With the Kar­nataka elec­tions, democ­racy en­ters a new age in which the voter stands re­duced to a ro­bot

Governance Now - - FRONT PAGE - Ajay Singh

With kar­nataka polls, in­dian democ­racy en­ters the age of big data and mi­cro-tar­get­ing. aided by mon­ey­bags, the new par­a­digm re­duces the voter to a pup­pet

IWar rooms were laid out all over Kar­nataka, in starred hotels and plush houses. The BJP top brass was meet­ing at a home in the up­scale lo­cal­ity of mallesh­waram north-west Ben­galuru, those of the rul­ing congress at a sim­i­lar venue on cun­ning­ham road. A mot­ley crew of young pro­fes­sion­als – techies and MBA types, at home with gad­gets and jar­gon – pored over Ex­cel sheets and Pow­er­points on their lap­tops and large-size mo­bile phones. in an­other corner of the hall, a bunch of vet­er­ans dis­cussed voter feed­back gath­ered in the old-fash­ioned way of ac­tu­ally in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple. Were they nos­tal­gic about past bat­tles, and try­ing to re­call the lessons they had learnt in dusty ral­lies? Were they try­ing to come to terms with the new age of flam­boy­ant, tech­nol­ogy and data-driven elec­tion cam­paign?

At any rate, the mar­riage of pol­i­tics and big data has fi­nally hap­pened, not sur­pris­ingly in the tech hub of india, Ben­galuru. There have been elec­tions be­fore in which cy­ber tech­nol­ogy – es­pe­cially so­cial me­dia – played a ma­jor role, as in the 2014 lok sabha elec­tions. But, the first elec­tion in which the whole of the hi-tech ar­moury was de­ployed is the one that just ended – the Kar­nataka as­sem­bly elec­tions.

This was also the first elec­tions in India af­ter the cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica fra­cas hit the head­lines. This lon­don-based com­pany (which calls it­self ‘po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tancy’ and has a tagline that says ‘data drives all that we do’) is ac­cused to have il­le­gally har­nessed per­sonal data from Face­book, col­lected through the bait of a game, and used it for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses. To sim­plify, if a party (or a can­di­date) has a good idea of the po­lit­i­cal views and likes-dis­likes of as many vot­ers as pos­si­ble, it can use this in­for­ma­tion to fine-tune its own out­reach to vot­ers and in­flu­ence their votes. Though the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia pen­e­tra­tion in india is yet to achieve a crit­i­cal mass, it is get­ting there faster and faster, and

a new ploy like this can in­deed de­cide the out­come when elec­tions are won and lost over a mar­gin of a few thou­sand votes.

While l’af­faire Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica rang alarm bells for the law-en­force­ment agen­cies world­wide, it seems to have only in­spired new-age po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tants in india. They are also helped by the al­leged loop­holes in data and pri­vacy laws here.

if war rooms look like startup of­fices, that is no co­in­ci­dence; many are in­deed staffed and run by tech start-ups from Ben­galuru, delhi and Pune. Their techies and mar­ket­ing ex­perts have de­vel­oped tricks to get what­ever rel­e­vant data that can be gath­ered about as many vot­ers as pos­si­ble – and also apps to track any changes in vot­ers’ think­ing as the vot­ing day comes closer. Vot­ers’ phone num­bers and email ids too have been col­lected, not al­ways through le­gal routes. There are agen­cies avail­able for hire that will do all the mi­cro-plan­ning for the can­di­date – for the right price.

Big money meets Big Data

Which brings us to the se­cond as­pect of the twin at­tack on the gullible voter: funds. This was ar­guably also the costli­est elec­tion of its kind in india so far.

money and mus­cle power are now re­placed by money and data power – at least in our own sil­i­con Val­ley as yet. in place of so­cial en­gi­neer­ing, it is time for so­cial-me­dia en­gi­neer­ing. The Kar­nataka elec­tion marks a com­plete trans­for­ma­tion of in­dian pol­i­tics. it is to­tally un­recog­nis­able to those who watched can­di­dates slog­ging day and night, ad­dress­ing ral­lies and go­ing to as many homes as pos­si­ble, fold­ing their hands be­fore vot­ers and seek­ing their bless­ings.

if you have any doubt, con­sider this vi­gnette: a can­di­date walks into the war room of a na­tional party and de­mands ₹30 crore to counter his main ri­val’s ag­gres­sive cam­paign. There is no rea­son to be­lieve his de­mand was not met, and that would mean the par­tic­u­lar as­sem­bly con­stituency would have wit­nessed a spend­ing up­ward of ₹60 crore by any con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate.

Here is an­other vi­gnette: a can­di­date of a na­tional party is be­lieved to have told one of his sym­pa­this­ers that he had ear­marked ₹50 crore only for

his as­sem­bly elec­tion. In ef­fect, he was promis­ing to dis­trib­ute nearly ₹7,000-10,000 to each voter.

Kar­nataka was stink­ing with cash in this no­holds-barred bat­tle. so much so that when Atms in many parts of the coun­try went dry for many days in march, it was blamed on this elec­tion. iron­i­cally, the state’s most crit­i­cal po­lit­i­cal hap­pen­ing was mired in slush cash. dig­i­tal money was miss­ing.

Point­less blame game

Who is to be blamed? one can hear BJP lead­ers protest­ing as ve­he­mently against the congress as the congress against the BJP. Hd deve gowda and his son Hd Ku­maraswamy who lead an­other im­por­tant re­gional out­fit, Janata Dal (Sec­u­lar), were aim­ing to play the king­maker in the even­tu­al­ity of a hung ver­dict, and are not above blame ei­ther.

By the time you read this, the re­sult would be out. ir­re­spec­tive of who wins the Kar­nataka elec­tions, it marks the be­gin­ning of a new trend in pol­i­tics – the ten­dency to treat vot­ers like ro­bots who re­spond to a soft­ware pro­gram through re­mote con­trol. Vot­ers, in this scheme of things, are not sup­posed to be in­tel­li­gent enough to de­cide who to vote for. They are re­duced to pup­pets on strings, and armed with all the rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion about him or her, geeks were out to ma­nip­u­late their be­hav­iour. in any case, vot­ers’ in­tel­li­gence may not be a match for ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence backed by the razzmatazz of the money power. Pushed out of the agenda were all the is­sues that mat­tered to the ci­ti­zens (read the re­port in the fol­low­ing pages).

As you are now analysing re­sults for caste and re­gions trends, these code writ­ers and brand con­sul­tants are right now analysing which trick worked and which needs to be tweaked. For they are pre­par­ing for the big gam­ble next year.

democ­racy in its con­tent may re­main in­tact but it will be fla­grantly vi­o­lated in spirit. That is the essence of the

Kar­nataka elec­tion.

Vot­ers are no longer thought ca­pa­ble of ex­er­cis­ing their own judge­ment. Armed with data about them, po­lit­i­cal war rooms manned by techies out to ma­nip­u­late their be­hav­iour build a sphere of in­flu­ence around them, hop­ing it will make them vote the way a party wants.


Ashish Asthana


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