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BJP inadvertently exposes its game of influencing voters

Controversial firm Cambridge Analytica used to conduct psychological war by harvesting millions of Facebook profiles without authorization and then further used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence voters at the ballot box.

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Ravishankar Prasad

Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has inadvertently exposed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s scandal of influencing voters through Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI)—an Indian affiliate of Cambridge Analytica firm. Mere a tweet by Manish Tewari seeking enquiry by the Election Commission on the claim by Cambridge Analytics about giving services during elections and campaigns in India compelled BJP minister to call a press conference to save and clear themselves of the charges and rather accused that Congress had links with Cambridge Analytica.

Congress media in-charge Randeep Singh Surjewala Surjewala said, “Desperate times call for desperate press conferences. BJP’s factory of fake news has produced another fake news today. Such baseless allegations show the character of the party, Indian National Congress or the Congress President has never used or never hired the services of a company called Cambridge Analytica.”

British data analytics and election strategy firm Cambridge Analytica (CA), which is under a scanner in the UK and the US for using Facebook to influence voters in the US presidential election and the vote on Brexit in UK, is also involved in a scandal involving the 2010 Bihar Assembly election and claimed its client “achieved a landslide victory.

Controversial firm Cambridge Analytica used to conduct psychological war by harvesting millions of Facebook profiles without authorization and then further used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence voters at the ballot box.

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has been allegedly accused of compiling user data to target American voters during the presidential election for US President Donald Trump. In the same manner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi allegedly used the same psychological warfare tool in 2010 and in 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

After Information Technology and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has alleged that Congress president Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party had links with Cambridge Analytica, Congress media in-charge Randeep Singh Surjewala countered the Minister saying, “Fake Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad is presenting fake agenda. The truth is contrary to this. The BJP and JDU used Cambridge Analytica. The BJP hired the Indian business partner of Cambridge Analytica — OBI during Delhi Assembly election and used its services. Apart from this, the firm also involved in the party’s Mission 272+ (BJP’s slogan for 2014 general election) as an additional support in Haryana, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Delhi”, Surjewala added.

Surejewala stated that information available on the website of Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI)—an Indian affiliate of CA’s parent company Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) firm also furnished a constituency-wise database to BJP candidates for state and national elections.

The firm used to collect data about people who are on Facebook through an app and target voters with personalised political advertisements, in the same manner as television, radio and print.

Prasad even issued a sharp warning to the social media giant, saying the government would take ‘stringent action”, including “summoning” its CEO Mark Zuckerberg to India, in case of any data theft of Indians.

Meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has admitted mistakes and outlined steps to protect user data in light of a privacy scandal involving a Trump-connected data-mining firm. As Cambridge Analytica is accused of improperly using the data on behalf of political clients. He said that Facebook has a “responsibility” to protect its users’ data and if it fails, “we don’t deserve to serve you.”

As both BJP and the Congress accuse each other of data theft and of having used Cambridge Analytica’s services to swing elections in the country.

Ravi Shankar Prasad made a bizarre statement when he said that Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter followers had risen recently and wondered if  Cambridge Analytica was responsible for this “fake popularity”.

Prasad became so desperate that he made out of the context statement as Cambridge Analytica does not work for Twitter and there is also a report viral on online media about Prime Minister Narendra Modi of having 60% fake twitter followers. So, by making these charges what he is trying to say?

But the most significant aspect in this entire episode is how India is going to fix the loopholes so that no political party is able to covertly or overtly able to influence the electoral process for 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

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Arti Bali

Sr Journalist

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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Life after Parrikar’s Delhi airlift doesn’t look easy for Goa BJP

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Manhohar Parrikar

After nearly three decades of Manohar Parrikar’s complete dominance over the affairs of state BJP, the party is now looking at life in Goa without him, who is battling advanced pancreatic cancer and was airlifted to New Delhi’s prestigious AIIMS on Saturday.

With apparently chances of Parrikar’s return to active politics bleak, life doesn’t appear all that smooth for the Goa BJP leadership, at least for now, as it is already battling crises of lack of credible successors, skeptical alliance partners who have sniffed the weakness, and the possibility of an ugly succession battle for power in Parrikar’s absence.

For now, several core Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in Goa seem to be in favour of dissolution of the state assembly, instead of allowing leaders from other alliance parties to head the coalition.

Barely hours after Parrikar took off in a specially chartered flight to the national capital on the instructions of the BJP high command, alliance partners Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and the Goa Forward have already started scrapping publicly over sharing of power.

“The BJP should appoint the senior-most leader in-charge. Goa has already suffered because of lack of leadership. We need to fill that void,” state MGP chief Dipak Dhavalikar told reporters, throwing his party MLA, brother and Public Works Department Minister Sudin Dhavalikar’s hat in the ring for the post of officiating Chief Minister.

However, Goa Forward president and Town and Country Planning Minister Vijai Sardesai has already rejected the option to make Dhavalikar the Deputy Chief Minister, with an ailing Parrikar continuing in the top post.

Both parties had contested the 2017 Assembly poll on an anti-BJP plank but had later joined the BJP-led coalition government on the condition that only Parrikar should head the coalition.

Another proposition, which was discussed by Dhavalikar with the BJP leadership about merging his regional party MGP with the BJP, has seen stiff resistance from the cadres of both parties.

Last week, state Congress president Girish Chodankar in a letter to Goa Governor Mridula Sinha had asked her not to consider the possibility of dissolution of the state Assembly and invite the Congress, which has more MLAs than the BJP in the 40-member House, to form the government instead of dissolving the House.

Party leaders say, under the current scenario, the best option would be Union Minister of State for AYUSH and North Goa MP Shripad Naik, who is a popular leader of the OBC, a significant vote bank which is peeved at the “pro-Brahmin politics” orchestrated with Parrikar at the helm of state and party affairs.

“Shripad is widely acceptable, both as a person and a politician. His nature is to take everyone along,” a BJP leader said.

There are also talks within the party about a possible anti-incumbency factor working for Naik in the upcoming Lok Sabha election. Getting Naik, a three-time MP from North Goa, back into the state politics would serve well for the party instead.

Elder to Parrikar by three years, Naik, 65, is complete counterfoil to Parrikar’s personality. While Parrikar is a sharp, incisive and intimidating, Naik is warm, gentle and known for his warm camaraderie.

Naik, in a way, has also been at the receiving end of Parrikar’s style of functioning, which did not allow any second power centre in Goa to develop.

The other options being touted within the party are Speaker Pramod Sawant and state BJP president and Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Tendulkar. While Sawant’s candidature has been opposed by alliance partners, Tendulkar could emerge as the dark horse in the BJP’s quest for a homegrown CM.

(Mayabhushan Nagvenkar can be contacted at [email protected])

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Amit Shah’s 50-year dream: Whistling in the dark?

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Amit Shah

Bharatiya Janata Party : President Amit Shah’s boast at the national executive meeting about the party ruling for 50 years may have been in keeping with his usual aggressive, bombastic style, but it has been interpreted in two contradictory ways.

One was to see it as a sign of arrogance and the other was to discern in the seeming extravagant claim a hint of whistling in the dark to keep up the party morale. Both the surmises have an element of plausibility.

If the assertion underlines hauteur, the reason undoubtedly is the BJP’s belief that it faces no serious challenge at the moment. Notwithstanding the continuing unemployment, agrarian distress, high fuel prices, falling rupee, stagnant exports and the unease among the minorities and Dalits, the opposition has not been able to get its act together.

Because of this failure, there are now doubts about how it will fare in the forthcoming assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh since the BJP’s main opponent in these states, the Congress, which was earlier expected to have an easy run, has been unable to reach an understanding with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and is troubled by its familiar internal squabbling.

Besides, the question as to who will be the opposition’s prime ministerial face is yet to be settled while there has been no clearcut articulation of an economic blueprint. The BJP, on the other hand, is pursuing a well-defined path. Even as “vikas” (development) remains its catchphrase, it also cannily indulges in the ruses of what a dissident saffron intellectual and former BJP minister, Arun Shourie, has called a “one-trick pony”.

The “trick”, according to him, is to foment divisiveness which has been highlighted by the communal uncertainties posed by the National Register of Citizens, which the Assam Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, wants to be extended from his state to the entire country so that the “ghuspetiyas” (infiltrators or illegal immigrants) can be summarily evicted. “Chun chun ke nikaloonga”, as Amit Shah has thundered.

The BJP’s confidence apparently stems from the belief that while the promise of development will keep the youth and the middle class on its side — as has been confirmed by the Delhi University Students Union election results where the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), won three of the top four seats — the party’s nationalist plank targeting “ghuspetiyas” and the so-called urban Naxalites will keep the opposition off balance.

It is obvious that the opposition has found no effective answers to the allegations of being soft on illegal aliens and Maoist sympathisers and has to depend on the judiciary to keep any excesses of the ruling party in check as in the matter of lynchings.

How indifferent the BJP is towards such outrages or the disquiet expressed by the “secular” intelligentsia about its rule was evident from the seeming satisfaction which Amit Shah derived from the fact that the party keeps on winning despite the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq, allegedly for eating beef, or the “award wapsi” of the urban elite.

It is not surprising that he believes that a combination of the promise of economic growth and a depiction of the opposition as unpatriotic will keep the “lion” safe from the “wild dogs”, to quote the similes used by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat while addressing the World Hindu Congress in Chicago to describe the Sangh Parivar and its opponents.

On its part, the RSS has been engaged in broadening its appeal by calling the non-saffronites to its conclaves. It goes without saying that a possible mainstreaming of the avowedly pro-Hindu organisation will help the BJP to shake off to some extent the taint in the eyes of its opponents of its association with the RSS and thereby help in the fulfilment of the dream of ruling India for half a century.

It cannot be gainsaid that at the moment, much is going for the party. It has a Prime Minister whose popular appeal is testified by virtually all the opinion polls despite the government’s palpable inadequacies. The party also has a chief whose micromanagement of the organization has turned it into a formidable election-winning outfit.

In addition, its publicity is boosted not only by its members in the government and the party, but also by an army of trolls who lose no opportunity to pounce on the BJP’s critics with venomous abuses. Not to be left behind in supporting the ruling dispensation are some ‘nationalist’ television channels whose commitment to neutrality is conspicuous by its absence.

With so much in the BJP’s favour, its 50-year project may not seem all that far-fetched — except that the Indian voter remains famously inscrutable. Considering that the BJP secured no more than 31 per cent of the votes at the height of its popularity in 2014, it is obvious that a large percentage of the population do not think much of the party.

It may be this inconvenient fact which made Amit Shah whistle in the dark.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])

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Will Ganesh Chaturthi mark a new beginning for crisis-stricken Goa BJP?

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Manohar Parrikar

As colourful clay idols of Lord Ganesh are ushered into Hindu homes in Goa ahead of Ganesh Chaturthi, the symbolic significance of the deity, as a remover of obstacles and a god of new beginnings, may well dwell on the minds of state leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The party’s top-rung leaders are battling a crisis of loyalty between their party and the ailing high priest of the BJP in Goa, Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, who in the past has cleared innumerable political obstacles and ushered new beginnings for the party and its cadre. The 62-year-old former Defence Minister’s persisting illness is now threatening to weigh heavy on the fortunes of his party as well as the BJP-led coalition government that he heads.

Parrikar returned from the US — for the third time in six months — after yet another round of treatment for advanced pancreatic cancer last week, but has failed to attend office.

The question of whether and who will replace Parrikar is still not a subject for on-record conversations for BJP leaders like state party General Secretary Sadanand Shet Tanavde and South Goa MP Narendra Savoikar, who insist that “there is no question of a change in leadership”. But in the sanctuary of an off-record conversation, there is anxiety, anguish and worry — both for Parrikar’s failing health as well as the gaining perception that the Goa BJP and the government are virtually leaderless entities.

There appears to be neither hope, nor a consensus, among the party’s senior leadership about who could potentially replace Parrikar for now, especially since his health is worsening, although the Chief Minister’s Office as well as BJP spokespersons insist that the ailing leader is recovering just fine.

Last month, perhaps Parrikar’s only peer in the Goa BJP in terms of longevity and acceptability among cadre, Union Minister of State for AYUSH Shripad Naik, made the first attempt to spark a conversation about “alternative leadership” in Goa, while conceding to a crisis. But within a matter of hours of his presser, a planned trip to Delhi to meet the party High Command by Naik himself and other top party functionaries was called off, after some leaders met Parrikar, who was admitted to a Mumbai hospital.

Since then, Naik too toes the line of “no question of leadership change”. Now that the cry for leadership change has been swiftly squelched, the question is now limited to sincere, but muffled murmurs among BJP leaders, who feel that political ground beneath them is slipping, in the face of a series of scandals — the inaction against those exposed for using carcinogenic agent formalin to preserve fish in a seafood-loving state and the never-ending mining ban and the seeming lack of effort by the state government to overcome it, being the two most significant.

It is not that there aren’t options.

One of the few propped up include Speaker Pramod Sawant, who Parrikar, ignoring protocol, had handpicked to lead the government during the state Independence Day parade.

Alliance partners Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and the Goa Forward Party have also been sounded out or have pushed for merging their legislative units into the BJP as a pre-condition for the top chair, according to sources.

Last week, Goa’s political circles were in a tizzy about former Chief Minister and Congress MLA Digambar Kamat — a favourite of the influential mining lobby — along with other Congress MLAs joining the BJP with the Chief Ministerial berth as a prize for the coup. But Kamat, who on a clear winter day in February 2005 quit the BJP to join the Congress complaining of “suffocation” within the saffron party, has now formally said that no such move was on the cards.

Former Goa Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Subhash Velingkar, who has groomed the top rung of BJP leadership, including Parrikar, Naik and state BJP president Vinay Tendulkar, blames Parrikar for the lack of credible second-rung leaders.

“He (Parrikar) has ensured that there are no second-rung leaders. Laxmikant Parsenkar (former CM), Rajendr Arlekar (Speaker) and Naik have been systematically sidelined, which is the cause of this crisis. Leadership change right now is imperative,” Velingkar told IANS.

One would wonder if Ganesh Chaturthi, with all its inherent symbolism, would usher in a new beginning for the BJP in Goa or, at least for now, clear up the obstacles.

(Mayabhushan Nagvenkar can be contacted at [email protected])

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