With enormous stores of data and thousands of WhatsApp groups, the BJP cell waged a smartphone war in UP.
Home for Vijay Kumar Sharma, 35, is Barabanki, approximately 30 kilometres from Lucknow, where he works as a taxi driver. During the third phase of polling, Sharma decided he’d put aside the business of making a living and do his bit for the nation, or Uttar Pradesh at the very least. So on February 19, 2017, Sharma didn’t ply his taxi. Instead, he was standing in line to cast his vote in Barabanki. He had no qualms disclosing who he’d voted for: “Modi.”
The reason this is worth mentioning is that Sharma also describes himself as a hardcore Akhilesh Yadav supporter. However, in the recent past, he’s seen messages that have convinced him that it’s time to back Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “WhatsApp par message aate the, kaise Hindu ladki ko Kashmir mein utha liya gaya (We used to get messages on WhatsApp about how a Hindu girl was abducted in Kashmir),” Sharma told Newslaundry. “Kahin to jaakar hum ko bhi lagega na, inke kaam ko dekh kar, ke ye log galat kar rahe hain. Aur SaPa sarkar ne inko bahut chhut de di thi (After a point even we began feeling that there is something wrong with them and that the Samajwadi Party government was giving too much licence.)” The “them” he’s talking about is the Muslim community.
What Sharma (and countless others like him) thought were random bits of information coming to them, which they forwarded to their contacts in the interest of disseminating the truth, was actually a publicity campaign.
In a span of just two years, from the urban landscape of Lucknow to a remote village in Bundelkhand’s Manikpur, BJP has successfully netted smartphone users across UP and subjected them to an aggressive and meticulously-planned new media strategy. JPS Rathore, a long-time party member, is incharge of the UP-BJP’s Information Technology (IT) Cell. He told Newslaundry, “Humari rajniti thi ki chunav ke pehle voter ke dimag ko capture kar lo. Subeh–shaam message bhejo. Jab dekhe, humara chehra dekhe, humari baat sune (Our aim was to capture the mind of the voter. To message them night and day. Whenever they look, they should see us, hear our message).”
Since 1980, no party has been able to clinch three-fourth majority in UP as BJP has done this time. The BJP-led alliance will form a government with 325 seats. A significant amount of credit for this victory must go to the IT Cell, for converting people like Sharma.
Once a small single room office in Lucknow, the BJP IT cell has expanded to occupy an entire floor in the party’s Lucknow headquarters – a sign of its importance. The IT Cell has officials in each block of UP. According to Rathore, an internal analysis suggested that in the 2014 general elections, UP voters had polled for Narendra Modi, putting aside the traditional caste-based politics. BJP secured 42.6 per cent of the vote share at the time. This is why, right after the polls, the party determined that it could not afford to become disconnected from its newly-gained voter base.
What followed was an impressive combination of online and offline techniques of promotion and data collection. Sunil Bansal, former Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) veteran, was appointed BJP’s organisational secretary of UP in June 2014. Sanjay Rai took over as head of BJP’s IT cell in June 2016. Under these two, UP became a virtual battleground for SP and BJP’s IT cells. At the peak of its campaign, the two would be coordinating with over nine lakh members.
You don’t have to look too far to find someone who has been schooled by BJP’s smart, virtual campaign. Despite being an Akhilesh Yadav supporter, Abhay Singh, 35, a hotelier in Lucknow, spoke of how terrible the SP government had been in the state. He spoke at length about the crimes of former minister, Gayatri Prajapati. Singh’s points against Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) were strong and he seemed very well-informed about these two political parties’ failures. When it came to BJP’s successes, he was enthusiastic and supportive, but hazy about the specifics. Eventually, he admitted he’d got his information about politics primarily through social media, through pages like this one manned by BJP:
Both BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) rely upon consolidating and expanding their voter base through meetings, membership drives and samajik samrasta drives. In UP, BJP has divided its organisation into six zones – Braj, Kanpur, Paschim, Kashi, Awadh and Gorakhpur. These are further divided into 92 districts units (officially, UP has 75 districts). Then come the Assembly units, block units and finally, booth-level units (each of which was assigned seven workers). To understand the expansive nature of this network, here is a figure for you: BJP appointed 1.28 lakh block-level presidents in UP.
At each of these levels, the IT Cell had its workers.
The state IT cell has 25 members in the core team with Rai as its head. Each regional centre had 20 members and a team of 15 handled IT at each of the 92 districts. Seven member teams worked at the block levels. At the regional, district and Assembly level, BJP had approximately 5,000 workers. A separate team of 20 professionals – including technicians, designers, and cartoonists – created the desired content for the party.
The Data Game
The first step was to acquire information about UP voters and so, during membership drives, the party collected basic details such as name, phone number and village. All this landed up with the IT Cell. “Through our membership campaign we had collected data of two crore people in the state,” Rathore, the state vice-president of BJP, told Newslaundry. Data collected through its “missed call” drive – those interested in becoming members of BJP gave a missed call to particular numbers – had only contact numbers. “The next step was verification of this data,” said Rathore. “We called, messaged and took feedback from the contact numbers that we had collected.”
By the end of this process, the IT cell had verified data for 1.3 crore people, who in the coming months became consumers of BJP’s online and telephonic campaign and propaganda. The primary target of the data dump were smartphone users, Rathore said. For months, these users would get messages – as Whatsapp forwards, for example – which would criticise SP and BSP, and either subtly or overtly promote BJP as an alternative.
Ghanshyam Singh Raghuvanshi, a volunteer who left his job in the Middle East to join BJP’s IT campaign, was among those entrusted with the task of following SP and BSP’s online strategies. He told Newslaundry BSP was the easiest target to dismantle because the party barely has any virtual presence. SP, on the other hand, was a challenge.
Not only did it have strategies, their campaign also had the money to create better quality graphics, lamented 42-year-old Mukteshwar Mishra, a member of the core team of the IT cell, to Newslaundry.
Each message sent to the voters in each zone was composed keeping in mind the specific cultural and linguistic ‘tells’ of the region. For instance, information about droughts or drought-related metaphors would be directed to Bundelkhand (handled by the Kanpur zone). The IT Cell also directed its workers to be careful about local dialects. BJP was – and remains – keenly aware of the diversity and distinctions that make up the state. Rathore told Newslaundry, “Conscious mind mein baat dalna mushkil hota hai. Unconscious mind mein baatein–agenda dalna aasan hai (It’s difficult to embed an idea into someone’s conscious mind. It is easier to feed agendas into an unconscious one).”
The saffron party also provided infrastructure to its regional and district centres. “The party allocated two computers, a printer and two operators in each district unit,” said Mishra. Several meetings about summits, campaigns and strategies were conducted through video conferences. To coordinate the Parivartan rally and handle booth-level workers, two call centres (twenty-seater and ninety-seater respectively) were set up. A separate monitoring team would prepare a daily report based on the data collected from these centres and forward it to the state BJP team.
The Power of WhatsApp
“Our priority was to enter at least 5,000 WhatsApp groups, which we had achieved comfortably six months prior to the election,” said Mishra.
By the time UP went for polls, the IT Cells had access to over 9,000 WhatsApp groups – spread across the state – with an average 150 mobile users in each group. This meant that the seven to eight messages that were sent every day were read by at least 13.5 lakh people.
Of those whose numbers the IT Cell had, the teams called each and every number in order to distinguish Modi supporters from BJP sympathisers. People were also identified on the basis of being active on WhatsApp groups. The next step was to convince the contact to add one member from the IT cell to the group and eventually be granted administrative access to the group. Members of the IT cell claim they had a 30-40 per cent success rate in this exercise.
“Once we entered the groups, we not only could monitor whether the person was sharing our posts but also had access to [phone] numbers on the group,” Mishra told Newslaundry. Cell members claimed that they outsourced a software that extracted entire contact lists from each group. This served two purposes – identifying unique numbers of users that they had access to and creating new groups in case they were kicked out of one.
According to an IT cell internal report dated March 3, 2017, a total of 12 posts were officially shared by six regional WhatsApp numbers. Of these, five were picture collages, five were positive messages (praising work done by the Centre, PM Modi or a BJP-ruled state) and two negative posts about the Opposition. Besides these official messages, every office bearer was allowed to post his own content to these groups, taking the total number of posts to a daily tally of about 30-35.
On condition of anonymity, one member of the BJP IT cell said, “A lot of these messages sent by our members included propaganda against our opponents. Many had statements which were factually incorrect.” Newslaundry asked a few BJP workers, including those working in the IT cell, to show us their WhatsApp activity. What they showed us had some predictable elements. The names of the groups were Hindutva-flavoured, like Hindu Dal, Jai Shriram and Hindu Ekta. We were also shown a booklet that had verified data of 5,000 WhatsApp group admins who had given a BJP IT cell member access to their groups.
“I have four to five groups named after Hindu community,” said Virendra Tiwari, BJP Yuva Morcha Mandal president, from Sardanagar, Lucknow. Tiwari sends numerous messages in a day. However, when asked about the authenticity of the information, he said, “Lump sum humlog apni baatein to sach lekar hi chalte hain (According to us, what we forward is true).”
The strategy was to stay ahead of all other parties and capitalise on any or all of their flaws, and the IT cell succeeded. Workers said WhatsApp reaped greater dividends. Still, Facebook was an important tool – the party was managing pages for every constituency and had two pages for the entire state named “BJP4UP” and “UttarDegaUP” with over 21 lakh and 19 lakh likes respectively. Prior to the Parivartan Yatra, the BJP4UP page had a mere 10,000 likes. This increased to 10 lakh by the time the yatra had concluded. The timing of posts shows the precision of BJP’s online strategy. On the last day of voting – March 8 – a video was posted on the BJP4UP page claiming Hindu saints had been attacked by the UP police. As of now, it has 52,000 views and over 1200 shares.
Rathore said BJP’s online campaign kicked off much before the SP-Congress’s and benefitted from referencing the surgical strike, BJP’s win in Assam election, and demonetisation propaganda. “Humne dhyan rakha kab-kaun kya dekhna chahta hai (We did take care of what one would want to read or see),” said Rathore. In terms of likes, Yogi Adityanath’s messages with colourful graphics were popular. They ranked second after posts containing Narendra Modi. Every day, 30-35 posts were posted on these pages. “Hum agar adha ghanta bhi voter ka kha gaye to uska brainwash ho gaya. Aur is process mein humara campaign unka thought process capture kar lega (Even if we are able to consume 30 minutes of the voter’s time, we should be able to brainwash them and capture their thought process),” said Rathore.
The campaign against SP has been intent upon providing ‘proof’ that the Yadav family is anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim. On March 4, UttarDegaUP page launched a direct attack on Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. A video posted on the page claimed Yadav sat inside the temple in the way one offers Muslim prayers. As of now, it has 18.9 lakh and over 6,300 comments.
Then there are posts like this:
Members of the IT cell claim they were was able to create 24 trending hashtags February 5 and March 8, 2017, including #KasabAgainstHindu (on February 25).
While the internet and smartphone users were mobilised into a propaganda army for BJP in the Assembly polls, the party’s IT Cell is sharply aware that its zealous foot soldiers need careful handling. “A dangerous online army of lakhs are following us, which is not even in our control,” Mishra said. “In the Gurmehar Kaur case, we were being attacked by the opposition for the kind of threats that she was getting on social media. While many of these offenders might be following the BJP, they are beyond our control. No one can control these users.”
For now, though, the BJP’s online army has done what its leaders wanted it to: pushed the party to victory in UP.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @amit_bhardwaz.