The Narendra Modi app: The secret weapon in BJP’s elections arsenal

Jayadevan PK Pankaj Mishra March 29, 2018 16 min

Story Highlights

  • Why is Rahul Gandhi beating the drums about the Narendra Modi app? Because he knows that the app – with over 10 million users already – will be crucial decider of a BJP victory or failure in the general elections.
  • The Narendra Modi app’s mission is two fold — mobilize and integrate some 100 million BJP members and use the app to deliver targeted messaging to voters. Party president Amit Shah has a target that each district should have 100,000 downloads.
  • In the coming general elections, there will be more than 180 million first-time voters – people who are relatively easy to target on social media. Of the 241 million Facebook users in India, about 54 million are between the age of 18 and 23 years.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi earlier this week got panned for his criticism of the Narendra Modi app. The app, Gandhi had said on Twitter, was leaking user data and added that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was “the Big Boss who likes to spy on Indians”. Much of what the Congress leaders said was hyperbole common at the hustings.

But as it turns out, Gandhi has good reason to beat the drums wildly: the Narendra Modi app is going to be, by all accounts, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s arrowhead as India pads up for its biggest general elections next year. The app is going to be the fulcrum of the BJP’s tech outreach and social media strategy in the months ahead of the elections, which may be held earlier than the scheduled early 2019 going by the buzz in political circles in capital New Delhi.

The usage of the state apparatus to promote an app owned by Modi personally and the way it plans to use data of its users is drawing criticism from political rivals and privacy activists. Critics have pointed out that the app asks for too many permissions, is less than ideally secure, and is run by the BJP while being positioned as the official application of the prime minister of India. These questions are now taking a serious tone after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal.

“Overall, Facebook’s fallout means even more focus and reliance on the Narendra Modi app by the BJP,” said a person familiar with BJP’s social and digital plans, adding the Facebook and WhatsApp platforms will be in the background and continue to be valuable. This person asked to remain anonymous.

By “Facebook’s fallout”, he is referring to the aftermath of the scandal that implicated political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica of misusing Facebook data of millions of users without consent. Questions are also being raised in the UK and US about the involvement of Russian actors using Facebook, Google and Twitter to influence key global events such as Britain’s exit from the European Union and the US presidential elections in 2016.

After a sting by British broadcaster Channel4 showed Cambridge Analytica used dubious means to influence elections, both the Congress party and the BJP have accused each other of using the services of the analytics company.

To be sure, it will be difficult for anyone to ignore Facebook and WhatsApp for the sheer reach they offer – Facebook has over 240 million users in India and WhatsApp has a similar number of users in India. But growing the Narendra Modi app’s user base will mean a channel that won’t need to be constantly paid for and in the BJP’s direct control with all the granular data and reach that such a platform can offer.

India has the largest number of Facebook users in the world.

“The game plan is to make Narendra Modi app the killer platform for the next elections and beyond,” said the person aware of the BJP’s plan. With estimated downloads of over 10 million already, the Narendra Modi app’s mission is two-fold — mobilize and integrate some 100 million BJP members across the party’s operations and use the app to deliver targeted messaging to existing and potential voters.

To that end, Prime Minister Modi himself and the BJP have been driving app downloads in ways that will put seasoned growth hackers to shame. For instance, Modi’s new book Exam Warriors. Readers can scan QR codes in the book and post responses to the Narendra Modi app. The target: more young users for the app who will soon vote for the first time. A student taking the 12th board exams this year is likely 18 years old, come the 2019 elections.

As has been pointed out, targeting first-time voters in a country where 41% of the population is younger than 20 years is a no-brainer. Political scientist Oliver Heath posited in 2015 that the BJP’s 2014 victory came about more thanks to first-time voters rather the votes it weaned away from rival parties. There were 136 million new voters in 2014. This time there will be more than 180 million first-timers – people who are relatively easy to target on social media. Of the 241 million Facebook users in India, about 54 million are between the age of 18 and 23 years.

The BJP also has plans to co-opt educational institutions to distribute the book, said another source. The book, released in February 2018 is being translated into various languages starting with Hindi and Marathi. The BJP state government in Maharashtra is procuring nearly 150,000 books on Modi but it hasn’t said yet it would be Exam Warriors that it would buy and distribute to state schools.

The number of times Prime Minister Narendra Modi has plugged the app in his Mann Ki Baat speeches.

The prime minister also channels users to the app in his speeches and on his social media channels. A typical plug in his monthly Mann Ki Baat speech would call out a comment received on the app or ask “fellow countrymen” to share a photo or views on an issue on the app. Since October 2014, Modi has made 41 Mann Ki Baat speeches and he has mentioned the Narendra Modi app over 50 times, an analysis of his speeches shows (See graph).

Besides launching modules that enable the prime minister to talk to his council of ministers or run surveys and bundling the app with new phones to drive users, the BJP has also from time to time driven some hard app download targets to its rank and file. In September 2016, for instance, the Gujarat party chief said it will ensure at least 7 lakh downloads of the app as a birthday gift to Modi. BJP President Amit Shah wants nearly 50 million downloads for the app and has directed state officials to drive nearly 100,000 app installations in each district. “Do not take this as an information (or suggestion). Accountability will be ensured and it is the responsibility of each district unit to ensure downloading of one lakh of Narendra Modi App,” Shah reportedly said at the party’s national executive meeting in March 2016.

The app is already in play at the Karnataka elections scheduled for April. “As of now, the app has national content. Going forward we will be pumping lot of content related to Karnataka in Kannada. It will include voice, non-voice and lot of messages. He (Modi) will also be sharing through the app for Kannadigas,” says Amresh K,  BJP Information Technology Cell State Convener.

“We will also be doing a Narendra Modi campaign to drive downloads,” said Amresh, who is helping create manifestos for 224 constituencies in Karnataka. “Earlier it used to be one state-level manifesto. This time we have it for 224 constituencies. We’re also engaging with 500-1000 influencers in these constituencies and about 100 sectors to compile their inputs,” he said. The 2013 manifesto of the BJP, a 40-page document, led with the development agenda focussed on specific sectors but also promised freebies such as 25-kilogram free rice to the poor and free laptop to high school goers.

Brand strategist and author ‘Ambi’ Parameswaran on Brand Narendra Modi.

Modi’s popularity as a leader in central to the app. “More than BJP today, Modi as a brand has become extremely strong. There’s a lot of mud sticking to political leaders but in comparison, he seems to be coming through as spotless,” says brand strategist and author M G Parameswaran, who helped create some of the biggest brands such as Santoor and Wipro. To appeal to the young voter, it’s important for Modi to stick to the “development narrative and not get derailed by the Hindutva narrative,” he adds.

So how does the app really help the BJP? The answer to this question really lies in the BJP’s earlier campaigns and the party’s learnings. FactorDaily interviewed people closely associated with BJP’s 2014 campaign to find out.

The ‘Golden Triple’

India could go to polls as early as the end of this year, as is being speculated by the political chatterati, or early next year. Nearly one billion Indians eligible to vote this time around (814 million in 2014) will decide the fate of 543 seats to which representatives are elected. As Rajesh Jain, a former advisor to the BJP campaign points out on his blog, “using data and analytics to identify supporters and then getting them out to vote on election day will be instrumental in determining the eventual winner”. He estimates that nearly 670 million people in India, comprising 330 million who don’t vote and 340 million who aren’t likely to support a mainstream party (or are undecided), are up for grabs.

Importantly, the dynamics at the hustings have changed. “Unlike 2015, this isn’t an election with a wave (the Narendra Modi wave). This isn’t a Facebook or a WhatsApp election in that sense. This is going to be about micro-targeting and use of Narendra Modi app. If BJP wins 2019, the app will become even more all-pervasive and a way to be free from platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook,” said the source familiar with the BJP’s plans quoted above.

Micro-targeting is the practice of crafting messages and advertising to small user cohorts. For this to work, the advertiser, will need to understand its target audience deeply and accurately. Having data from various sources, including the Modi app, will help target the electorate better.

The golden triple is a combination of booth level information, contact details and political leaning of a voter.

The lynchpin of the data strategy of the BJP is what number crunchers call the “Golden Triple”, which has three pieces to it: the details of the booth at which someone votes, the contact phone number and the political leaning of the voter. Voter details are public information in India. Collating that accurately with contact phone numbers is difficult but doable (and likely has already been done by political parties including the BJP).

The BJP, through its missed call-based membership drive back in November 2014, had amassed nearly 100 million registered members. At the time, the BJP had collected voter ID details of members as well. In other words, the party already has over 100 million ‘golden triples’. “If you have 10 crore golden triples, your target audience is sorted,” said the source who knows of BJP’s plans.

“There are four things on which the battles are won and lost—identifying those who already are your supporters, voter registration, pursue them, and finally ensuring that they turn out on the day when it all matters the most,” says the person. The Narendra Modi app becomes a tool to mobilize party workers and getting them to execute the game plan. It also doubles up as a channel to send targeted messages based on the data it has captured already.

Having data of its supporters in a constituency can help parties craft targeted messages and zone in on the audience better using social media platforms, says Ankit Lal, the author of India Social: How social media is leading the charge and changing the country and a social media strategist for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). For instance, Facebook allows you to build a custom audience by uploading a list of email addresses or phone numbers.

The election commission’s Form 20 gives polling booth level data on which candidate got how many votes. “Now, this combined with more specific data sets, can make it far more impactful,” says the person quoted above. For instance, if the numbers aren’t looking good in a certain region, the Narendra Modi app can be used to mobilise party workers to campaign harder in those areas.

In 2014, the BJP used a market research and analytics agency Penn Schoen Berland (PSB) to firm up the key planks on which it would fight elections. The party built its campaign around issues of corruption, security of women, and inflation based on the firm’s inputs. For sure, there will be voter surveys done by the BJP (as also other parties) this time, too, but with the Narendra Modi app and its growing install base, the party’s understanding of local, district-level issues – even booth-level inputs – get strengthened through internal surveys and other mechanisms.

But, can the sophisticated combination of data analytics, micro-targeting, and bespoke messaging swing an election? The answer depends on how close the electoral fight in different constituencies will turn out to be.

When victory margins are thin, targeted campaigns (especially on social media) can win seats. Case in point: Gujarat assembly elections late last year. As this article points out, the victory margins in 57 out of 182 seats in Gujarat was less than 5% – in other words,  just a few thousand votes could swing victory either which way. “The win or loss margin is very small, generally less than 5% of the electorate for a majority of constituencies,” says Lal, the AAP strategist. “For urban areas, it is easy to influence results using social media because the margins are so close.” In Karnataka, more than 30 of the 224 seats in the legislative assembly had wins with a margin of less than 3%.

What about the national elections? Here, too, the narrow wins are make or break in nature. Ninety-two seats were won with a winning margin of less than 5% in the 2014 elections. This despite the Modi wave that saw the BJP end with 282 seats in the Lok Sabha – the first time in 30 years a party won a simple majority in the lower house of Parliament.

In other words, social media has – and will continue to have – a definite sway in Indian electoral outcomes and the Narendra Modi app has its role cut out for itself.

The privacy question

On March 23, a security researcher who goes by the pseudonym Elliot Alderson, revealed that the data collected by Narendra Modi app is being passed on to analytics company Clevertap. The app also takes 22 permissions from the user, including the ability to access the user’s contacts, gallery and microphone. Privacy advocates warn that doing so without explicitly telling the user is a breach of trust. “Be careful when you enter personal data. It is often not needed and this data is often misuse (sic) after that,” Alderson messaged FactorDaily on Twitter in reply to a question. His tweets were what had the Congress Party’s Gandhi kicking up a minor storm accusing the BJP of spying on users. To be sure, it is common practice to integrate analytics and marketing tools like Clevertap into an app (also see: CleverTap’s Commitment to User Consent and Data Privacy).

Thejesh G N, founder of Datameet, a community of data scientists and open data enthusiasts, says that it’s okay for politicians to use websites or apps to string members together or talk to their constituents. But they should follow ground rules such as stating the purpose of data collection clearly, collecting minimum amount of data, sharing information about who is collecting the data, for what purpose and guaranteeing the security of personal data, and also stating how it will share data with third parties and for what purpose. This may have sounded like ideal principles of data use but less so in the aftermath of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal which has brought into focus the flagrant violation of privacy standards by almost every platform.

“People might be thinking they are giving data to the prime minister… in fact, it’s probably going to a campaign database. It’s important to make that clear.”

In the case of Narendra Modi app, some of these basic rules aren’t followed, points out  Thejesh, a privacy activist from Bengaluru. “The app description on Play Store says ‘Official App of Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. It brings to you latest information, instant updates & helps you contribute towards various tasks. It provides a unique opportunity to receive messages and emails directly from the Prime Minister.’ But the app is not owned by Government of India and so the statement is misleading,” he says. “People might be thinking they are giving data to the prime minister… in fact, it’s probably going to a campaign database. It’s important to make that clear.”

Lal of AAP minces no words when it comes to the question of ownership of data. “That’s the biggest question. How did a private app end up being used by the prime minister’s office? Either they were conned into it or they know about it. If they did it deliberately, they knowingly stole data which is no smaller than that of Cambridge Analytica. There it was between Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, here it is between citizen and their prime minister,” he says.

“There is a distinction to be drawn between providing one’s own data and providing the data of others that you happen to have.”

In 2015, privacy and tech policy expert Pranesh Prakash helped report a security vulnerability that exposed the data of Narendra Modi app users. “In 2016 again, the same set of security vulnerabilities blew up… this time, more than 5 million people’s personal profiles including their birthdates, phone numbers was available to the public,” Prakash told India Today TV. “There is a distinction to be drawn between providing one’s own data and providing the data of others that you happen to have. For instance, the Narendra Modi app asks for permissions for ‘Contacts’, which allows it to harvest your contacts. Are they using it (as you suggest they would) for the elections? If so, are they upfront about that as one of the purposes for the data collection? And are they collecting your details or details of your contacts as well,” Prakash later told FactorDaily in reply to a question on the use of data from the Narendra Modi app.

The BJP has responded to some of the criticism. Amit Malviya, the BJP IT Cell chief pointed FactorDaily to the party’s statement that said: “Narendra Modi App is a unique App, which unlike most Apps, gives access to users in ‘guest mode’ without even any permission or data. The permissions required are all contextual and cause-specific. Contrary to Rahul (Gandhi)’s lies, fact is that data is being used for only analytics using third-party service, similar to Google Analytics. Analytics on the user data is done for offering users the most contextual content. This ensures that a user gets the best experience by showing content in his language & interests. A person who looks up agri-related info will get agri related content easily. A person from TN will get updates in Tamil and get an update about an important initiative about TN.”

Will the Narendra Modi app prove to be the BJP’s Brahmastra – the mythical destructive weapon from ancient Hindu texts? The contextual content served on the app in the coming months will give the answer. If it is hyperlocal and raises issues at the booth level, you can be sure that the Brahmastra has been deployed.


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