Cambridge Analytica’s parent firm proposed a massive political machine for India’s 2014 elections

In trouble.
In trouble.
Image: Reuters/Henry Nicholls
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The global reach of Cambridge Analytica (CA) and its parent company, SCL Group, ranged from Southeast Asia to the US and the UK. But it is in India, the globe’s biggest democracy, where the political consultant to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign may have attempted its most telling operation.

According to documents obtained by Quartz, SCL claimed to employ as many as 300 permanent staff and 1,400 consultant staff prior to the country’s 2014 general elections, which were swept by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of prime minister Narendra Modi. Ahead of the elections, SCL targeted India’s major parties by pitching a setup of “the most sophisticated political research and data hub” in the country.

The proposed “operations centre” would house a large team of support workers, including senior lawyers and media-monitoring professionals, as well as experts offering research-based information and guidance to party workers. SCL also offered to develop an app for clients to manage and deliver services in real time, according to the company documents. It’s not clear whether any of India’s parties actually hired CA or its parent company.

Describing the operations centre, iterations of which SCL claimed to have  set up in Indonesia, Kenya, Thailand, and the UK, the document said:

The OpCentre and its counterpoint mobile phone application will support the client campaign team, functioning as the nerve centre for caste, political and party research design, data collection, and analysis…Together, this will provide the client with the capacity to deliver the right messages, from the right sources, disseminated through the right channels, and thus significantly increase the party’s ability to win the election.

SCL’s work has become a major global controversy since former employee and now whistleblower Christopher Wylie alleged that the company influenced voter behavior via Facebook ads created by harvesting the data of 50 million Facebook users without their permission. In a deposition to a committee of the British parliament on March 27, Wylie said CA had done “all kinds of projects” in India, and said he believed the Congress party was among the company’s main clients.

Quartz has reached out to CA and SCL for comment, and will update this story if they respond.

SCL in India

While CA’s website mentions only one Indian project, the document Quartz obtained describes a much bigger footprint, with SCL offices in 10 Indian cities: Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Cuttack, Ghaziabad, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Indore, Kolkata, Patna, and Pune.

Since 2003, the company has worked on at least eight assignments in India.

On March 28, Wylie tweeted screenshots, which appear to be from the same document, that outlined these projects. However, Avneesh Rai, a former partner of SCL in India, has insisted that he—not SCL—undertook these projects and the British firm had appropriated his work, The Print reported.

What SCL could do

Besides setting up a research and data hub, SCL offered a slew of other services to Indian parties for the 2014 polls:

The company also conducted several surveys across Indian states, the document says, referring to them as “examples of past research.” Here are a few examples it cited:

Caste research: Understanding how caste influences voting in a region and shaping messages around those findings. The research includes cross-analysis of electoral and party records, caste affiliation at booth level, and political affiliation by caste membership. It also helps understand who the target audience is.

The company conducted such research in at least two areas in UP: Kairana and Kanth.

Behavioural polling: To quantify independent (i.e., for whom people intend to vote) and dependent (i.e., why people intend to vote/not vote for a particular candidate) variables. This information can be used to build a voter profile which a campaigning team can use for maximum impact.

It cites the example of voter migration in the 2007 Lucknow East elections, where according to SCL’s research:

BJP has the most loyal voters, followed by the INC (Indian National Congress) with 70% of (the) 2007 voters remaining loyal. The BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) and SP (Samajwadi Party) both lose voters to the BJP and INC, respectively.

Candidate research: To collect data on opinion trends, voters’ perceptions, and thought processes about candidates. This helps formulate an appropriate strategy to maximise electoral returns for resources invested. The company cites the research it conducted in Lucknow East, where people were asked about the factors that mattered the most when they decide to vote.

Target audience analysis: Aims to identify apathetic voters, floating voters, desire for change within a population, the best medium for transmitting campaign messages, and whether a positive campaign will be most effective or a negative one.

Poll planning and management: When voting commences, support staff stays in constant touch with all party affiliates to read the on-ground atmosphere and get real-time feedback.

Party communication: Monitoring the media for news, trends, and political activities of both party supporters and rivals to ensure effective responses.

Support staff in the OpCentre will provide their analysis of such monitoring to candidates and the party at relevant levels. This will allow the client to have a better understanding of the political environment (and competitors intentions)—allowing the campaign team to outmanoeuvre rivals.