Social media used to engineer psychological manipulation of public opinion

As a war wages over cyberspace activities of parties, a key Parliamentary panel has expressed concern over social media being used to engineer “psychological manipulation” of public opinion on crucial issues affecting countries.

The comments by the Committee on Estimates led by veteran BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi comes amid worldwide condemnation of data analytics firm ‘Cambridge Analytica’ for “misusing” Facebook users data to influence voters in US Presidential elections and Brexit campaign.

In a section on cyber crimes in its report ‘Central Armed Police Forces and Internal Security Challenges: Evaluation and Response Mechanism’, the committee acknowledged that social networking has emerged as a key tool used around the world to promote and aid communication.

“However, this type of technology might be doing more harm than good. Of late, use of social media has been seen as a key tool for engineering psychological manipulation of public and its opinion on issues that affect the nation and society,” the report said.

The Committee expressed its fear that the “potential for interference by one state with the affairs of another state” through the use of social media is “higher than ever”. It said, “clearly, lines have blurred between freedom of expression, privacy, law and order

Though the report does not mention any specific incidents, it appears that the Committee has in mind the allegations in the United States that Donald Trump’s election was aided by Russians. Last week, it also emerged that Cambridge Analytica, which aided Trump’s campaign, illegally harvested user data.

The Cambridge Analytica episode has also raised the political mercury in India with Congress and BJP locking horns over their suspected links to the firm. Another controversy erupted following allegations that there was data leak from Prime Minister Narendra Modi (NaMo) App. Congress is also in the eye of a storm over its now deleted App being launched from a server based in Singapore.

Like in the West, Modi had used social media vigorously in the 2014 campaign to emerge victorious. He has also asked MPs to reach out to the people through social media, especially Facebook.

In its report, the Committee said the “cocktail of social media, 24-hour television and NGOS create virtual reality, which soon has effects in the real world.” It said the probability of disruption has grown apace with the rise in number of cyber users.

These are not just law and order problems, and they are not amenable to the traditional responses that the states are accustomed to. These are serious internal security issues. We have seen technology place increasingly lethal power in the hands of non-state actors. The effects can range from the benign to the dangerous, though technology itself is value neutral,” it said.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Mar 27, 2018)

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Karat links Basu’s Press meet, UP bypoll to stonewall relations with Cong

Citing a 25-year-old press conference by late Jyoti Basu and Uttar Pradesh bypoll results, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat has once again upped the ante over the electoral tactics to take on the BJP.

Karat has used the latest editorial in the party mouthpiece ‘Peoples Democracy’, which he edits, to argue that Congress has “no credibility” to lead an all-India alliance, as parties like BJD, TDP and TRS are not be ready to be a partner in an alliance under its leadership.

The editorial written by Karat analysing the victory of Samajwadi Party in the bypolls in Gorakhpur and Phulpur has said the lesson learnt from the results is that the “effective way” to take on the BJP is “not by forging an all-India alliance or front” of opposition parties.

Congress hopes to build an extended UPA-style alliance to counter the BJP. However, this will not succeed. The Congress has no credibility to lead such an alliance in terms of an alternative programme,” it predicted.

Amid questions how a strident anti-Congress could help in defeating BJP, Karat has interestingly invoked the late Marxist veteran from Bengal and his campaigning in 1993 the UP Assembly polls held after Babri Masjid demolition. Basu had in a press conference in Varanasi then given a call to vote for candidates who can defeat BJP.

This was in essence calling for the pooling of votes of all the anti-BJP forces,” the editorial said adding the SP-BSP combine formed government defeating incumbent BJP.

The reference to Basu assumes significance as the Bengal unit is opposed to Karat’s line of excluding Congress, which they vociferously raised in the recently concluded State Conference. Reference to Basu is seen as an attempt by Karat to address cadres in Bengal, who argue for General Secretary Sitaram Yechury’s line of keeping the electoral doors open.

While the editorial argues that Congress is unacceptable to other parties, it also referred to party’s “general campaign” to defeat BJP in 1993 elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan where Congress was its main opponent.

Karat’s opponents find this argument “contradictory” and said at one point he is saying that Congress cannot be made part of any efforts to counter BJP but at the same time talk about general campaign to defeat BJP that helps Congress.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Mar 23, 2018)

UP bypoll results and the Left

The impressive victories in the bypolls in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have once again reignited hope in the Left parties to tackle the naysayers among them to go for a broad unity among opposition parties to take on the BJP.

While the Tripura results dampened the Left’s spirits, the BJP’s defeat in its stronghold of Gorakhpur and Samajwadi Party regaining Phulpur from the saffron camp have given a new hope to CPI(M) and CPI. The RJD spectacularly retaining Araria against the combined might of BJP and JD(U) has also enthused these parties.

In Gorakhpur and Phulpur, BSP did the “unthinkable” by announcing support to the arch-rival Samajwadi Party while Congress fought “feebly”. A section in the opposition claimed that Congress did a tactical fight and it favoured the SP and the support to BSP candidate in Rajya Sabha polls showed that there was no division within them.

The preliminary analysis of the results, the Left parties feel, showed that the “discontentment and disillusionment” against the BJP is fast creeping into people and they cite the Samajwadi Party victory in Gorakhpur, the stronghold of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, as pointer. The RJD win also is viewed within the Left Front as a slap on the face of JD(U).

One of the senior Left leaders also pointed out to tweets suggesting that BJP is getting defeated where they are in power while they may be winning new pastures.

“The results clearly shows that the BJP is on a down-slide. It also shows that if there is no division of opposition votes, we can win and decisively defeat BJP,” CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury told DH. On Bihar victory, he said, JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar’s betrayal of Grand Alliance has been rejected by the electorate and Sharad Yadav who refused to toe that line and had to lose his RS seat in the bargain has been politically vindicated.

The Left defeat in Tripura and the united opposition’s bypoll victories is expected to help the anti-Congress camp in the CPI(M) to soften its stand on the Grand Old Party.

CPI National Secretary D Raja said BJP’s UP defeat comes after the loss in the local body polls in Rajasthan where the saffron party is ruling. “In Gujarat also, it was not a spectacular win. People have rejected BJP’s manipulative, unethical politics. These results will have an impact on the future electoral strategy,” he said.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Mar 16, 2018)

Defeat in UP bypolls: BJP sinks to silence

The BJP sank into silence on Wednesday as the bypoll results, especially the defeat in Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, took the sheen out of its victorious run in Tripura trampling the formidable Left Front.

If the north-east victories brought a new vigour to the saffron camp ahead of Karnataka polls, the BJP scoring a ‘zero’ in the bypolls to three Lok Sabha seats — the two seats in UP and Araria in Bihar — has brought back broad smiles in the Opposition camp.

The defeat in Gorakhpur and Phulpur — vacated by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya after the UP Assembly polls last year — has brought a rude shock to the BJP with a senior BJP MP from the state mincing no words to describe it a “big referendum”.

While the leaders do not want to give much importance to the Opposition victories, the victory of the Samajwadi Party-BSP combine in both the seats has given them reasons to worry.

At least two senior leaders said if the SP-BSP combine continue to stick together and Congress joining it at a later stage would give BJP a strong fight in Uttar Pradesh in the next elections. One of them cited the Bihar experience where RJD and JD(U) were part of a Grand Alliance.

For BJP, a senior leader said, the UP was a saturation point in the last election as it had won 71 out of 80 seats. A united opposition would mean trouble for the party as one saw in the 2015 Bihar Assembly polls, he admitted.

Sources said the defeat in UP is more damaging as both the seats were held by the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister. While Phulpur was first one by BJP in the last polls, Gorakhpur has been represented by Adityanath.

However, one section argues that the choice of Upendra Dutt Shukla, a Brahmin, was faulty and it was foisted on the seat by the central BJP leadership – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah – against the wishes of Adityanath.

The loss to RJD in Araria Lok Sabha bypolls despite support from JD(U) also has rattled the party. The result also comes as a setback for JD(U), which came out of an alliance with RJD and Congress to join hands with BJP.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Mar 15, 2018)

‘Telagana govt gave no extraordinary reason why Muslim quota should be there’

TRS government’s plans to provide 12% quota to Muslims in Telangana may not see the light soon with the BJP-led NDA saying the state has not given any “extra-ordinary” reason for the President to give approval to such a proposal.

The Telangana government under K Chandrasekhara Rao has sent the bill it passed in April last year for the President’s approval and the Ministry of Home Affair’s (MHA) response in Rajya Sabha last week could further trigger a political battle.

Rao, the TRS chief, has already flexed his muscles in the state ahead of Lok Sabha polls talking about a third front to take on the BJP and may try too woo Muslims to his side by vociferously demanding an ascent to the Bill.

The Telangana Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes (Reservation of Seats in Educational Institutions and of Appointments or Posts in Services under the State) Bill, 2017 was passed unanimously at a special session where five BJP MLAs, who were opposed to the Bill, were suspended.

In a written response to TDP MP T Devender Goud’s question in Rajya Sabha last Wednesday, the MHA responded that the Bill has been circulated to the concerned ministries for their opinion.

The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) opined that the Supreme Court in Indira Sawhney case has held that Article 16 of Constitution speaks of “adequate representation and not proportionate representation”. It also noted that the quota should not exceed 50% while the Bill breaches this mark.

“As per observations of the Apex Court, relaxation can be done in extra-ordinary situations and while doing so, extreme caution has to be exercised and a special case made out. The Government of Telangana has not brought out any facts or grounds on the basis of which the present proposal, which is in violation of the orders of the Supreme Court, would deserve to be accorded approval,” the MHA said.

Reacting to the government response, Congress’ Rajya Sabha MP from Telangana Ananda Bhaskar Rapolu said time has come to recast the way reservations formula. “The Centre should take into account ground realities and go in for proportionate representation,” Rapolu said.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Mar 12, 2018)

One defeat that brought relief to CPI(M)

This one defeat will bring some relief to the CPI(M), as it leaves the party the agony of deciding what to keep and what to forgo.

CPI(M) Rajya Sabha MP Jharna Das Baidya (63) was fielded in Badharghat against sitting MLA Dilip Sarkar, who left Congress to join BJP, but she has lost by a margin of 5,448 votes.

While Sarkar polled 28,561 votes, Baidya garnered 23,113 votes. Congress candidate Ratan Das came third with just 505 votes, which was less than the margin Sarkar got in 2013 when he contested in Cong ticket.

There was speculation that the plan was to send senior Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat to Rajya Sabha from Tripura in place of Baidya, a post graduate in Bengali, after the results. However, this plan is improbable now with BJP winning the state.

A victory for Baidya, a Dalit whose Rajya Sabha terms only in April 2022, at a time CPI(M) losing the state would have put the party in a piquant situation. It would have meant CPI(M) would have to choose between membership in Rajya Sabha or Assembly and if party chooses that Baidya stay in Assembly, it would have lost one member in Rajya Sabha.

In a bypoll to the Rajya Sabha in such a scenario, BJP will win the polls and the CPI(M) will lose one more member in the Upper House. At present, CPI(M) has six members, including Baidya, and it will further go down to five with West Bengal MP Tapan Sen retiring on April 2.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Mar 4, 2018)

Will it be ‘Chalo Paltai’ in CPI(M) too?

Tripura turning saffron by junking the 25-year-old red rule may force a chorus for ‘Chalo Paltai’ (Let’s Change) in CPI(M) over its relationship with Congress to take on a resurgent BJP ahead of Lok Sabha elections.

The big question for CPI(M) will be how to fight the BJP and what strategy to be adopted after the saffron surge in a Left bastion after losing deposits in 49 of the 50 seats it contested five years ago.

The CPI(M) puts the blame more on BJP’s money power and its virtual appropriation of Congress votes for the defeat but this defeat it knows has huge ramification inside and outside the party, as it being the ideological flag bearer in the fight against “communal RSS-BJP combine”.

Factions in the CPI(M) led by General Secretary Sitaram Yechury and his predecessor Prakash Karat are crossing swords over whether to have an understanding with the Congress and it would have its echo in Party Congress in Hyderabad next month. The Karat faction has so far dominated the party espousing a ‘big no to Congress’ line and winning a vote in Central Committee last month.

However, the Tripura decimation, which leaves the party’s dominance only in Kerala, will give Yechury supporters a handle to push for cooperation with all secular democratic forces, including Congress, to take on BJP. While Yechury does not argue for an electoral front or understanding with Congress, he is against any explicit mention closing doors to Congress.

Karat will have tough time rebutting this line, as the results will give more lung power to his opponents, including the Bengal unit that has been vociferously arguing for alliance with Congress.

The immediate task before CPI(M) will be to analyse the results and find out where it went wrong. “All is well” is was what “our comrades in Tripura” told the CPI(M) central leadership till the last minute.

Anti-incumbency and failure in meeting the aspirations of people, especially youth, despite in power for long are cited among reasons in the initial analysis. Senior party leaders also felt that the CPI(M) could not match the organisational strength of BJP, which went with the slogan ‘Chalo Paltai’.

Another reason cited by them was the total absence of Congress in electoral battle. CPI(M) was banking on Congress to cut into anti-Left votes but their absence led to consolidation of in favour of BJP.

The assessment that the CPI(M) could benefit from the BJP decision to align with Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) also went awry as the results show. The CPI(M) was expecting anti-Left Bengalis to vote for them instead of Congress to defeat BJP, which has aligned with the tribals.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Mar 5, 2018)

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