New Delhi: Sitting cross-legged on a revolving chair with a small table kept in front of him, Ayush Singh (name changed) first types on his laptop and then writes something down in his diary. His face lights up as he opens various newspapers from Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Haryana.
“This is so interesting,” he exclaims and calls his manager.
“Can you imagine, there is not even a single piece [of news] in all these papers about the Alwar lynching. I am not able to understand why,” Ayush questions his manager with astonishment.
While the manager, a young fellow clad in jeans and shirt smiles, Ayush’s counterpart shouts, “They are BJP ruled states. The media there won’t defame the party. In any case, the BJP has nothing to do with lynchings. It is good they haven’t carried such biased reports like the English media does.”
After the brief discussion, everyone returns to work – which goes on from 9:30 am to 9:30 pm almost every day.
Ayush, who is from Haryana, recently moved to Delhi, after he got a job with a company which calls itself a ‘political consultancy’. The job, which pays him Rs 25,000, requires him to work 12 hours a day, six days a week. With the elections drawing closer, sometimes, it entails 14 hours a day, and working on Sundays as well.
But Ayush is happy. “The ambience is good and so are the people. Even the job is not tough. I just have to read newspapers, watch TV debates and after finishing all this, I track the Twitter handles of journalists,” says Ayush, whose new office is at 11, Ashoka Road – the former headquarters of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Now converted into a full-fledged war room for the 2019 general elections, the office provides him with many perks, including four squares a day. While he did complain about the quality of rice and dal, he apparently loves the meals prepared without onion and garlic.
Around 200 people are working on a 360-degree campaign, targeting more than 300 million voters, inside the already operational ‘war room’. This number is likely to increase to almost 500 in the weeks to come. The office space comprises ten large and small rooms with dozens of computer terminals and laptops installed where volunteers and professionals appear deeply engrossed in the tasks assigned to them.
The employees in the ‘war room’ – hired by two different ‘political consultancies’ – are mostly journalists, lawyers and graduates from IITs and IIMs. Various wings of the war room are deployed in different tasks to hone electoral strategies for future polls. For instance, one wing analyses the last available voting data (of state and central elections over the last few years), gauging popular mood and accordingly reaching out to people on different digital platforms.
In another team, one of the campaign managers is talking to a volunteer in Madhya Pradesh to learn of the latest situation about Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s recent political gathering; another is busy uploading pro-BJP content on social media.
Interestingly, there is one group of employees – almost 100 in number by now but expected to increase to 250 soon – that is performing just one task, that is scouring the media to see who is ‘pro-BJP’ and ‘anti-BJP’.
The Excel-sheet and its pro-BJP and anti-BJP category
So why are you doing this, I ask Ayush who was trying to finish some work before he could grab lunch.
“We were never given a reason for this. What I was told by the employers was – the job is for 12 hours, during which, my task is to read newspapers for first four hours, then watch TV debates for the next four. In the meantime, I also track the social media handles of journalists and in the evening, around 8 pm, a ‘sir’ with grey hair comes for a meeting in which we describe to him what we have ‘analysed’ in the day,” he says.
Ayush wasn’t able to name anyone senior in the team except his own manager who, he says, does the same job but on a bigger level.
“You know the extent of joblessness. I am a postgraduate in journalism and have been working for the last eight years. Still, [Rs] 25,000 is the highest salary I have received till now,” says Ayush.
He also reveals how a journalist with 17 years of experience was hired by the consultants for the same salary. He too joined because he was unemployed and now does the same tasks: reading papers, watching TV and then tracking the Twitter handles of hundreds of journalists shortlisted on national, regional and local bases. According to Ayush, the list has the names of hundreds of journalists, editors and writers.
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“Last Wednesday, I reported in the excel sheet about a journalist tweeting too many anti-BJP and anti-Modi posts. She is now in the ‘prime list’ and is being ‘tracked’ the most,” says Ayush who is also preparing a list of local journalists in the states which are assigned to him.
“The local journalists will give us a feel about the mood and air among the voters. Sometimes, even to know the figures [number of attendees] and statements [who says what] at political rallies, we rely on these journalists,” he added.
I manage to speak to the media head of the ‘consultancy’, Infocrunch Analytics, a newly born firm set up in April 2017 with barely a few months of experience in the trade. What he said was no different from what the others had to say: “I was asked to hire 250 people, including media analysts and media managers. Every manager will have 10 to 15 media analysts under him and everybody’s job is to track the media.”
The Excel sheet prepared by the ‘consultancy’ has columns for brief of the news, the newspaper’s name and in which city it was printed . It also has a category called ‘sentiment’ in which one has to fill either pro-BJP or anti BJP.
In the Excel sheet for TV tracking, the analysis contains information about the anchor and her or his stand, whether it is pro-BJP or anti-BJP. It also has various columns in which the analyst has to mark the panelists and spokespersons of various political parties on the basis of their homework and dominance during the TV debates.
As for analysing TV bulletins, the media managers keep in mind the various news pieces in every bulletin and their sentiments.
“If, for instance, India Today is showing various updates on lynching in every prime time bulletin and even in the regular ones, it is clear that the channel’s stand is to glorify news which is anti-BJP. We mark it the same way. The important part is that we are also tracking the regional channels in West Bengal, the North East and in other states to know which way they are inclined,” says the manager.
My question remains the same, what is the need for all of this?
“We have no idea about it. We were asked to create a team and we have created one. They have asked us to do this, we are doing. What the BJP will do with this information, I personally have no idea,” says the manager who cut short the discussion and claimed that sharing any more information was out of his jurisdiction.
The secrecy of the project can be gauged by the fact that the employees were informed of their office’s postal address only on the day they were to join the organisation. Even during the interviews these junior analysts and media managers gave, the candidates were not told who they would be working for.
Along with data analysis, a touch of superstition
Curiously, all of this frenetic activity is happening not at the BJP’s new headquarters on Deen Dayal Upadhayay Marg – inaugurated by Modi in February 2018 – but at the Ashoka Road premises that the party was supposed to have vacated. There is, in fact, a Supreme Court order that political parties move out of the Lutyens Bungalow Zone.
Speaking to The Wire, Arun Singh, national general secretary of BJP, accepted that the party hasn’t vacated the Ashoka Road bungalow till now. Asked why the party had turned the premises into its war room despite telling the media that they would hand the bungalow back to the government, Singh said that he would not like to comment on the matter.
Last month, the Hindustan Times quoted an unnamed BJP leader as saying the old premises would be retained for superstitious reasons. “[There] is a feeling among some members of the party that the new HQ has not been lucky for it and that the war room for 2019 shouldn’t be located there,” the newspaper reported the leader saying.
The Hindustan Times report also suggested that BJP leaders were referring to the party’s failure in the bypolls in Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana in Uttar Pradesh and its subsequent inability to form the government in Karnataka after the recent assembly elections. The ‘bad luck’ continued with BJP as the party had to withdraw support to the alliance government in J&K and lost the Telugu Desam Party as an ally in Andhra Pradesh. Even its relations with Shiv Sena touched a new low after the party headquarters was shifted to Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg.
What others have to say about it
Ghanshyam Tiwari, spokesperson of Samajwadi Party, expressed shock and concern on the hiring of such a large number of people as third party, only to monitor media.
“Parties should naturally track issues. When the parties, especially those in power start tracking individuals and media organisations, then, eventually it will lead to a threatening situation and a stifling of voices, especially on social media. And you know that all the journalists in India, especially those who are not in complete favour of BJP and especially women journalists, are being trolled,” he said.
“We don’t have any kind of tracking at the level of journalists or media houses, we have our ears on issues that play out and we have our people on ground to tell us all this. So obviously, there is no need to hire such a big team for media monitoring,” added, Tiwari.
Congress MLA from Haryana, Randeep Singh Surjewala, insists the Congress would never indulge in ‘such an extensive media tracking’. For him, all this is being done to fulfil the BJP’s objective of creating a surveillance state.
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“Subjection of opinions, trolling of dissenters and at times physical assaults against those who dare to disagree. That is in the DNA of the ruling government. The Congress is strictly against this kind of media tracking. Neither have we indulged in such malpractices, nor will we ever do,” he added.
When asked if the BJP is maintaining this data to get a sense of the issues and problems of particular areas, Surjewala says, “There is a clear difference between being aware about what is happening or issues affecting the people and tracking those who write against the PM or the ruling BJP in any manner.”
He added, “Our knowledge is that the BJP has hired a number of firms who even track how many times the prime minister’s name is taken in print. What is the need for this? All this is meant to suppress and subjugate.”
BJP’s spokesperson Anil Baluni said he had no idea about this media tracking cell and refused to comment on the issue. Bhupendra Yadav, general secretary BJP also refused to comment.
Amit Malviya, BJP’s IT Cell head and a visible face on television debates, told The Wire he would not be able to weigh in on the matter as he is not authorised to talk to the media.
Ishita Mishra is is a UP-based journalist.