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Over dependence on data may have derailed Congress’s 2019 campaign

According to the functionaries cited, the Congress leadership relied too heavily on the numbers that were being generated and the inferences drawn from them.

india Updated: Jun 20, 2019 07:23 IST
Roshan Kishore and Sunetra Choudhury
Roshan Kishore and Sunetra Choudhury
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Congress,rahul gandhi,congress data wing
Congress president Rahul Gandhi with the party’s data analytics department chief Praveen Chakravarty.(Photo: Twitter)

The Congress party’s initial post-mortem analysis of its Lok Sabha election performance has pinned a share of the blame on purportedly faulty inputs from the newly-constituted data analytics department, senior functionaries familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.

The department played a key role in the direction and delivery of the 2019 poll campaign at multiple levels — focus on the Rafale jets deal as a sign of alleged corruption by the senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership; the timing of the Nyay income guarantee scheme as a medium to woo the economically weaker sections; and even the selection of candidates in some states — as the data provided by the unit was taken as an important guiding factor.

According to the functionaries cited above, the Congress leadership relied too heavily on the numbers that were being generated and the inferences drawn from them. So much so, that, as time passed and the elections drew closer, the findings of the unit started being treated as an Oracle by the party’s top leadership. More on this later.

“The data and outreach of the unit’s flagship Shakti platform started being used to make crucial decisions –issues to be highlighted, selection of candidates, even electoral tie-ups. Basically Shakti should have been an opinion-gathering tool, not the decision-making tool that it became,” said one leader who asked not to be named.

He pointed out that it was even used to greenlight the disastrous alliance with the Telugu Desam Party in the Telangana assembly elections in 2018.

“Eventually, in the light of what the data analytics team was telling us, the final tally of 52 for the Congress and 303 for the BJP came as a complete shock,” said another leader.

“We were being told it would be a far more even split; the BJP would halve its 2014 tally of 282 and the Congress would treble its 2014 tally of 44.”

The BJP raised its 2014 tally of 282 to 303 and the Congress ended with 52 seats.

It is in the wake of this large dichotomy between projection and reality that a significant portion of the early blame for the Congress debacle is falling on the department, which was among the first policy initiatives of Rahul Gandhi as the party president.

On February 5, 2018, less than two months after taking over, Gandhi tweeted: “Excited to announce a ‘Data Analytics’ dept under the leadership of Praveen Chakravarty to effectively use ‘Big Data’.” Rahul Gandhi later described the initiative as a “much-needed MRI for the party”.

Chakravarty, 46, is a former investment banker and researcher who has worked with several firms in India and the US. His first big test was the Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh election cycle in late 2018 — all of which the Congress won in direct contests with the BJP. In an interview with Hindustan Times before those elections, Chakravarty said the focus of his department was to “help the party evolve a much better ground game at the booth level” through launching Project Shakti, a database of booth-level Congress workers/sympathisers by their voter card numbers.

The heartland election victory raised hopes of the Congress in the run-up to the 2019 contest. It also raised the data analytics department’s stock within the party set-up.

RISING INFLUENCE

The rising influence of the unit was apparent when, in his first TV interview during the Lok Sabha elections on May 2, Rahul Gandhi told NDTV: “At least our data from the first four phases is showing that Mr Narendra Modi and the BJP are not winning.” Later in the interview, when asked about the efficacy of investing too much in the Rafale issue, he said, “We do it with numbers and we do our polling. When we started, less than 20% thought that Rafale was an issue… Our numbers are showing close to 67% people in India today believe that Rafale was a scam.”

While Gandhi didn’t explicitly reveal the source of these numbers, it appeared he was talking about data generated from Chakravarty’s department. Chakravarty was echoing the sentiment.

“After the first three phases, it is clear that the momentum is against the ruling party, and in favour of a change. Where will it actually end up in terms of seats is difficult to say. I see no reason why the momentum cannot continue in states which have a dual contest between the Congress and the BJP,” he told HT in an interview on April 28.

Chakravarty was also one of the main architects of Nyay, the minimum income guarantee scheme promised by the Congress in the 2019 elections. In an interview with India Today, he said the “Congress Data Analytics Cell worked day and night for four months on the idea to give it [Nyay] a shape.”

Another example of how inputs from the data analytical unit became crucial inputs in the party’s campaign strategy.

Anecdotal accounts and reportage suggested that Nyay was facing problems of both recognition and credibility among the people. Chakravarty, however, had a different view.

“You will be actually very, very surprised. Awareness about Nyay has increased and when people know about it, it does become an election issue to talk about. It is very clear for me from my polls that Nyay is the central talking point in states from the third phase onwards,” he said in the HT interview.

Chakravarty was also dismissive of pre-poll surveys giving an edge to the BJP in that interview. Three days before the exit polls were to be released, he tweeted, “As TV channels get ready to unleash exit polls once again on unsuspecting viewers, beware — 80% of exit poll seat predictions for all parties in large state elections since 2014 are wrong.”

PROJECTION vs REALITY

None of these claims could stand the electoral test. The BJP increased its 2014 tally, while the Congress performed nearly as badly as it did in 2014. Even in heartland states, which the Congress had won less than six months ago, it was decimated by the BJP.

The shock defeat has stunned the party’s senior leadership starting with the president, who reportedly does not wish to continue in the role.

While almost the entire party leadership has been asking Gandhi to take back his decision to step down, they have been much less charitable towards Chakravarty and his department’s functioning.The criticism includes allegations of the data collected being bogus to a non-transparent style of functioning.

A Huffpost report on May 29 cited an internal note submitted by a Congress general secretary alleging that 75-80% of Shakti registrations were bogus. On June 17, an Economic Times report quoted unidentified Congress sources as saying that not only was the Shakti database compromised by fake activists, but the entire functioning of the department was without any larger oversight within the party.

Congress functionaries told HT this week that Chakravarty’s work was sent directly to Rahul Gandhi’s office, and other people, including many who worked in the department, did not have access to the data collected by it.

To be sure, not everybody in the party is against Chakravarty. Manickam Tagore, an MP from Tamil Nadu, said that the Shakti platform was a beginning. “I’m going to use it [Shakti] now to thank the 5,000-odd party workers who are in my constituency who worked with me. It is not comparable to the BJP cadre but it is a beginning.”

TAKING STOCK

Chakravarty had also held that data collected by his department was not meant to be the sole factor in decision-making.

“I insist that what such initiatives basically provide are a lot more views and opinions than just a few people sitting in a room to make political decisions. But data is not the sole determinant of any political decision. It’s just one more seat on the table where people with different political opinions and experiences are sitting to decide on something. But we also have to acknowledge that at least now the view of the cadre is being taken into account, which sometimes brings things which the leadership might have overlooked,” Chakravarty told HT in the 2018 interview.

While the caveat that data was not meant to be the sole determinant in making political decisions might help the data analytics department and its head in fighting attempts within the party to put the blame for the disastrous electoral performance at its doorstep, it will not be enough for it to regain its pre-2019 stature. After all, Chakravarty and his department erred in providing even the mandated input in the Congress’s electoral strategy.

Chakravarty declined to comment on the allegations being levelled against him and his department, and dismissed such reports as “defamatory” and “mischievous” in a statement issued on June 17.

The statement also said he and his department continued to function from the All India Congress Committee premises. When contacted by HT, he declined to speak on the issue.

Experts said the problem was that the biases which data can have were not taken into account by the senior leadership.

“Data can be used by political parties to understand ground realities during an election campaign. But such data can have its biases. The Shakti data was basically collected from Congress workers, so it could have been biased in the party’s favour. What a political party needs to benefit from ‘big data’ type efforts is to have a campaign manager, who is not a data person, to decide what to make of it. The BJP, too, uses data, and on a larger scale compared to the Congress. The Congress probably didn’t have a way of filtering biases from its data and hence wisely shaping its campaign for 2019,” said Neelanjan Sircar, assistant professor at Ashoka University and visiting senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.

The BJP, for its part, said the Congress’s problem was bigger than its data “fiasco”. “The data fiasco of the Congress is a perfect example of what happens to a political party when it is cut off from ground realities, lacks connect with people, avoids the rigour of an organisation, and depends on hired professionals to revive its fortune,” said party spokesman Syed Shahnawaz Hussain.

First Published: Jun 20, 2019 05:30 IST