Meet the advisors who helped make the BJP a social media powerhouse of data and propaganda

May 6, 2019

https://scroll.in/article/922371/meet-the-advisors-who-helped-make-the-bjp-a-social-media-powerhouse-of-data-and-propaganda

An excerpt from ‘The Real Face of Facebook in India’, which examines, among other things, whether social media platforms actively helped the BJP.

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By the time Rajesh Jain was scaling up his operations in 2013, the BJP’s information technology (IT) strategists had begun interacting with social media platforms like Facebook and its partner WhatsApp. If supporters of the BJP are to be believed, the party was better than others in utilising the micro-targeting potential of the platforms. However, it is also true that Facebook’s employees in India conducted training workshops to help the members of the BJP’s IT cell.Helping party functionaries were advertising honchos like Sajan Raj Kurup, founder of Creativeland Asia and Prahlad Kakkar, the well-known advertising professional. Actor Anupam Kher became the public face of some of the advertising campaigns. Also assisting the social media and online teams to build a larger-than-life image for Modi before the 2014 elections was a team led by his right-hand man Dr Hiren Joshi, who (as already stated) is a very important adviser to Modi whose writ extends way beyond information technology and social media.

Currently, Officer On Special Duty in the Prime Minister’s Office, he is assisted by two young professional “techies,” Nirav Shah and Yash Rajiv Gandhi. Joshi has had, and continues to have, a close and long-standing association with Facebook’s senior employees in India. In 2013, one of his important collaborators was Akhilesh Mishra who later went on to serve as a director of the Indian government’s website, MyGov India – which is at present led by Arvind Gupta who was earlier head of the BJP’s IT cell.

Mishra is CEO of Bluekraft Digital Foundation. The Foundation has been linked to a disinformation website titled “The True Picture,” has published books authored by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and produces campaign videos for NaMo Television, a 24 hour cable television channel dedicated to promoting Modi.

The 2014 Modi pre-election campaign was inspired by the 2012 campaign to elect Barack Obama as the “world’s first Facebook President.” Some of the managers of the Modi campaign like Jain were apparently inspired by Sasha Issenberg’s book on the topic, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. In the first data-led election in India in 2014, information was collected from every possible source to not just micro-target users but also fine-tune messages praising and “mythologising” Modi as the Great Leader who would usher in acche din for the country.

Four teams spearheaded the campaign. The first team was led by Mumbai-based Jain who funded part of the communication campaign and also oversaw voter data analysis. He was helped by Shashi Shekhar Vempati in running NITI and “Mission 272+.” As already mentioned, Shekhar had worked in Infosys and is at present the head of Prasar Bharati Corporation which runs Doordarshan and All India Radio.

The second team was led by political strategist Prashant Kishor and his I-PAC or Indian Political Action Committee who supervised the three-dimensional projection programme for Modi besides programmes like Run for Unity, Chai Pe Charcha (or Discussions Over Tea), Manthan (or Churning) and Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) that roped in management graduates to garner support for Modi at large gatherings. Having worked across the political spectrum and opportunistically switched affiliation to those who backed (and paid) him, 41-year-old Kishor is currently the second-in-command in Janata Dal (United) headed by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

The third team, that was intensely focused on building Modi’s personal image, was headed by Hiren Joshi himself who worked out of the then Gujarat Chief Minister’s Office in Gandhinagar. The members of this team worked closely with staffers of Facebook in India, more than one of our sources told us. As will be detailed later, Shivnath Thukral, who is currently an important executive in Facebook, worked with this team. (We made a number of telephone calls to Joshi’s office in New Delhi’s South Block seeking a meeting with him and also sent him an e-mail message requesting an interview but he did not respond.)

The fourth team was led by Arvind Gupta, the current CEO of MyGov.in, a social media platform run by the government of India. He ran the BJP’s campaign based out of New Delhi. When contacted, he too declined to speak on the record saying he is now with the government and not a representative of the BJP. He suggested we contact Amit Malviya who is the present head of the BJP’s IT cell. He came on the line but declined to speak specifically on the BJP’s relationship with Facebook and WhatsApp.

The four teams worked separately. “It was (like) a relay (race),” said Vinit Goenka who was then the national co-convener of the BJP’s IT cell, adding: “The only knowledge that was shared (among the teams) was on a ‘need to know’ basis. That’s how any sensible organisation works.”

From all accounts, Rajesh Jain worked independently from his Lower Parel office and invested his own funds to support Modi and towards executing what he described as “Project 275 for 2014” in a blog post that he wrote in June 2011, nearly three years before the elections actually took place. The BJP, of course, went on to win 282 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, ten above the half-way mark, with a little over 31 per cent of the vote.

As an aside, it may be mentioned in passing that – like certain former bhakts or followers of Modi – Jain today appears less than enthusiastic about the performance of the government over the last four and a half years. He is currently engaged in promoting a campaign called Dhan Vapasi (or “return our wealth”) which is aimed at monetising surplus land and other assets held by government bodies, including defence establishments, and public sector undertakings, for the benefit of the poor and the underprivileged. Dhan Vapasi, in his words, is all about making “every Indian rich and free.”

In one of his recent videos that are in the public domain, Jain remarked: “For the 2014 elections, I had spent three years and my own money to build a team of 100 people to help with Modi’s campaign. Why? Because I trusted that a Modi-led BJP government could end the Congress’ anti-prosperity programmes and put India on a path to prosperity, a nayi disha (or new direction). But four years have gone by without any significant change in policy. India needed that to eliminate the big and hamesha (perennial) problems of poverty, unemployment and corruption. The Modi-led BJP government followed the same old failed policy of increasing taxes and spending. The ruler changed, but the outcomes have not.”

As mentioned, when we contacted 51-year-old Jain, who heads the Mumbai-based Netcore group of companies, said to be India’s biggest digital media marketing corporate group, he declined to be interviewed. Incidentally, he had till October 2017 served on the boards of directors of two prominent public sector companies. One was National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) – Jain has no experience in the power sector, just as Sambit Patra, BJP spokesperson, who is an “independent” director on the board of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, has zero experience in the petroleum industry. Jain also served on the board of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which runs the Aadhar programme.

Unlike Jain who was not at all forthcoming, 44-year-old Prodyut Bora, founder of the BJP’s IT cell in 2007 (barely a year after Facebook and Twitter had been launched) was far from reticent while speaking to us. He had resigned from the party’s national executive in February 2015 after questioning Modi and Amit Shah’s “highly individualised and centralised style of decision-making” that had led to the “subversion of democratic traditions” in the government and in the party.

Bora recalled how he was one of the first graduates from the leading business school, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, to join the BJP because of his great admiration for the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. It was at the behest of the then party president Rajnath Singh (who is now Union Home Minister) that he set up the party’s IT cell to enable its leaders to come closer to, and interact with, their supporters.

The cell, he told us, was created not with a mandate to abuse people on social media platforms. He lamented that “madness” has now gripped the BJP and the desire to win elections at any cost has “destroyed the very ethos” of the party he was once a part of. Today, the Gurgaon-based Bora runs a firm making air purification equipment and is involved with an independent political party in his home state, Assam.

He told us: “The process of being economical with the truth (in the BJP) began in 2014. The (election) campaign was sending out unverified facts, infomercials, memes, dodgy data and graphs. From there, fake news was one step up the curve. Leaders of political parties, including the BJP, like to outsource this work because they don’t want to leave behind digital footprints. In 2009, social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp had a marginal impact in India’s 20 big cities. By 2014, however, it had virtually replaced the traditional mass media. In 2019, it will be the most pervasive media in the country.”

Bora is of the view that social media will “play a perverse role” in the 2019 general elections. He went to the extent of comparing the BJP’s IT cell with SIMI or the Students’ Islamic Movement of India, which has been banned by the government for its extremist character. At the same time, the founder of the BJP’s IT cell sees a silver lining in the dark clouds of disinformation that pervades the country’s social media. “Residents in these 20 big cities are now growing suspicious of social media,” he said, adding: “They no longer blindly trust everything that is put out on WhatsApp.”

Bora had left the IT cell and moved to Assam to work for the BJP by the time Nitin Gadkari replaced Rajnath Singh as BJP president. A Mumbai-based IT specialist, who is close to Gadkari, then played an important role in helping the party organise its internet and social media strategies. He was Vinit Goenka. Like Bora, he was loquacious in telling us how the party used Facebook and WhatsApp to spread the BJP’s agenda and boost Modi’s image.

Unlike Bora, however, Goenka remains firmly aligned with the party and particularly with his political mentor. He is a member of a task force on IT in the Ministry of Shipping and the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, both headed by Gadkari. Goenka is also a member of the governing council of the Centre for Railway Information System (CRIS) in the Ministry of Railways headed by Piyush Goyal.

At one stage in our interview with Goenka that lasted over two hours, we asked him a pointed question: “Who helped whom more, Facebook or the BJP?”

He smiled and said: “That’s a difficult question. I wonder whether the BJP helped Facebook more than Facebook helped the BJP. You could say, we helped each other.”

Having been a member of the party’s youth wing since 2003, with Gadkari’s prodding, Goenka joined the BJP’s IT cell in Maharashtra in 2008 to help “modernise” the party. His first successful initiative was to supervise the setting up of high-definition video conferencing facilities in different districts of the state to enable leaders like Gadkari to interact regularly with the BJP’s karyakartas (or party personnel).

He did not look back thereafter and rapidly expanded his operations across the country. By the time election campaigning started picking up in late 2013, he had put together a network of over 78,000 people who were fully engaged in aggressively promoting the interests of Modi and the BJP in rural blocks and urban wards in 29 states and seven Union Territories. Significantly, in each group, one person was deputed to focus on the social media, Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.

Goenka also played a key role in connecting BJP’s leaders with IT industry bigwigs, including Som Mittal and Rajendra Pawar and business associations like the Indo–US Business Council. He helped his party organise regular meetings with IT professionals and entrepreneurs. The meetings were called “Let’s Talk Governance” and held every Saturday at the BJP’s office at 11 Ashoka Road in central Delhi.

Speaking to us in his office in south Delhi, he recalled: “In 2012, the liberal media fiefdom broke with (the rise of the) social media. Politicians started interacting directly with their constituents. The period between 2012 and 2014 was a period when the Congress government was being exposed for corruption. (People’s) trust in the government and the media was falling…We started reacting to the media and started writing on the internet. Everyone was empowered. But we used…(the social media) better than others.”

Forty-six-year-old Goenka, who used to work with IBM and belongs to a Mumbai-based family that has been traditional supporters of the RSS, told us: “We made a network of NRIs (non-resident Indians) in the US and asked each one of them to call their contacts in India to participate in online activities including live chats, liking pages and participating in online groups on Facebook and WhatsApp.”

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