Backstory: In Karnataka, a New Poll Campaign Tool That Could Undermine Elections Forever

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

As the Karnataka electioneering enters its final phase, there is much that creates a strong sense of déjà vu. The Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct is observed more in the breach as well as the seizures of cash mountains, gold “biscuits”, silver artefacts, and liquor bottles. Then there is the grand prime ministerial finale, with all the flower petals in the world showered on one man. Karnataka too got its fill of Modi and marigolds. 

Every prime ministerial road show today is a sum of its parts – a modular design of moving pieces that fit smoothly into each other. Teams of runners keep up with Narendra Modi’s car only to overtake it at some point and post themselves along the road in the guise of “adoring citizens” chanting “Modi, Modi”. Hegemonic rulers are not born, they are created every living minute and then carefully projected on screens big and small across time and space. The communal sting in the tail in these elaborate tableaux is always reserved for the last. Initially, elections speeches are all about “development”, but it’s only a matter of time before the vidyut-raste-neeru (bijli-sadak-pani) narrative curdles into diatribes designed to stoke an inner devilment that soars over the Model Code of Conduct and goes against the grain in a state that has had a history of religious tolerance (‘Karnataka Doesn’t Have a History of Violent Communalism. Which Is Why BJP Has a Tough Time Here‘, May 2).

So this time, we have the incredible spectacle of a prime minister of the Republic of India urging voters to “Please cast your vote and do not forget to chant Jai Bajrang Bali when you exercise your franchise.” The presumption here is that every voter is a Hindu and every act of voting is a religious rite of passage. Every time something like this happens, you ask yourself whether a new line had been crossed in the conduct of Indian elections, or was that just another small inflection point that could perhaps be ignored.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election rally in Ballari, Karnataka, May 5, 2023. Photo: Screengrab via YouTube/BJP

There is a dimension that has emerged in this election, however, that should be seen as a new and disturbing trend: the aggravated use and abuse of voter data. Last November, the feisty news portal News Minute (TNM), in partnership with a Kannada language news portal Pratidhvani, broke a story on the illegal collection of the personal data of Bengaluru voters (‘TNM investigation: Armed with govt order, Bengaluru NGO steals voter data’, November 16, 2022). It was a remarkable story that won the TMM editor-in-chief, Dhanya Rajendran, the Chameli Devi Jain for Outstanding Woman Journalist, 2023. 

It went something like this: a private NGO was collecting details from unsuspecting city residents about their caste and linguistic profile, their age, gender, marital status, as well as their educational and employment status. There’s more, they were asked for their Aadhaar number, their phone number, their address and their voter ID. There’s more, they were requested to reveal their thoughts on what they thought of the performance of their elected representatives, and so on. Who was this NGO? Going by the name of Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Institute, its employees with fake ID cards were allowed to go about their data theft spree under the writ of the Bengaluru municipal body, the Bruhan Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), on the pretext of conducting a fake voter education drive. 

It needed the months-long investigation of these two news portals to stir the mighty Election Commission of India into action. A probe was conducted into the workings of Chilume and the report this April had some jaw-dropping findings. The Wire republished TMM’s report on the investigation (‘Probe Finds Private Trust Collected Bengaluru Voter Data Illegally and Stored in Foreign Servers’, April 18), showing how the BBMP gave active support to the project, fending off all criticism of the organisation. A link between Chilume and a BJP Minister C.N. Ashwathnarayan, was also established. Four electoral registration officers in Bengaluru were found to have issued fake ID cards to the NGO’s field workers and the data collected was presumably stored in servers located outside India. It was an amazing story that provided a glimpse of the unsavoury nexus between those in power; institutions like municipal bodies; associates of the Election Commission; and criminal-minded intermediaries who come up with innovative stratagems to game the field. 

The clincher comes in a recent Deccan Herald expose, ‘Karnataka MLA’s Texts With Details of Voters’ ID Cards Deepens Electoral Data Concerns’ (The Wire, April 29), which pointed out how BJP MLA, C.N. Ashwathnarayan (yes, the very same man named in the Election Commission investigation), who had won in 2018 from the Malleswaram assembly seat, has been able to dispatch messages to voters in his constituency, with data not just of their voter ID card number and booth number but the names of their relatives as well. The Deccan Herald report took care to point out that candidates can procure details of electoral rolls in image format from the Election Commission, but it is not supposed to share even mobile numbers of voters. 

How widespread are these breaches of privacy can be gauged from recent tweets put out by a journalist based in Bengaluru: 

“Yesterday I got another call from +91 744 717 9514, where an automated Kannada message correctly identified my constituency, named 3 candidates + “others” & asked me which of them I would vote for. And which party I voted for last time. This is nuts!”

“I got a call now with a recorded message from “News7” asking who will I vote for: BJP, Cong, JDS or AAP. If I did give my choice, my voting preference will be against my mobile number, that’s in turn connected to my address etc #KarnatakaElections2023 @ceo_karnataka @ECISVEEP”

Data thieves seem to get away with the presumption that these gross incursions into privacy will not hurt them and while a few voters may be aware enough to complain about it to the authorities, most would regard the breach as yet another sign of the politician’s clout. According to a news report carried in The Hindu, this deferential attitude may be changing. It quoted a businessman who was very annoyed by an AAP canvasser, despite his number being on the do-not-call mode. Some of these calls came from sources named as “Election Commission” and asked receivers to punch in a number to indicate voter preference. One particular call ran a bit of the Mallikarjun Kharge speech that called Modi a snake and followed it by a pre-recorded message asking whether anyone should vote for a party that insults the PM thus.

While the Congress is catching up in weaponising data theft for electoral purposes, the BJP and Sangh parivar have always been masters at this game – right from the days of their Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi campaign in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was fuelled by targeted and extremely effective messaging through videos and cassette tapes. The faithful WhatsApp has over the past decade proved indispensable for electioneering and still is. B.L. Santhosh, BJP general secretary for Karnataka, reminded cadres in the state that it was WhatsApp that ensured the party’s success in the 2018 Karnataka assembly election and this time too, only this app will help reach the last voter in every booth. 

Yet we are coming to a point when AI will allow parties to game the field in ways that we now perceive as unimaginable and be the secret ingredient in the electioneering recipe. Deep fakes will just get deeper and my bet is that it will be the BJP, with its unlimited coffers, that will once again prove the most adept at weaponising it.  

A tweet put out by Amit Malviya, the legendary head of the party’s IT Cell, on May 4, indicates that the tool is currently in use: There is huge demand for uploading pictures and request to keep the Mann Ki Baat module on NaMo app active. Accordingly, both the module and the link have been reactivated. You can continue to upload the pictures of the programs. We will start the AI processing after all pictures have come in…”


Free Media: Scrutinising India’s record

When news came in on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, that India is now in slot 161 in terms of media freedoms – among the bottom 20 countries in a list of 180 – it came as a sharp reminder that the media narrative in this country is being set from an area of a few square kilometres that comprise Raisina Hill. It is from here that laws and orders are conceived and passed which impact the entire media universe; it is from here that a bureaucratic cabal surveils information put out by media houses; it is from here that media houses across the country are controlled and the entire template set. The fate and future of India’s gigantic media presence, which includes over one lakh publications and nearly 1,000 private satellite television channels, hang on the decisions made within these few square kilometres. This is also possibly why, according to the Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) press freedom index, that is published every year on May 3, the Indian Press is described as a colossus with feet of clay.

This year’s RSF Report makes five important observations about India. One, since last year, it has declined 11 notches in the index. Two, oligarchs close to the prime minister have jeopardised pluralism in ownership through their takeovers. Three, an army of supporters track online reporting and wage horrific campaigns against sources, forcing journalists to take recourse to self-censorship. Four, the rapid effect that the digital ecosystem’s fake content industry is having on press freedom is conspicuous. Five, at the national level the central government exploits the anxiety of media houses to gain government advertising in order to impose its own narrative and is spending more than 130 billion rupees a year on such advertising.

India’s decline in the index has been unprecedented. This volatility, according to the RSF Report, is also the consequence of growth in the fake content industry, which produces and distributes disinformation and provides the tools for manufacturing it.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty


Mind your hate speech!

Since the Government of India is anxious to check hate speech by attempting to take upon itself the role of fact checker-in-chief through an amendment to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, it may be interested to learn about some recent complaints against hate speech in the media. 

Three complaints were filed against the India Today Group with the News Broadcasting Digital & Standards Authority (NBDSA) for its reporting on the LGBTQIA+ Marriage Equality case, for violating Broadcasting Standards pertaining to accuracy, neutrality, objectivity, good taste, decency and Guidelines on Reporting Court Proceedings.

The Free Speech Collective in its April 29 statement noted some specific complaints: 

*In a follow up tweet, Jeet, part of the Yes, We Exist community, said that “AajTak maliciously misquoted the Chief Justice of India, amplified Government’s false claim that Marriage Equality is an Urban Elite issue, spread stigma against LGBTQIA+ people and used images & videos of several LGBTQIA+ people without their informed consent.”

* Yet another complaint against Sudhir Chaudhary of Aaj Tak (India Today Group) was filed by the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP). The CJP wrote to the NBDSA raising concerns over a show aired on Aaj Tak on April 6 hosted by him. The CJP report says that, on his show ‘Black and white’, Chaudhary launched into a monologue on “illegal” mazaars (graves) found on government land in Uttarakhand, especially forest land for which the producers of the show also carried out a ‘ground report’. However, CJP pointed out in its complaint that the host and the channel “missed the bus on getting their facts right while stigmatizing the Muslim community by labelling them and referring to them in a denigrating manner.”

* In March, the Press Council Of India (PCI), which is a statutory self-regulatory body set up by an act of Parliament, passed a strong order of censure against Kannada newspaper Vijay Karnataka for a hate speech report published on March 28, 2020, entitled (translation) ‘All Those Who Have Died from Corona Are From The Same Community – Why Do They Still Come Together In The Name of Prayers?’ The PCI order came after the Hate Speech Beda (Campaign against Hate Speech) group in Karnataka pursued a complaint against the newspaper for nearly two years. Earlier, the group’s complaints against egregious, hateful reportage by the news media resulted in censure of the Star of Mysore newspaper by PCI. 


Readers write in…

Learning to speak out like Satyapal Malik

Mohammed Shuja Ahmaed, from Kullu, sent in this mail: “It is with great admiration and belief in the columns of your news channel I seek to bring to your notice that our country is going through an alarming situation due to emotional threat, religious politics, social threat and many other issues. As I was browsing on the net randomly I came across The Wire YouTube channel and found an interview of Satyapal Malik by Arfa Khanum which was based on political and social issues. I found that Satyapal sir gave fearless answers and was very transparent with the facts (‘In 2024, Narendra Modi Won’t Be Prime Minister, We Will See a New PM: Satyapal Malik’). I am shocked that I was not aware of this news channel as I usually watch ABP NewsAaj Tak and Zee News, which is full of unnecessary information that misguides innocent people and creates a mob mentality. Anyway, I am not here to prove anyone wrong because I believe in the line: “Instead of proving anyone wrong, we should dare to correct them.” I am an agricultural scientist and did my research work at ICAR, New Delhi. Currently, I am the Seed Production Research Manager, at Kullu Research Station, working on 20 hybrids of vegetable crops. Every day I listen to the problems of our farmers, poor innocent people, and use my research to plug gaps in research methodologies. My free time is devoted to working on real-life problems. I believe that we in this country should understand the importance of being human. I believe every religion advocates softness, humbleness, and the importance of being human and educating oneself. I hope The Wire would help me communicate my thoughts with ordinary people, fearlessly and transparently like Satyapal Malik sir. Jai Hind!”

Satya Pal Malik. Photo: The Wire


Sri Lanka, withdraw this bill!

Dr. Roshmi Goswami, co-chairperson and Dr. P. Saravanamuttu, Bureau Member, South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of Human Rights Defenders, petitioned the Sri Lankan government to withdraw its proposed anti-terrorism bill (excerpts): “SAHR perceives the newly gazetted Anti- Terrorism Bill’ (AT Bill) as a deplorable act on the part of the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) against the democratic values that shape the nation. Civil society has vehemently opposed this proposed legislation which is referred as a continuation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1979 in a much repressive form’. Political parties of the opposition, lawyers, academics and civil society activists at national and international levels have strongly criticised the AT Bill demanding it be withdrawn immediately.  SAHR believes that this Bill violates the strict standards of human rights. The content of the proposed Bill, if enacted, will greatly impact fundamental freedoms of all people in an irreversible manner…

“SAHR strongly urges the Government of Sri Lanka to immediately withdraw the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill. It also calls upon the Government to repeal the PTA immediately and release prisoners arrested under PTA, still languishing in prisons without charge. SAHR reiterates that public participation is crucial in rebuilding the country, especially during this critical economic crisis.”


Karnataka observations

Bengaluru resident Doris K. Raj writes in: “Full justice has been done by a Wire founder-editor through his election tour of Karnataka. The article, ‘A Congress Win in Karnataka Can Spur Opposition Unity for Lok Sabha Polls’ (May 5)  provides a much-needed agenda for opposition unity.” 


END NOTE: A founder-editor of this news portal put out this tweet after the PIB Fact-Check Unit wrongly classified a Wire article as misleading (see ‘PIB Fact-Check Unit Claims Our Article on Its Work Is ‘Misleading’. Five Reasons Why It Is Wrong’, April 21): “The PIB’s latest “fact-check” which wrongly classified The Wire’s article as ‘misleading’ makes it clear the recently amended IT Rules – which seek to compel intermediaries to take down ‘fake’ or ‘misleading’ news – are an attack on freedom of the press.”

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