SANAND, India—On 15 May, just 24 hours before the historic counting day that confirmed Narendra Modi’s victory, a group of young men and women gathered at an upscale resort here in Sanand, some 60 km from Ahmedabad.
They wore smart casuals and carried iPhones and looked like they were at a corporate offsite In reality, most of them had put on hold their corporate careers to join the Citizens for Accountable Governance, a new kind of animal in India’s political landscape.
I spent the day meeting members of the CAG, as it is known, to understand who the young professionals behind the organization were, why they were doing this, and what exactly they did for the Modi campaign. I discovered their projects straddled data mining, research, social media, polls and campaign management. And they assembled before me, some back after months working on the ground, scattered across remote parts of india, to talk about the future of CAG.
On paper, they are not attached to or funded by a political party. In fact, members are not allowed to join a party while they work at CAG. But in effect, the nonprofit functioned as a full-fledged consulting and campaign solutions outfit for Modi, working out of a central office in Gandhinagar, where Modi was based, and with staff in eight other offices around the country. At various times over a year, the outfit had between 200 and 400 full-time, paid members, apart from some 800 paid interns and more than 100,000 volunteers.
The extent and scale of CAG’s involvement in the Modi campaign has been unprecedented for an entity that is not affiliated to a party. Its effectiveness is likely to push Indian political campaigns in one direction—toward adopting a western-style approach that sees winning seats as a project-management challenge and away from the traditional Indian way, which is to rely on local political intelligence, satraps, part-time volunteers, and candidates whose ability is underwritten by senior leaders.
Democracy Inc. has arrived.
The CAG’s job in the Modi campaign encompassed analytics, social media, technology, and campaign management.
- Several months before the campaign hit full swing, the CAG did a retrospective analysis of election data, producing a 200-page report on each of the 450-odd seats in which the BJP contested. These were fused with opinion polls to gauge swings. When the polls indicated that Modi’s approval levels in Jharkhand were not high enough at one point, he held two rallies in the state. These reports were also given to constituency-level workers of both the Bharatiya Janata Party and Modi’s parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sang. Ram Madhav, a spokesperson for the RSS, said CAG was one of the agencies that crunched data for the campaign. He had distributed the CAG’s reports to RSS volunteers on the ground. But he maintained that the RSS was only involved in educating people about the importance of voting and the need for a change. (The RSS views itself as a cultural organization. Its stated position is that it is not involved in politics.)
- CAG ran a research wing that produced talking points for Modi as he crisscrossed the country. This unit was also behind the book Moditva, which used his speeches to encapsulate his political philosophy. It was sold in bookshops and on Flipkart.
- The organization ran a series of initiatives such as projecting the candidate’s speeches by hologram to bolster the Modi campaign, building buzz and grist for a steady drumbeat of media stories.
- Last year, CAG started large outreach programmes targeted at college students. The outfit was later hired by the Gujarat government to be the mobilization partner for its controversial Statue of Unity project, to build a 182-metre statue of freedom fighter Vallabhbhai Patel. It organized the Run for Unity, which now claims the world record for the largest number of people running and walking at the same time, nicely tying into India’s obsession with the Guinness Book of World Records.
- When Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyer took a dig at Modi’s background selling tea at railway stations, the folks at CAG quickly conceptualized an event they called Chai pe Charcha (a conversation over tea), a video conference spread across 1,000 tea stalls, turning the critical remark into political capital.
- In Uttar Pradesh, the CAG implemented the Modi Aane Wala Hai (Modi’s arrival is imminent) campaign, in which some 400 video vans took Modi’s speeches to thousands of villages that are deemed to be part of a so-called dark zone, where mass-media penetration is poor. It also planned the schedule of the final thrust, the Bharat Vijay rallies, during which Modi spoke at three or four venues in a single day, and was projected by 3D holographic image to 100 locations simultaneously.
“In rural areas, the 3D projection is like magic. People came from faraway villages to watch this,” says Sabhrastha, a CAG member who coordinated the campaign in Uttarakhand.
The scale of Modi’s campaign and its mostly flawless execution was a message in itself—that he thinks big and works hard to execute. A man who can appear out of thin air can surely get anything done?
The way CAG functioned and the projects they undertook speak volumes about how Modi likes to get things done. Even though the group likes to vaunt its independent status, it has practically been run from day one by Prashant Kishor, who worked as the head of social policy and planning at UNICEF in Chad before becoming a key Modi backroom boy in 2012, when he started working out of the chief minister’s official residence in Gandhinagar. Kishor declined to be interviewed for this story.
Here are the management lessons that can be gleaned from the way Modi used CAG to plan and execute his campaign.
When I ask about his background, 25-year-old Shagun Gupta said he used to work as an investment banker at JM Financial in Mumbai. His friends laughed. He’s being modest and not telling me the full story, one of them said, and volunteered to do so. “He is the next Raghuram Rajan,” the friend said, referring to the central bank governor. It turns out that Gupta, like Rajan before him, was a gold medalist at IIT Delhi and then went to IIM Ahmedabad for an MBA. After working for two years in investment banking, Gupta came to work at CAG, at a fraction of the salary he made in banking.
“But for the past year I have worked harder than I did in investment banking,” Gupta said. He said he is doing it because it is a unique experience and because he likes Modi. “On some days we are the world’s most overqualified call centre,” Gupta says. “One day you are chasing a truck that is stuck somewhere in the middle of the night and you have to call the local party officials to see it through. All very different from the work we are used to.”
CAG has a number of graduates from elite schools such as the IITs, the IIMs, Brown University, Columbia University, California Institute of Technology and the London School of Economics. Some have worked at marquee financial services firms such as JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. Some have run startups. There are many who are between jobs or studying for competitive exams, but it is fair to say that most people are at CAG not for the lack of employment opportunities elsewhere. A good number of them were taking a pay cut. And they all say they have worked harder than ever before. One member fainted out of exhaustion during a particularly gruelling week.
CAG has a diversity issue. Only 10-15% of members are women. There are few non-Hindus. But pointing out a lack of diversity is apparently the mark of a closed mind. “We don’t see people as Hindus or Muslims,” a key strategist said tersely.
The average CAG member, even if he had taken a pay cut to work for Modi’s campaign, is nothing like the kind of fanatic Modi follower on Twitter who is intolerant to the mere suggestion of his leader’s flaws. “I’m convinced about Modi, but still not very convinced about BJP,” says Shubhratha,who had worked as a trainee journalist at The Hindu. However, her fear that the party and RSS may not take women seriously had been misplaced, she says. Sidharth Mazumdar, who authored Moditva, also claimed that he has leftist views on many issues.
Most members are admirers of Modi to varying degrees, but unlike in a party set up, loyalty to the leader was not a factor to a member’s survival or rise at CAG. Meanwhile, people have been asked to leave for poor performance.
CAG was not dependent on BJP funds. It raised funds from corporations. CAG members say it will shortly publish their accounts on a website, including the complete list of donors.
BJP treasurer Piyush Goyal, who handled the party’s campaign financing, declined to talk about CAG’s role in the campaign, saying that questions about the outfit were best directed to it.
CAG worked closely with the cadres of the BJP and the RSS across many states. In areas where the outfit didn’t have an office, members sometimes worked out of the BJP office or the homes of local office bearers. Because CAG was known to be mentored by Kishor, it was clear the outfit worked for Modi and it was mostly welcomed wherever its members went to do training or facilitation. But the party’s officials are not very keen to talk about CAG. For instance, Dharmendra Pradhan, who headed the party’s campaign in Bihar, declined comment when asked about CAG’s role.
By getting a professional team to plan and execute big chunks of his campaign, Modi ring-fenced his campaign from common political afflictions, such as defections and internal sabotage. Professionals were entrusted with tasks and nothing was left to good faith.
It is Modi’s rival Rahul Gandhi, who has real life experience of a professional consulting firm—he briefly worked at the London consultancy, Monitor Group. But it was Modi, who dropped out of school, who used the power of project management and a professional firm masquerading as a volunteer group, to deliver a blistering campaign. BJP claims that the party’s campaign reached one in four voters.
Members of CAG are now brainstorming about the organization’s future. If the outfit is roped in by the BJP to help out with the assembly elections this year in five states—Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Delhi and Haryana—CAG will be watched more closely. And perhaps more such organizations will be born to change Indian politics yet again.