, and interviewed local party workers as well as consultants involved with the Aam Aadmi Party campaign to understand the multiple aspects of building and expanding political campaigns.

After the pandemic arrived in mid-March 2020, I switched to mapping the formal and institutional contours of campaigns through phone interviews and digital sources. By then campaigning was also underway for the Bihar assembly election that was held in November 2020. This campaign promised to be the first time publicity was required to be majorly digital. Along with interviewing individuals involved with campaigns in the State, local beat journalists, and following the social media campaigns of various parties, I also found increasing mention of ‘training camps’ being organised by parties in the state to train their cadres in the use of social media to amplify narratives and build a significant presence. Building forward into the state elections in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala and Assam in March–April 2021, I continued to map the ways that expertise emerges in the presence of political consultants and consulting firms, as well as companies and agents performing a variety of data gathering and analytics services. I also mapped how technology was being used in terms of digital networking and messaging platforms, Artificial Intelligence (AI) for data gathering, tools and apps for data analysis. I did this to draw a frame of the contemporary mediascape of political campaigning in India.

Research Collections

This archive was built between February 2021 and August 2022 and supported by the collaboration between The Sarai Program at CSDS and ICAS: MP on thematic module 7 entitled, ‘Media and the Constitution of the Political’. This project details how truth-telling is transformed after widespread media proliferation with a focus on public commissions of inquiry into the Northeast Delhi Riots in 2020. The project seeks to understand the nature of political, humanitarian, and legal claims made in the presentation of witness speech and evidence; how to assess the temporality of the report in negotiating these often-competing claims; and what the handling of media evidence discloses about the politics of caution, care, and self-care. In detailing how investigations assemble evidence and articulate the evidentiary value of media, special attention is given to practices associated with open-source investigations, online publication and archiving, and the management of risk associated with such human rights media work. Research collections include fact-finding reports and books, documentary films, collections of film and photo documentation, news reports, web archives, and social media threads.