Compromising our democracy?

Cambridge Analytica

By Dr. D.K. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)

A few weeks ago, India was stung by an ‘expose’ that a foreign company, Cambridge Analytica, was data mining and manipulating electoral strategies and outcomes. It was followed by heated media debates between political parties. After the media and party spokespersons let off steam, the controversy seemed to die down. But if the outcry in the media of compromising our India were to be heeded seriously, the issue has longer and deeper significance for our politics, and therefore, it merits our continued attention and engagement.
After the ‘expose’ political parties as usual have jumped into finger-pointing blame game. Mud was slung between the NDA in Bihar namely JD(U), and BJP, and the Congress. Both accused each other of compromising our data security, making us vulnerable to foreign manipulation, and to top it all, compromising India’s democracy. What was worse, one of the parties gave 800 crore Indian rupees to the company to do these, all in the name of helping the “parties” win elections.
Let us recall the unsavoury episode and draw our lessons from it. Cambridge Analytica is a political consultancy in the UK. It was formed in 2013, as Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), which happens to be its parent company. In India, it operated as an Indian company called, Strategic Communication Private Limited with four directors on board — Alexander James Nix, Alexandar Waddington Oakes, Amrish Kumar Tyagi and Avneesh Kumar Rai.
The two Indians on Board provide the context for the controversy. Amrish Kumar Tyagi is the son of KC Tyagi, a JDU leader; He also runs Ovleno Business Intelligence, which works with Cambridge Analytica in India. Avneesh Rai, a freelance election consultant, got SCL to come and study a constituency he worked for. Dan Muresan, the SCL head of elections, came with three others including Alexandar Oakes from the Behavioural Dynamics Institute, UK; Oakes later became one of the founding directors of SCL, India. Rai was mighty impressed with Muresan’s strategy and findings on the constituency where Rai’s client candidate had lost Parliament elections in 2009. He kept in touch with SCL, UK.
The SCL team consisting of Alexander Nix and Dan Muresan came to India in 2010, and discussed with Rai and Amrish to begin working in India by expanding what Rai was already doing, mainly using his database for many States. Meanwhile, SCL worked for Ghana elections and Rai and Tyagi in data analysis etc. Having done Ghana, SCL – Nix, Muresan, Rai, and Tyagi went looking for clients in India. They met politicians from both BJP and Congress.
SCL had no formal client, but was keen to demonstrate what it was worth. During their preparation, it emerged they were keen to take money from the Congress but were planning to defeat it! Nix was keen on making money somehow, so did not refrain from two-timing. Meanwhile, they found a client in one Indian businessman in America who wanted Congress to be defeated in Gujarat elections.
Apparently, the contract did not materialise owing to differences in SCL, India, about the methods of interviews, and data saving in servers. Rai found out that the questions meant for Congress support were creating doubts and misgivings about the party. Apparently, he felt it unethical to take money from a client and work for its defeat, whereas Nix wanted to make money anyhow. The second point of difference was data storage. Nix brought some smart phones which were programmed to save the data in servers kept in US, not India. That amounted to stealing data.
Due to differences within SCL, between the UK team and Indian counterparts, their work did not take off. Rai claims that SCL work in India in 2003 for candidates, and 2010 in Bihar Assembly were added to lend credentials to SCL profile in India. These were not facts. Tyagi’s Business Intelligence continued to work with Cambridge Analytica, although Rai fell out with them and dissociated.
The latest buzz is that Cambridge Analystica had roped in a large Opposition party in India, allegedly, the Congress, for the 2019 elections. The Congress may have fallen for it, as Cambridge Analytica claims to have clinched the elections for Donald Trump through a targeted communication campaign. It is learnt that it “has chalked out a comprehensive plan for the Indian political party”. This is where the theory of paying Rs 800 crore fits in.
Obviously, the fact that Indian politicians may not be averse to using a election consultancy company that claims to have had success in Kenya, Ghana, US, and in some cases in India, may not be untrue. We have heard of ‘election guru’ Prashant Kishore claiming credit for BJP victory in 2014 Parliament elections and Nitish Kumar’s win in 2015 Bihar Assembly elections. His luck ran out in 2017, UP Assembly elections, when he tried to do the impossible, to secure victory for Congress, which has been a marginal player in UP politics for over quarter century. So, companies like Cambridge Analytica could be hired by Indian politicians and parties desperate to win.
What became unacceptable in India is the dubious style of the company like two-timing, and data stealing. It is believed SCL has 5.6 lakh of Indian data in its possession. Second, Christopher Wylie who replaced Dan Muresan in SCL, and later became the whistle blower revealed to the British House of Commons Committee that Muresan was ‘murdered’ in Kenya, perhaps for double-crossing. Third, SCL makes false claims and misuses names.
Apparently, BJP logo and party profile were found in SCL website although the party vehemently denies any links with the company. Likewise, it says it has Congress as its client, denying at the same time that their client was not a national party. He says, India is a big country, and SCL has had lots of projects in India. Yet, there are counter-factual versions that SCL never worked in India. It was shown that even Rahul Gandhi could have met SCL officials although the authenticity of the clip cannot be ascertained. Yet, the new found image of Rahul and their entirely new political strategy is attributed to SCL consultancy.
All in all, the company and its dealings are shrouded in mystery, and mired in controversies. The company has unethical style and non-transparent behaviour. It is accused of data laundering as they claim “data drives all they do”. They work mainly for right-wing parties and conservative ideas etc. The UK has banned their work. Why is India courting it?
The lesson we must draw from here is that we must be wary of a foreign company which can have access to sensitive data, can manipulate voter behaviour, cause friction and regression in our society. If it is an Indian company, they will have fear of retribution, not a foreign company. So, let us embrace nationalism in saving our data, our culture and our natural behaviour. Shall we? These sustain our democracy. It is the internal values that would make any democracy vibrant not any external influence.—INFA