Cambridge Analytica path to 2019
by Sandhya Jain on 01 May 2018 16 Comments

In an assessment submitted soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s resounding victory in the Uttar Pradesh elections of 2017, the now controversial Cambridge Analytica observed that the Congress party needs emphatic wins in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to send out a clear message of change to the rest of India, giving it “winning momentum” in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Unsurprisingly, these are precisely the States where Congress is waging a no-holds-barred war with the BJP.


Titled, Indian National Congress: Data-Driven Campaign: The Path to the 2019 Lok Sabha”, the study advises Congress to make “radical changes to its campaign methodology and infrastructure if it is to reverse the formidable political current running against it. A ‘business as usual’ approach - or even a substantial increase in campaign spend using the same traditional methods - simply will not cut it”.


Regaining the initiative calls for: An in-depth understanding of the Indian people, what they really think and feel, what motivates and drives their behaviour, and their propensity for change; an invigorated leadership, brand identity and vision which captures the imagination of a dynamic but polarised and disillusioned nation, and offers a new narrative of hope and change; and effective, nimble and highly targeted communications capability which cuts through the noise with coherent, credible and consistent messaging which reaches audiences and has a measurable effect on their attitudes and behaviour.


Achieving this will require a robust data-driven campaign. Cambridge Analytica claims that its ability to model, segment and micro-target the population with personalised messaging catapulted Donald Trump to the White House, a fact acknowledged by Hillary Clinton. It assures that it can do the same for the Congress in the coming 18 months, at both national and state level, as it is accomplished in “behaviour change” campaigns.


The study shows a good grasp of the Indian political firmament. Of the eight State elections in 2018, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are identified as most significant, especially in the national campaign. The Congress’ rout in the 2017 UP elections has increased the stakes in Karnataka, which it won with a large majority in 2013, and fared well in by-elections in 2017.


The Karnataka assembly elections will focus around the Kaveri water-sharing dispute, drought relief, farm loan waivers, imposition of Hindi (strange) and the fate of minorities and “oppressed” communities (read Scheduled Castes). It notes that while some issues are state-specific, others like poverty and religious or caste conflict apply across the country. Amazing how charges of religion and caste-based prejudice have reverberated across the nation in recent months.


Analytica adds that the BJP, aware of Karnataka’s importance, had begun strategic research in all 224 constituencies in 2017, to identify issues, candidates and winning prospects. In UP, the party waged a ‘smartphone battle’ using big data and social media, and will use it on a larger scale in the technological capital of India, by launching Whatsapp groups to create echo chambers in all regions of the state. Congress must regain the initiative by ensuring that its campaign is fully data-driven and its communication is digitally-focused.


Madhya Pradesh, with 90 percent Hindu and 20 percent tribal population, has a large number of jobless, well-educated youth, and agricultural workers. The BJP has held the State since 2003, but currently faces challenges, mainly due to farmer unrest. The farmers’ movement (2017) showed the power of social media and mobile technology in mobilising movements and ideas in the countryside. Analytica believes that Congress has a real chance in Madhya Pradesh and should conduct a deep study to understand the grievances and motivations of the electorate and then micro-target people in rural areas.


Chhattisgarh is resource-rich and fast developing state, but has the lowest living standards and infrastructure development. Over 80 percent is rural and farmers are unhappy. Though the BJP has been in power since 2003, Congress has a better chance here, having lost recent elections very narrowly. Also, the decline in Maoist activity will stimulate higher voting in previously low turnout areas. Cambridge Analytica suggests that Congress collect data to understand the issues that will give it the edge in a 93 percent Hindu state, and alter national attitudes in 2019.


The 2014 general election was a disaster for the Congress; it won just 44 seats and lost even opposition status. It suffered loss of reputation due to allegations of corruption, disunity, sycophancy and nepotism, and the growing wealth gap and economic disparity. For 2019, Cambridge Analytica said that by November 2017 it would undertake a comprehensive review of Congress’s existing communications capability to project factors that will determine success in the pan-Indian context. It would complete a Data Gap Analysis, “designed to extract maximum value from your data assets, leverage third-party data, and use these resources to enable data-driven marketing and research”.


Between end-2017 till 2019, a complex National Data Infrastructure Project will help mount a powerful national campaign around “actionable” groups (that share similar characteristics and can be targetted accordingly) within the population so that Congress can develop a strategic communications plan tailored to the issues and concerns of each target audience.


The strategy will highlight the topics, policies and even the media channels that are best suited to resonate with different audience groups and segments of society, thus enabling Congress to take the right message to the right people, in 2018 and beyond, and make them go and vote (Get Out The Vote). Cambridge Analytica says it can give a special edge, as it did for President Trump, by predicting how voters think and behave, so they can be targetted: “Crucially, we will also identify which voters are likely to support the INC”.


For Congress, 2019 represents an existential challenge. Cambridge Analytica says it must rebrand and reorganise or struggle to survive as a major political institution. For a preliminary report, this is a competent analysis. However, after the data misuse scandal burst in London and Washington, and the Government of India demanded information on the use of citizen’s data, it is unclear if Congress and other political parties will use, or admit using, the firm in the State and national elections.


Certainly the advice to use high voltage campaigns to grab eyeballs across the country - stifling dissent, anti-Scheduled Caste bias, film Padmavat, Kathua murder case, judges appointments, impeachment of the Chief Justice of India, et al - have pushed the BJP on the back foot. It may have recovered in each case, but it is yet to seize control the narrative. 


(The writer is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library; the views expressed are personal)

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