The role of data and money in Modi’s new democracy

Big Money is crucial for data elections, publicity drives and control of mainstream and social, as Shivam Shankar Singh points out in his new book.

ByVrinda Gopinath
The role of data and money in Modi’s new democracy
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Is Billionaire Modi chaiwalla Modi’s idea of a rich man? Consider this: in the last five years, while Modi has relentlessly evoked his early years of being a humble tea seller from an impoverished background, he has splashed out over a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money as prime minister, from his non-stop extravagant foreign trips, to relentless self-promotion about his achievements through an advertising publicity blitzkrieg both on mainstream and social media.

It may be called new politics or smart marketing to endlessly promote the leader and create a world of dazzling strategies and victories. But blowing up a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money for non-stop plugging of oneself is scandalous. Government data reveals that as of December 2018, Modi has spent $640 million (about ₹4,500 crore) on publicity and $280 million (₹2,000 crore) on 84 foreign trips. Since January 2019, the Modi publicity onslaught in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections has been battering rival political parties as he rushes to beat the Election Commission’s deadline for its code of ethics to set in before polls are announced.

All of the above is what you can see and deduce. But in the hazy other-world of data analytics, number crunching, market research, poll booth management and voter contact programmes that lead to the multi-billion dollar election campaign, thousands of crores of cash pour in without transparency or accountability as big political parties go on a spending spree. And guess which party and leader comes out on top, leaving behind rivals at the far bottom? The Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi.  

Does Big Money subvert democracy? Can expensive technology like data analytics and surveys—though not illegal—work like performance enhancers for political parties in an election, thus making it advantageous for rich parties? Does money wipe out poor rivals from grassroots and disenfranchised groups? In the Whatsapp elections of today, can fake news and divisive propaganda swing votes in favour of a candidate? How does technology help construct a micro-targeted election campaign?

To get a peep into the vast, lightening world of technology and hi-tech data analytics, there’s Shivam Shankar Singh, a former election campaign strategist for the BJP who worked with senior leaders like Ram Madhav and ex-election analyst Prashant Kishore. Singh, however, resigned from the BJP in disgust as it was destroying democratic institutions, he says. He’s just written a book, How to Win an Indian Election, and had predicted at the time of quitting eight months ago that come election time, “Modi would junk the development theme for polarisation of communities and inciting pseudo-nationalism”. Singh is now working for the Mahaghatbandhan or Opposition parties in Bihar.

Here are extracts from a conversation.

How does data analytics work in a constituency?

It’s a BJP device that was effectively used for Modi’s election in 2014, and subsequently in many state elections. First, the task is to map the constituency. Form 20 from the Election Commission gives you census data of every polling booth, from gender, social demography, etc., and one can make a good guess of the caste and religion from names of voters. We collect results of the last three Assembly and Lok Sabha polls and it gives you a very good idea of voting trends of the people.

Most victories hinge on swing votes, so we focus specifically on this segment. We do surveys to find out what are the local issues, tailor a campaign for these specific groups and booths. The local party worker appointed for each page of the voter list of approximately 80 people (in BJP they are called panna pramukhs) is tasked to meet them regularly with the campaign message.

It is why Modi did not postpone Mera Booth Sabse Majboot, the gargantuan teleconference with party workers, despite the deadly skirmishes with Pakistan as he knows its significance and was wasting no time. There are 10.6 lakh polling booths in the whole country as of today.

Is caste most significant in a constituency?

If you go by sheer caste arithmetic today in most states, then the numbers are stacked in favour of the Opposition on paper. Take a constituency in a state in north India, which cannot be named. The sitting MP is an upper caste Brahmin and he has won at least three times on a BJP ticket. The caste composition of the constituency is roughly 21 per cent upper caste; 14 per cent Muslim; 7 per cent Yadav; 25 per cent Dalit; and 8 per cent MBCs. This is just a ballpark figure. The Dalits also voted for the BJP.

The Opposition’s candidate should not just be upper caste but has to woo the Dalits; the message will naturally be local and one has to lure them with the message of caste reservations and economic benefits. Modi’s announcement of 10 per cent reservation for poor upper castes has made Dalits very unhappy.

Similarly, the BJP will focus on caste groups and it has successfully mopped up several smaller caste leaders in the past few years. However, these leaders have learnt a bitter lesson as BJP president Amit Shah is notorious for grabbing the vote bank but kicking the leader out after he has wooed the group, like Upendra Khushwaha and Jitan Ram Manjhi, or Apna Dal in UP, and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Luckily, their people are still with the leaders.

How did the BJP win Tripura, a campaign you worked on?

The victory in Tripura was a lot due to data as we knew how many tribal votes—which is roughly 30 per cent of the state—were against the ruling CPI. Also, we appropriated most of the Congress cadre who shifted to the BJP as it was seen as the only force against the CPI. Land was a big issue for tribals, and we decided to align with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), a tribal group, and calculated how many Bengali votes we would lose because of this alliance. We then identified the constituencies which should go to IPFT and those constituencies with specific tribal groups who would vote BJP because of the work done by the Sangh, and who would go with the alliance. Specific data allowed us to make decisions like this throughout the campaign. The moribund CPI did not expect the kind of campaign the BJP unleashed in the state. It was a spectacular victory.

Can communal riots override caste alliances?

As long as it is BJP versus Mahagathbandhan, where the Opposition is united, then the latter is poised for victory in a two-party contest. However, if the BJP unleashes its communal agenda, then Opposition unity is torn apart on the ground, as the attacks are carried out mostly between Dalits versus Muslims, or Yadavs versus Muslims. And when the core vote bank is fighting each other on the ground, it’s impossible for a leader to get them to vote together. It is why Lalu Yadav went on a road campaign during the last Bihar state election, telling Yadavs and Muslims to not fall for the BJP’s communal campaign at that time.

How much would a campaign like Amit Shah-Modi cost?

First, there’s the data analytics company which charges about ₹20 lakh per constituency—this is a ballpark figure. Then there are the research agencies for on-ground research, plus call centres set up to monitor feedback and to cross-check that data is not being fudged, etc. This is only the bare minimum, so you can add another ₹4 lakh.

However, when you factor in the campaign costs of messaging, films, songs, slogans, apart from media publicity and the army of marketing strategists, and social media messaging by creating hundreds of groups on Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter and Instagram—it all costs big money. If you add to it traditional methods of election payments to party workers, money to voters, we have come to a conservative figure of ₹20 crore, spent by both party and candidate. With 543 constituencies, we can safely say a party like the BJP would spend around ₹12,000 crore in a Lok Sabha election. And whichever party has the big media on its side can be victorious as it controls the narrative and thereby project itself as the winner to the undecided voter.

So money can buy everything?

As I’ve written in my book it’s a shame that civil rights activists like Irom Sharmila of Manipur, who fasted for 16 years for human rights abuses by the Army, got just 33 votes in the last state election. It’s the same story for all other professionals, activists and humanists. Perhaps Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party was the only success story in electoral politics but will Kejriwal too be forced to toss all idealism for the pragmatism of money, caste, etc., in the end? Only time will tell.

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