March 26, 2018

Indialogue, a weekly newsletter

By Aman Thakkar



Welcome to Indialogue, a weekly newsletter dedicated to analyzing major developments in India. This week’s brief looks at reports of Cambridge Analytica’s activities in India, the recent Rajya Sabha elections, and the successful flight-testing of the BrahMos cruise missile with an indigenous seeker. On the foreign policy side, I analyze India’s announcement confirming the death of 39 Indian workers believed to held by ISIS in Iraq, and India’s woes over building a base in Seychelles.

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- Aman

Concerns and Allegations Over Cambridge Analytica's Activities in India

Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm under fire in the United States for collecting personal data of Facebook users without their consent, is also at thecenter of controversy in India as the two major parties traded allegations over the other hiring the firm. At the heart of the controversy is Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI), an India-based firm that has partnered with CA’s parent company, Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL).

The Hindustan Times’ Prashant Jhareported early last week that OBI had worked on election campaigns in India for the BJP and independent candidates in the past, and that “CA and OBI had together pitched their services to both the Congress and the BJP for 2019 but that talks were in a preliminary stage.” Indeed, OBI’s website listed both the BJP and Congress as clients, although the website has been suspended since last week.

Ovleno Business Intelligence's website (currently taken down), which lists both the BJP and the INC as clients. 

Both major political parties have alsotraded allegations that the other has hired Cambridge Analytica and/or OBI for the upcoming 2019 elections. Indeed, India’s Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasadpublicly asked “What is CA’s role in Rahul Gandhi’s social media presence? Can Congress deny CA’s role in its campaign to divide the society for electoral gains first in Gujarat and now in Karnataka?...How much stolen data from CA is in possession of the Congress Party? How much data of Indian users has the Congress handed over to CA?”

The Congress party, meanwhile, has denied all allegations of hiring the services of the firm, and in turn, allegedthat the BJP had hired the services of the OBI as far back as in 2010, during the Bihar state assembly elections, as well as the 2014 general elections.Screenshots of the LinkedIn profile of Himanshu Sharma, one of the directors of OBI, also emerged last week, which stated he had “managed four election campaigns successfully for the ruling party BJP” and “achieved the target of mission 272.” These references have since been deleted.

Insight: ThePrint broke this exclusive story on what kind of work Cambridge Analytica conducted in India, which I highly recommend. However, this episode underscores the need for India to think seriously about enhancing its data protection laws, especially to ensure that data Indians regularly provide to third-parties (restaurants, shops, retailers, and other business entities) or to the government (through Aadhar) aren’t vulnerable to such acquisition and manipulation. I wrote an article on this for The Diplomat back in October of last year. If you are interested, read here.

After Nearly Four Long, Agonizing Years, 39 Indians Hostages in Iraq Confirmed Dead

Last week, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj confirmed in a statement to Parliament that 39 Indian workers believed to be held by ISIS after it took over Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014 had been confirmed dead. Her announced sparked fierce criticism of the government on two fronts.

Firstly, a number of commentatorscriticized that it took the government this long to confirm that the workers had died. Indeed, the government had, over many years, maintained that it had“credible information” that the Indians were still alive. This ran counter to the story of Harjit Masih, the only survivor from the abduction of the workers by Islamic State militants, who said that he witnessed the other 39 Indian construction workers being “queued up by masked men and shot dead on 15 June, four days after they were abducted. He claimed he was shot in the leg but managed to escape.” Swaraj, in her statement to Parliament, argued that Masih had lied and called his version a “cock and bull story.” Swaraj also argued that the government could not declare the abducted Indians as dead without substantive proof, and that it could not depend on the account of just one person. Indeed, the recovered bodies of the 39 Indians had been sent for DNA testing in Baghdad before the announcement, with the DNA of 38 Indians matching with the remains of bodies found, and while one body was a 70% match.

Harjit Masih (left), the lone survivor of the abduction, and Sushma Swaraj (right), the External Affairs Minister of India

The second criticism has been the way in which the deaths were announced. When Swaraj made her report to Parliament, none of the family membershad been informed that the Indians were confirmed to be dead. Rather, commentators pointed to years of statements since the news of the kidnapping broke in 2014 which assured families and all Indians that the 39 victims were still alive. (Read this timeline of statements by the Ministry of External Affairs here). One of the family members went on to say, “They fooled us. We held almost 13 meetings with Swaraj... Every time, she told us that our men are safe.” Swaraj defended her decision to inform Parliament first, saying at a press conference after her report to Parliament that “Some kin of the victims have questioned as to why they were not told about the deaths before the Parliament. Since the Parliament is in session, it was my duty to first inform the House.”

Expert Voices:

Kabir Taneja writes “However, the regional situation and economic compulsions apart, the larger question that remains unanswered is why did New Delhi take four years to confirm the loss of the 39 Indians? Why was Masih’s account rejected, despite corroboration by Bangladeshi workers who were stuck in the same situation? Why did they drag the families’ hopes for this long only to ‘officially’ announce what had been known all along?”

Sreemoy Talukdar argues “Harjit Masih, the survivor who ostensibly escaped from the clutches of IS and later held that his compatriots have been murdered, can stick to his statement despite lack of evidence because the burden of proof is not on him. But that cannot be said of an elected government which is accountable to people. Governments must necessarily assume that those missing are alive until conclusive evidence proves otherwise.”

Successful Flight-Test of BrahMos with Indigenous Seeker

This past Thursday, India successfullyflight-tested its supersonic cruise missile BrahMos using an indigenous seeker. The BrahMos missile project is ajoint collaboration between India and Russia, and the seeker for this missile had previously been supplied by Russia. The Defence Ministry announced on Twitter that the test took place at the Pokhran test range in Rajasthan, and that “the precision strike weapon with Indian-made seeker flew in its designated trajectory and hit the target with pin-point accuracy.”Bigger Picture: The seeker technology is a crucial component in missile technology as it determines the accuracy of a missile. India’s achievement in successfully flight-testing an indigenous seeker, therefore, is significant and is likely to reduce the need to import such technology moving forward.

After Rajya Sabha Election, BJP Remains Biggest Party but Majority Eludes NDA

After elections for the upper house (Rajya Sabha) of Parliament in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, West Bengal and other states last week, the BJP remainsthe largest party, extending its tally from 54 seats to 69 seats in the House. Despite this performance, however, the BJP-led alliance, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) falls short of the 126-mark majority, with the BJP and its allies holding 85 seats in the Rajya Sabha (this tally does not include the Telugu Desam Party (TDP)’s six seats in the Upper House since it withdrew support for the NDA).

Opposition parties from Uttar Pradesh, where the contest was most keenly watched, hit out at the BJP, particularly Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati, who said that “the Bharatiya Janata Party tried to show its win in Rajya Sabha polls as ‘revenge’ for the defeat in the bypolls to the Gorakhapur and Phulpur parliamentary constituencies but they forget that in Lok Sabha polls, people directly elect their representatives.” Indeed, Rajya Sabha candidates are elected by State Assemblies rather than by direction election, and has lost two by-poll Lok Sabha seats two weeks ago (see last week’s Indialogue for an analysis of the elections). As such, given the BJP’s majority in the Uttar Pradesh state assembly, it was confident in winning at least 8 of the 10 seats up for election in the state, which included top BJP leaders as candidates, including Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, the BJP’s national general secretary Anil Jain, and spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao among others.

Context: Despite the BJP’s victory, opposition parties in Uttar Pradesh have continued to join forces. Indeed, the BSP-SP alliance that beat the BJP in the Lok Sabha by-polls two weeks ago reiterated their intention of uniting until at least the 2019 elections. However, these ongoing elections continue to highlight just how high the stakes are for all sides in 2019.

India-Seychelles Agreement on Base in Assumption Island in Trouble

This past Tuesday, the opposition coalition which holds a majority in Seychelles’ parliament announced that it would not ratify an agreement signed between India and the Seychelles to build a military base on one of the archipelago’s outlying islands. Thepurpose of the agreement was for India to build a base on Assumption Island to develop and manage aviation, maritime, and communications facilities. Seychelles would own the facilities while India would invest $550 million into the developing the infrastructure and jointly manage the base along with the Seychelles. Indian soldiers would be deployed on the island and help train Seychelles’ troops.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Seychelles

Why this Matters?: Assumption Island lies along the Mozambique channel, which is a key sea lane for merchant ships. Moreover, when this base is considered in conjunction with India’s other strategic assets in the region, including access to the French base in Reunion Island and the US base at Diego Garcia made possible by logistics support agreement with the US and France, a ratified agreement on the base would significantly enhance India’s ability to monitor most, if not all, movements in the region.

Stories you might enjoy:

The Hindustan Times has launched a series of articles called Policy Dives, digging deep into the issue and analyzing the debates around it. Jatin Gandhi writes the second article in this series, exploring the debate around whether India should India have a Uniform Civil Code.

Darshana M. Baruah explores how the “Andaman and Nicobar Islands could significantly alter the maritime dynamics in the Indo-Pacific”

Writing on the ongoing “reset” in India-China relations, C. Raja Mohan argues that “India, by no means, is alone in confronting the problems with Chinese power. All major nations are struggling to come to terms with it. As a larger country sharing a disputed border and an overlapping periphery, India’s task is a lot more complicated.”

Kiran Stacey, Simon Mundy, and Emily Feng write about how “India has emerged as the biggest beneficiary of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, soaking up a quarter of all its investment commitments to date, despite continuing diplomatic tension between New Delhi and Beijing.”

Iain Marlow reports how “a report from the parliamentary standing committee on urban development said Modi’s six top infrastructure initiatives spent on average just 21 percent, or $1.2 billion, of the $5.6 billion allocated.”

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