Psychographic Voter Profiling and End of Innocence for Indian Electorate

Psychographic profiling is a technique where people are profiled based on their behavioural pattern. Two people born with similar family background, and brought up in similar environemnt, may still display different personality traits with respect to value, attitude, interest etc. Market researchers have long tried to identify, understand and if possible, quantify number of people with certain traits. Such a profiling may help them to arrive at a strategy to create a market for their products and eventually sell them.

More innovative business groups have expanded scope of psychographic profiling technique to identify people who vote in certain way. In the process societal fault lines are identified along religious, ethnic and caste lines. Dormant fears of people are identified, and potential voters are messaged in a subliminal manner to arouse their base instincts and influence their decision making. One such company is Strategic Consulting Limited (SCL) which later became Cambridge Analytica. Foot print of Cambridge Analytica is found in bitterly fought election campaigns in the US, UK, Kenya, Nigeria to name a few. Almost all the campaigns were fought on  bitter divisive agenda where one community was pitted against other. Peoples fear and societal fault lines were explored and exploited.

Evidence has emerged that SCL and Cambridge Analytica had set up base in India. Did Cambridge Analytica influence Indian voters? If yes, for which party and when?  Congress party has blamed BJP for engaging the services of Cambridge Analytica before 2014 general election. On the other hand, BJP pointed finger at Congress party. Interestingly, both parties had rejected any engagement with Cambridge Analytica. However, the following evidence emerged :

It must be understood that statement of Christopher Wyllie does not absolve BJP of any association with Cambridge Analytica. More so, when Mr. Wyllie has claimed that JDU, an alliance partner of BJP in Bihar state, had engaged services of SCL. However, at this moment assertions of congress party spokespeople and its president, that congress party had never used services of Cambridge Analytica, stands exposed.

More I read about electioneering strategy employed by Cambridge Analytica in Kenya and Nigeria, I see uncanny resemblance to some recent Indian elections. It is possible Gujarat was a test case to be expanded to all over India? In Kenya and Nigeria, elections were fought on agenda where one community was pitted against other. Compare this to election strategy in Gujarat, where electorate was divided into segments of Patel, OBC, Muslims and others. Misinformation was spread on GST, demonetisation etc. Leaders visited temples and mosques. Church leader exhorted followers not to vote for certain party. There was a spring in the steps of so far reticent and uncomfortable political leader. All this, though no one has admitted, suggest clear imprint of a well designed and defined strategy. Take it forward in upcoming Karnataka election, a similar approach is being employed. Voters are being fragmented along religious lines.

Beyond politics of congress and BJP, broader question is what is wrong if a political party takes external advice to target its voters? Besides, every party tries to induce voter by promising job reservation, protection, cheaper food etc. Such a promise is generic and global. By profiling voter population, one can design custom made promise. Such a promise is harmless, provided, ofcourse, targeting does not arouse inherent basal instincts like fear, hate, jealousy in target population and create division.

A second important issue is how the data being acquired. Does a person know that he / she is being profiled? Even when a visitor to a site gives his / her permission for further processing of data, does he really understand the implication of such a consent? Does the person know if his / her personal information is going out of country, if it is changing hands, if it is being sold for commercial benefit? Data mined by Big Data companies may have the potential of using against an individual and community, whereby a population may be nudged towards buying certain products or to vote in a certain way. In a divisive setting, our caste, community, religious and linguistic identities may assume primacy over our Indian identity.

We know that caste based data was collected in India, may be to reach voters better by selecting right candidate or may be to exploit fault lines.  We still do not know if Indian voters were influenced by selective messaging or not. From now on, we should be wary of clicking on App buttons on social media space. We may inadvertently end up surrendering information which has the potential to be used against us. It appears, Indian voter has lost its innocence.





When Our Mind is Not Our Own

In the American TV serial House of Cards, it was shown voters can be manipulated through internet. It seems during actual US election, President Barrack Obama’s campaign team had used voter profiling to his advantage in 2012. However, no one has charged that voters were influenced to vote in a particular way. According to a report published “Although the Obama campaign in 2012 did target potential voters using information gathered from Facebook profiles, there were key differences. The Obama for America organization accessed voters’ Facebook information when they logged on to the campaign web site via Facebook. Obama supporters were given a permission screen in which they could approve or deny the request, which clearly came from the Obama campaign……… . While the Obama campaign essentially used data gathered from Facebook to create a digital hub of information about potential volunteers and voters to contact and mobilize

What is appearing in Indian case that voters were profiled and depending on profile of a voter he / she was subliminally messaged using a flood of adverts. No one knows how successful such approach was. Congress believes BJP won 2014 national election and 2010 Bihar state assembly election using  such an approach. BJP targeting congress to have used such a tactics of voter manipulation during recently concluded Gujarat poll. There is no doubt, both political parties were approached and offered service that would help them win election. Who availed the service, and for which election, remains unknown.

An article appeared around the time of Gujarat assembly election of 2017, that claimed that congress party was talking to Cambridge Analytica to create a buzz around Mr. Rahul Gandhi. It is not known if services of Cambridge Analytica was employed or not. It is however clear that congress party’s election campaign was different, party’s election slogans were catchy and Mr. Gandhi had a lot of fury behind his attack on Mr. Modi. Based on election results, it appears that strategy of congress party had worked. It also appears that big data companies will play a role in Indian election. Unless voters remain alert, our choices will not longer be ours. Like a drug addict, we shall be guided to choose whom we are directed to choose.

An article published in Times of India, compares a smart cell phone to a spy satellite that is directed against its own master. Based on all the sites we visit, all the apps we click everytime our friends detail are shared, we are giving access, to big companies that mine data, about details and preferences about our lives. Based on huge data that is collected, BIG DATA, collective profiles can be created and sold to potential customers for big money. More than money, a outcome of a national event of consequence can be changed. If psephologists can predict outcome of a poll by collecting data from barely 20, 000 voters, spread over constituences all over India, imagine what a company with concentrated access to tens of millions of data in one place can do. It is scary.



Technology Can Remove Corruption

I was reading this article on Sunday Times of India. One gentleman, Venkat Iyer, had to visit  Tehsildar’s office twenty six times to get a certificate declaring him to be a farmer. This certificate only entitles him to be a farmer. It is not a position of profit. Yet, he had to travel 26 times to meet local government officials to get his certificate. Every time he had spend 100 rupees of his own money. A total of 2600 rupees.

Question obviously comes, why does all the required documents, all counters at different stages of progress not mentioned in an idiot proof manner in the local office and on the net? Obvious answer is more the confusion, greater is the chance to make money. As Mr. Venkat Iyer says, most people do not visit 26 times, they simply pay up.

I had a similar experience a few years before, when I went to register my flat in Gurgaon. Fortunately, I had gone in a group with a representative of my builder. As I stood confused in the crowded chaotic room, I wondered how I would have fared if I went there on my own. May be I also would have been forced to pay a bribe to get my flat registered or keep on coming back till I had mastered the mystery of each counter.  On paper everything was transparent, computerised and online. But no one knew, except of course our intrepid representative from builder, which counter to approach first with which document.

One gentleman, not related to our group, had raised a voice about confusion. He was immediately shut up by some people positioned in key locations about how good the system was. May be he would have been beaten up, if he persisted with his protest for long. All this in the middle of Gurgaon district court.

I this context, I recall my experience in nineties before cell phone became ubiquitous. Those days we had to pay a visit to all powerful MTNL line men to get our landline phones fixed. This local supervisor was all powerful. He could assign person A’s line to person B, for a price, so that person B would make a long distance call and bill person A had to foot the bill. Then came cell phone revolution. Initially everyone grumbled. How cell phones were meant only for the rich and elite.  How cell phones owners showed their arrogance of money by flaunting their gadget. How a ringing cell phone disturbed an ongoing important meeting. Yet, today India has one of the highest density of cell phones. From my boss to my maid, all have cell phone. Cell phone companies have come up with a variety of plans to suit each and every budget and pocket. Today, my maid and the richest Indian Mukesh Ambani gets the same service, only their handsets differ. I do not have to beg a junior officer to have my landline fixed. Because I have alternative.


I think technology can make a lot of difference to improve life of common citizens. Only vested interest groups oppose access to technology, because it makes their nefarious business opportunities obsolete.