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Meet the backroom boys who add a spin to election battles

Political consultants are mushrooming like never before. They offer package deals to clients, promising ‘voter swing’ and a ‘wave’ .

delhi Updated: Apr 12, 2018 10:38 IST
Manoj Sharma
Manoj Sharma
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Vivek Singh Bagri, founder of Lead Tech, with his team at his Gurgaon office.
Vivek Singh Bagri, founder of Lead Tech, with his team at his Gurgaon office. (Anushree Fadnavis/HT Photo)

The otherwise bare walls of Vivek Singh Bagri’s eighth-floor office has a framed quote by Rocky Balboa, the lead character in Hollywood action star Sylvester Stallone’s famous Rocky series of blockbusters: “Every champion was once a contender that refused to give up.” It is late in the evening, and Bagri is wrapping up the day’s business in his cabin that offers a panoramic view of Gurgaon’s glittering skyline. “The idea is to inspire my clients; we should all remember the biggest champions in any field were only contenders, to begin with,” Bagri says.

Bagri is not a motivational speaker. He is a chemical engineer-turned-political analyst, and his clients are political parties and candidates in the electoral fray. In the sleek, air-conditioned office of Lead Tech, his political consulting firm, in an IT park home to hundreds of IT/ KPO companies, he strategizes the campaigns of his clients to secure their victory. Helping him is a team of over a dozen young men and women — software engineers, researchers, data analysts and digital marketers.

“We specialise in increasing voter turnout through technological intervention; it is possible to increase it by five per cent. We develop apps that help candidates get real-time information flow during campaigning and polling on the fingertips,” says a soft-spoken Bagri, sitting at his desk with more than half-a-dozen brand new books on marketing research, social media analytics and voter behaviour.

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Prashant Kishor may be the most famous sultan of spin in the country’s electoral arena but his tribe has been growing fast in the past few years. According to an estimate by the industry body Assocham, there were nearly around 150 ‘political consultants’, big and small, in 2014. Industry insiders peg the current figure at 300 — and all of them have different tags attached to them: political consultants, campaign managers, political analysts and political strategists.

Saurabh Vyas (right) says he offers a 21-day package designed to create a 2-3% vote swing for his clients. (Anushree Fadnavis/HT Photos)

Like Bagri, many of them are IITians and management professionals who believe their corporate marketing mantras are equally relevant in the electoral arena. They offer deals to clients, promising ‘voter swing’ and a ‘wave’. Though most do not have any background in politics, they say they understand the dynamics of local politics and instincts of voters better than their clients.

Saurabh Vyas, 38, co-founder, Political Edge, another Gurgaon-based political consultancy, offers a 21-day package designed to create a ‘2-3% vote swing’ towards his clients. “This is part of our final punch; we achieve this by understanding and analysing the trends of the last phase, creating segmented strategies for different kinds of voters,” Vyas says. All four key members of the team, including Vyas, are IITians.“We also specialise in turning a client’s Facebook followers into ground workers. We have developed tools to analyse each post on the client’s Facebook wall and give a scorecard to each follower. The top-ranking followers are convinced to join the campaign.”

Read | Did Cambridge Analytica get your data? You’ll know soon

While the present controversy surrounding Cambridge Analytica, the UK-based political consultant, has made terms such as ‘psychographs’ and ‘voter micro-targeting’ part of the country’s political parlance, these home-bred political consultants say they extensively use data to drive election campaigns. Take this bit from the website of Polltics, a Delhi-based political consultancy. “Polltics uses advanced data analytics to identify groups of voters who share demographics, political beliefs, and lifestyle and uses this insight to create unique messages designed to resonate with them.”

Well, if that sounds like a Cambridge Analytica trick, the founder, Abhishek Shukla, 33, who has a background in informatics, is quick to clarify: “They have used people’s digital footprints without permission. We have our own qualitative and quantitative primary research methods to understand individuals, households and communities to drive a behavioural change in favour of our clients,” says Shukla, who is working with his clients in the upcoming Karnataka elections. “We are like bandwallahs; we go wherever there is an election to blow the trumpet of our clients,” says Shukla, who worked with market research companies before he set up Polltics in 2015.

These consultants say the Internet has turned elections into a different ball game and the candidates need them to meet the technological and social media challenges. Then, of course, there is the lure of the growing ‘market’: a total of 8,251 candidates contested the 543 Lok Sabha seats in 2014; about 4,853 candidates were in the fray for the 402 seats in the UP assembly elections last year. “An increasing number of candidates appreciate the importance of technology and hire us. If you have right references, it is not difficult to get business because politicians want to retain power at any cost,” Shukla says. While most consultants claim to have worked with some of the biggest names in politics, they say they cannot reveal the identities of their clients as they are bound by non-disclosure agreements.

The big boom, the industry insiders say, came after the 2015 Bihar elections when Prashant Kishor, the poster boy of the industry, switched from the BJP to JD (U) in Bihar, and a lot of people realised the business potential of political consultancies. But Shukla cautions: “Many of them are merely domain experts who want to make acquaintance with politicians; only serious players will survive after the 2019 general elections.”

Manish Jha, 34, who was a marketing professional before he set up Janadhar India, a Noida-based election management company, in 2015, says the new-age political consultants like him are trying to change stereotypes associated with traditional, cadre-based election campaigns .“For us, our candidate is a product, voters are customers, and a constituency is a neighbour-referral market where local influencers play a key role, especially in rural areas. Our work involves identifying and managing these influencers,” Jha says.

Most of his clients, Jha says, are first-time, tech-savvy independent candidates without any background in politics. “Our job is to turn them into a familiar face. We set up a ‘Jan Seva helpline’ where anyone can call them anytime for any kind of help,” Jha says. That idea, he points out, is to turn him into a Good Samaritan and get favourable coverage in the media much before the elections. “The calls are taken by our team members in our office, and the candidate contacts the caller directly and offers help,” he says.

But are the consultants willing to do dirty tricks on the opponents of their clients? Shukla says the only time he used a sneaky trick was spreading a rumour that one of the contenders in his client’s constituency had opted out of the contest. “We had a midnight meeting with this candidate in the UP election and tried to convince him to opt out, but he refused. Eventually, we spread the rumour. When the candidate, who was from the same caste as our client, realised that the rumour had spread like wildfire, he decided to opt out. Our candidate won by a narrow margin,” says Shukla. “The alliances and caste equation can undo our best-laid plans. At times, assembly elections are like a T20 match, and last-minute interventions can make or break a candidate.”

Hiring a political consultant can cost between Rs 10 lakh for an assembly seat and Rs 50 lakh for a Lok Sabha seat. So, do they get their full fee if their client loses the election? “Most of the fee is charged in advance. Our relations are affected only to a point. You cannot always legitimately blame your lawyer if you lose a case in court,” says Shukla.

A part of their job, political consultants, say, is to pop the bubble.

“After primary research, we tell a candidate frankly about his chances of victory. But, they always want to contest; keep contesting elections is their compulsion,” says Shukla.

Jha says while their clients trust them and give them a free hand, getting into the good books of the party workers is a challenge. “They don’t want anyone to corner credit for victory, so they resist us. One of our men was beaten up in the UP elections, not by opponents, but by the workers of our own client.”

Talking of the image of politicians, while Bagri says 90 per cent of them are hardworking and want to leave behind a legacy, Shukla has a different opinion: “About fifty per cent want to work for people, the rest just want to grab power for self-aggrandisement,” Shukla says.

Some of these political consultants, such as Bagri, have political ambitions of their own: “I will try my luck in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections,” he says.

Till then, Bagri will have Rocky Balboa’s framed quote for inspiration.