Home World Jobless engineers, MBAs: The hidden army of Indian election ‘consultants’ | India Election 2024

Jobless engineers, MBAs: The hidden army of Indian election ‘consultants’ | India Election 2024

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Jobless engineers, MBAs: The hidden army of Indian election ‘consultants’ | India Election 2024

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“How many tennis balls can fit in a passenger plane?”

Neeraj, a young economics graduate from the premier Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), was given 15 minutes to solve this question during his interview rounds at Nation With Namo (NwN), one of the in-house political consultancies of India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

He got the calculation right and joined a small team of graduates from India’s top universities who were dispatched to the eastern state of Tripura to conduct surveys, collect and analyse voter data for elections that were due in February last year.

Their job was to identify who was not voting for the BJP, separate them into demographic cohorts – age, gender, caste, tribe, religion – find a common concern, issue or fear and strategise how to exploit that in the BJP’s favour. And they were to do all this while staying under the radar.

“All of us who go through the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) are good at solving problems,” said Neeraj, who asked for his name to be changed as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

Admission to most of India’s top government-funded engineering, law and management colleges is through all-India exams. Millions of students take these exams, including the JEE for admission to 23 IITs, but only 2-3 percent make it to the premier institutes.

Neeraj is one of few who made it, and is now in the league of hundreds of graduates from India’s top engineering and business schools who have in recent years joined political campaigns, usually for short stints while they wait for lucrative corporate job offers.

An engineering degree from an IIT, whose alumni include Google CEO Sundar Pichai and former Twitter CEO Parag Agarwal, or an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, the alma mater of PepsiCo’s ex-CEO Indra Nooyi, are markers of excellence and used to be a guarantee of a good job. But that promise has been rescinded with campus recruitment drying up over the past few years and layoffs, especially at tech firms, surging.

The ability of these graduates – readily available – to manage and analyse enormous amounts of voter data makes them a valuable resource for political consultancies. The latter’s market size, estimated to be about $300m, is set to grow with individual candidates and national and regional parties looking for their expertise.

To attract graduates from these premier institutes, most political consultancies offer fellowships, and though the jobs are contractual and short-term, usually from three months to three years, they pay well, come with perks and the promise that their work will “shape the future”.

“There’s also the attraction of being close to power centres in some way,” said Ankit Lal, a computer engineer who runs a political consultancy firm, Politique Advisors, in Delhi.

In the small state of Tripura, where the BJP was seeking re-election, voter data culled and analysed by Neeraj and others in the NwN team showed that the party was in a comfortable position in the north. But in Amarpur constituency, home to a few tribal areas including Chabimura, voters were leaning towards other parties.

From Tripura’s capital Agartala, the long, winding route to Chabimura – first by road and then by motor boat on the Gomati River — passes through moss-covered hills with 16th-century sculptures, legends about pythons guarding treasures in caves, and years of poverty and neglect.

For centuries, members of the Jamatia tribe, who speak Kokborok, a Tibetian-Burmese language, have lived in this remote, rain-fed area known as the “Amazon of Tripura”.

In Chabimura, Neeraj’s field survey found a cohort and a solution. There were a few dominant Jamatia families, and impressing them, he figured, would have a trickle-down effect on tribal voters in the area.

“They are quite poor and all they wanted were boundary walls around their houses,” Neeraj said.

Two to three days after he made a recommendation to the BJP’s state leadership, four-foot high mud boundary walls were constructed with great urgency about 80 houses belonging to members of the Jamatia tribe. For added incentive, pairs of male-female goats were herded inside these boundary walls, which also became a canvas for party propaganda. Portraits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the state’s chief minister and the local candidate were painted on them.

BJP’s Tripura spokesperson did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

The BJP, which had been in power in the state for five years, could have had these walls constructed at any time. But in a country where 800 million people survive on free or subsidised food grains, a pair of goats and a boundary wall are life-changing favours that earn gratitude and votes.

“In politics, vote is the only currency. Everyone has just one vote across the country. How each person spends that vote, all our effort goes into that,” another IITan, who has also worked for NwN, told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity.

Bribing voters is a crime and a poll violation that can lead to a prison sentence and the election being nullified. But with the party hiring a vendor for the construction and not being directly involved, there’s deniability and proving the charge remains a matter of investigation.

The BJP candidate won the Amarpur seat, beating his nearest rival from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) by a narrow margin.

Polling officials carrying electronic voting machines and security personnel board on a tractor after disembarking from a boat
In India, polling officials carry electronic voting machines escorted by security personnel on a tractor [File: Anupam Nath/AP]

Months before India began the gargantuan, 44-day exercise of conducting national general elections from April 19, armies of tech-savvy IITians, MBAs, lawyers and researchers have been busy collating, studying and analysing voter data to decide on campaign strategy, issues to highlight, where to deliver gifts and polarising speeches while pushing a glut of fake news on social media and WhatsApp aiming to convince voters for their clients.

These backroom boys of Indian democracy, who have no skin in the game apart from the pay package and the thrill of a win, call themselves “politically neutral problem solvers”.

In conversations with Al Jazeera, they acknowledged that some of their, and their parties’, solutions to rake in votes may not be the best thing for a democracy, but they said they had no biases and were simply focused on cracking the problem.

‘Extremely opaque influence operations’

In the southern Indian state of Telangana, Rajesh, an engineer from IIT who asked for his name to be changed so he could speak freely, is in charge of a 12-member data team at Inclusive Minds, a leading political consultancy that works exclusively with the Indian National Congress Party, India’s main opposition party.

His life these days is governed by data – it’s flooding his head and the computers in his office and those of the many political consultancies that have mushroomed across India.

Hundreds of field associates spread across the country send Rajesh and his team reams of voters’ demographic details along with the names of their favourite candidates and the main issues that resonate with them. This is topped up with data from ongoing telephone surveys and ads.

Inclusive Minds, like many other political consultancies, has been placing advertisements on Facebook and Instagram through surrogate, party-loyal pages to gauge voters’ mood, favourite party, ideology, interests and concerns. Meta provides them data in silos of age groups, gender and, when possible, constituency.

Someone in Rajesh’s team also scans news and social media to figure out the impact of every political statement, rally, road show, speech, and party manifesto.

About 20-30 percent of the staff at Inclusive Minds, said Rajesh, is from IITs, and 5 percent from IIM. All of them are bound by their abiding faith in data and often repeat the same mantra: “Data is king.”

That data is sorted and broken down into cohorts. It’s on display on about 50 “dashboards” that are large, interactive screens, showing how all the polling booths in a particular constituency are going to vote, with bar charts, line graphs, drop-down menus and maps.

Some booths are “safe”, some are firmly with other parties, but it’s the swing seats, categorised as “favourable” and “battleground”, where all the attention is.

Rahul Gandhi campaigning
The ongoing voting will determine if opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi make a dent in the governing Bharatiya Janata Party’s hold on the country [File: CK Thanseer/Reuters]

“In elections that were close, we would often talk about the need to polarise to get an edge — because if we don’t polarise, we’ll be stuck,” said Abhimanyu Bharti, a sharp, straight-shooting former political strategist who worked on Narendra Modi’s last two prime ministerial campaigns.

“The party would then tell RSS people to amp up the chatter [on the ground], to say, ‘Again these people [Muslims] will dominate us, crime will increase if they are not kept in check.’”

The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) is the BJP’s ideological parent body with close to 600,000 members.

Pratik Sinha, co-founder of AltNews, a fact-checking website, refers to political consultancies as “extremely opaque influence operations” with “zero ethical underpinnings” and says that political parties have outsourced their false propaganda, misinformation and online hate campaigns to them.

“Fake news, hate posts are increasing as we approach elections. Millions of rupees are being spent by surrogate, proxy pages on Facebook ads, on posting false information, hate speech, and all this is being done by political consultancies,” he added.

According to Boom LIVE, another fact-checking website, Muslims remain the primary target of fake news in India.

Data, said Mohammad Irfan Basha, who runs a small political consultancy, F-Jac, in Hyderabad, show that the larger the number of young voters in a constituency, the easier it is to create religious divisions.

“Most young voters are not dedicated to any political ideology. They are open to new thoughts, ideas, and that’s why they can be swayed easily and are used to polarise [situations],” Basha said.

In last year’s elections in the southern state of Telangana, Basha was handling the campaign and strategy of a former Congress leader who was now contesting the election on a BJP ticket.

“Data showed that more youth were joining us,” he said, and so he added a religious touch to his candidate’s speeches.

“In the Congress, the candidate was secular, now he says, ‘Jai Shri Ram,’” Basha said, referring to a Hindu religious chant that has been weaponised by the BJP to unite right-wing Hindus against Muslims.

Basha’s candidate won.

“Everything is fair in love and war, and this [elections] is war,” said former political strategist Bharti who now runs the online School of Politics that offers courses for aspiring politicians and consultants. Many of his students are graduates of IIT.

Young, cheap talent

Set up in the 1950s and 1960s in a newly independent India, IITs and IIMs were meant to power the building of a modern, self-sufficient, industrialised nation. As India’s economy changed, so did these institutions. They grew in numbers, courses were added, innovation was encouraged and start-up incubation centres were set up.

Main Building Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, India
As campus recruitment peters off, graduates of premier technology institutes join election campaigns while they wait for corporate job offers [Courtesy: Creative Commons]

In the IIT pecking order, computer engineers from IIT Bombay sit on top. Tech companies and consultancies snap them up in campus placements. But there are few takers for chemical, mechanical, aeronautical, mining and metallurgical engineers.

In India’s depressed job market, where the unemployment rate for graduates is nine times higher than the unemployment rate of uneducated youth, professional, corporate-style political consultancies began recruiting directly from IITs and other campuses about five or six years ago and now, it’s an annual affair.

“It’s young, cheap talent. They are excited, very eager to work [and we get] fresh legs, fresh minds,” said a member of the Congress’ campaign team on condition of anonymity on the party’s recruitment drive in colleges in the eastern state of Odisha where state elections are being held simultaneously with national elections.

Political consultancies don’t look for any particular degrees, just tech-savvy, smart people with mathematical skills who know or can learn coding, are good at solving problems and can hit the ground running.

Most MBAs are hired to analyse data and take on managerial roles — setting up systems and processes, managing teams, allocating resources, and giving presentations to politicians. While IIT engineers handle the tech, collate and segregate the data.

“These are transitional roles. IIT and IIM fellows will give one or two years. Those who stay, for them it is a matter of survival,” said Lal of Politique Advisors.

Mohan, an engineer and an MBA who worked with the Association of a Billion Minds (ABM), the BJP’s in-house election strategy and campaign unit, said that while these stints can colour the view of future employers, the thrill of being in the thick of political action is unmatched. He can’t stop reminiscing about the time he worked for AMB on several state elections in 2022 and 2023 and felt like he was the “CEO with a bunch of people from IITs” carrying out his orders.

“The kick here is the control, working with people at the top and the kind of budgets you command. For projects worth $10-20m in state elections, we could take decisions directly. For projects worth $100m and more, proposals would be escalated to party leaders,” he said, and requested that neither his name nor the state he worked in be mentioned as he had signed a non-disclosure agreement. “Our phones get tapped to this day,” he said.

With an estimated price tag of $16bn, India’s general election is going to be the most expensive in the world. This includes what political parties will spend on political consultancies and on hundreds of surveyors and data specialists whose job is to find the lowest common denominator to swing the outcome. Sometimes, it’ll be a boundary wall, sometimes religion.

Secretive

Measure and track are the two mantras to win elections, said former political strategist Bharti.

“Tracking enables you to get real-time feedback and fix loopholes. In elections, the leader or a party that makes the least mistakes wins. That’s why plugging loopholes is important,” he said.

grand temple to the Hindu god Lord Ram in Ayodhya,
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking reelection for the third time [File: India’s Press Information Bureau/Handout via Reuters]

Everything from candidate selection and campaign strategy, from slogans to the achievements to focus on, from issues to attack opponents on and which influencer to give an interview to, the temple to visit, even when and where to have a meal in the house of a Dalit family are data-backed decisions taken to swing votes.

Closer to voting days, most political consultancies switch gears and focus on the ground.

“Operatives” are deployed in large numbers not just to keep their ears to the ground, but to also report all activities of their own and Opposition party leaders, to figure out who is unhappy and can be brought or bought over.

“It’s so secretive that you start losing your identity,” said Neeraj, who sometimes posed as a tourist, a journalist or a researcher to gather political intelligence.

Most political consultancies work in secret. Employees have to sign NDAs and the salaries of staff in the same team often come from different sources. Phones of field operatives and cars of leaders are tracked through GPS and monitored by tech teams at political consultancies. Everyone Al Jazeera spoke with, spoke of 14-16 hour work days, disrupted family life, stress, exhaustion, immense pressure to deliver wins and a high attrition rate.

“It’s a very charged-up situation,” said Mohan, “and that’s why there are hardly any females in the core space. We have hired people from other colleges, but they crack very quickly. It’s only these young people from IITs and IIMs who have the calibre to operate in that environment and deliver.”

Neeraj recalls a meeting with the state party president of the BJP in Tripura where, on the basis of data and ground reports, the Nation With Namo team recommended that the party create some “hulchal” (stir things up) to create noise and get media traction.

“They love votes more than they care about lives,” Neeraj said, recalling that the party leader immediately offered to send some BJP workers to put up posters in areas dominated by a rival party. “They will beat our workers and we can then give a statement [to the media],” the BJP leader said.

“Suddenly, he got a call that a party worker had been murdered. He looked at us, smiled and said, ‘Bhai, mil gaya mudda (Brother, We’ve got our issue).’”

BJP’s Tripura spokesperson did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Neeraj no longer works for a political consultancy. But Mohan bubbles with excitement when he talks about the money that flows in elections that can be used to buy votes and opponents or hand contracts to cronies for all things election-related, including organising events and printing posters.

For now, he is waiting for a shift – when the power to run election campaigns moves from politicians to political consultancies.

“Right now, they [consultants] are struggling in terms of the power they need … in decision-making. It’s uncertain territory right now. Once that is sorted, I would certainly like to go back,” he told Al Jazeera.

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