The London based big data analytics and political messaging firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA), has been in news recently for stealing user data from Facebook and other social media entities and using it to manipulate elections in different parts of the world. The greatest successes of CA to date have been the victory of the leave side in the Brexit referendum in UK and the election of Donald Trump as President of US, mostly because both the results were contrary to the prediction of mainstream punditry. From what’s publicly known so far, their means to secure a victory for those employing them includes psychographic analysis of the electorate, targeted messaging, peddling fake news, sowing hate and disharmony among different sections of the society, encouraging violence, bringing opposition politicians to disrepute through bribery, honey-traps and sting videos. For example, this is what they did during Presidential elections in Kenya last year.
But Kenya may not be the most vicious election campaign conducted by Cambridge Analytica. If we are to believe what is being reported in the media over the last few days, that honor might belong to India and our next general elections. It was first reported a few months back that the Congress party has contracted CA to manage its next Lok Sabha election campaign. Now, if you look back at it, Rahul Gandhi’s pronouncements on Twitter and other social media platforms since then have also become more sensationalist, trollish and irresponsible. You will also notice that his public behavior has increasingly come to resemble another prominent politician whose election CA had managed, President Trump. This has also coincided with a spurt of sectarian agitations in different parts of the country, especially in states where BJP is in power. Patels and Dalits in Gujarat, Dalits and Marathas in Maharashtra, Jats in Haryana, Rajputs in Rajasthan – there seems to be an unmissable pattern. Considering the kind of tactics employed by CA and knowing how low Congress tends to go to acquire power, it is important to ask if CA can manage a successful Lok Sabha campaign for the party.
For any election campaign to succeed, it is essential that it sell a convincing message to the electorate. And for a message to be sold convincingly, it needs to come from a credible messenger. Take the case of 2016 US presidential elections, for example. Mr Trump was a successful reality television host, a natural performer. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, on the other hand comes across as practiced and unconvincing. By her own admission, Clinton herself was mesmerized by Trump’s performance and forgot her lines during their election debates. He was an outsider challenging the entrenched establishment that was seen to be serving vested interests, rather than the people. Clinton was the quintessential establishment insider facing allegations of corruption and misuse of power for personal gains. Now consider Rahul Gandhi and his opponent, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Gandhi is the embodiment of Indian establishment. He is a part-time politician more interested in vacations than elections, a clumsy speaker who cannot inspire even the most hard-core Congress supporters, leave alone fence-sitters and floating voters. Modi, on the other hand, has an inspirational personal story of rising to the highest political office in the country from the depths of poverty. He is a natural in front of a crowd and commands immense respect from a committed base.
What worked for Trump the most was his message. He promised to bring back manufacturing and jobs, exit economic agreements that were unfavorable to the US, stop funding European armies through NATO and most importantly, to build a wall against illegal immigration from Mexico. This resonated with a large section that was still suffering the effects of an economic downturn. Unfortunately for Cambridge Analytica, Rahul Gandhi is just not capable of selling a similar message. He comes with a baggage that reminds Indian people of monstrous corruption scandals, promise of “garibi hatao” that was never realized and decades of socialist planning that only resulted in ever worsening disparities and a virtual elimination of economic opportunity. Rahul does not have a constructive agenda to place before the people. He seems convinced that constant personal attacks against Modi is sufficient to turn the electorate in his favor. In contrast to this negative messaging, Modi speaks of building a clean (not just hygiene but also financial), prosperous India where every one has the opportunities to make the most of his or her abilities. The Prime Minister almost exclusively speaks of the length of roads built under him, of the number of farmers insured, the number of towns that have become open defecation free, the number of villages electrified and of the number of jobs generated by his “make in India” project. Even the most effective salesperson would find it hard to sell the negative, regressive agenda offered by the Congress party under Rahul Gandhi against the aspirational agenda backed by results that Narendra Modi and BJP offer.
Another important ingredient that the previous successful election campaigns of CA had was an enabling socio-political environment, or what we call in India, the mahoul. In Brexit campaign and Trump election, the message was predominantly that of fear – of immigrants, job loss and Islamic aggression. Brexiteers promised to stop Muslim immigrants from entering the country. Trump promised to build a wall and ban Muslims from entering the country. A similar strategy of fear and hate is being adopted by CA in India too. Since stoking religious divisions will lead to a counter polarization against Congress, caste faultlines are being aggravated. Jats, Dalits, Marathas, Rajputs, Lingayats – prominent castes are being incited in every state. Add to the mix the farmer agitations, language wars, regional pride and north-vs-south divide. You have the perfect mix for social mayhem where everyone feels disaffected. This is probably the trickiest part of the challenge for Modi and BJP in the run-up to next general elections. How they manage to assuage these social tensions will be critical, if they are to succeed keeping away the forces that vowed “bharat ke tukde honge, inshallah“.
So, do I think Cambridge Analytica can work it’s magic in India? Of the 3 most important ingredients that I believe contributed to their success elsewhere in the world – message, messenger and mahoul – they are severely handicapped with the first two for their Indian assignment. Their succeed here will depend on their ability to whip up a conducive mahoul and whether Modi and BJP manage to counter these machinations in the next few months.