NEW DELHI — On a hot day in the summer of 2018, a Congress party youth leader at Hyderabad Central University, waylaid unsuspecting students at the cafeteria, and asked if he could use their phones to send just one SMS.
In each SMS, this youth leader typed out a voter identification number from a voter’s list he had downloaded from the internet, and texted the “Shakti” platform, party president Rahul Gandhi’s flagship program to reach out to Congress workers.
“He was registering a random voter in Telangana as a Congress worker, using the mobile number of a random student, who could have been from Bihar or Assam or anywhere else in the country,” said another Congress worker, who was with the youth leader at the time. “After Rafale, this is the biggest fraud in the country.”
The Shakti program was launched in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election to connect Gandhi and the high command in Delhi, and state leaders, with workers across every booth, village, block, and district. Between 75 and 80 lakh users have been registered to the platform since it was set up.
It is headed by Praveen Chakravarty, an angel investor and an MBA from Wharton, who was handpicked by Gandhi to run the Congress’s Data Analytics team in February 2018. As the general elections drew closer, Chakravarty told the Economic Times that the Shakti platform was meant to “break the walls between leaders and workers.”
Now Congress party leaders and workers say that the Shakti platform had failed, and may have even contributed to the Congress’s drubbing in the 2019 Lok Sabha election by giving the leadership a false impression of the party’s strengths and weaknesses on the ground.
“Between 75-80% of Shakti registrations are bogus in each state,” said an internal note, written by a general secretary in the Congress party, and submitted to Gandhi. “Crores of rupees have been sunk by the party in sending SMSes to mostly non-INC people. Consequently the Congress has a huge database of fake workers with incorrect mobile numbers masquerading as INC workers.”
After Rafale, this is the biggest fraud in the country.
Gandhi, HuffPost India learnt, took Chakravarty’s side and ticked off the general secretary.
The Shakti fiasco, Congress members say, is an apt metaphor of the Congress party’s current state: An isolated, out of touch leadership overseeing a disorganised, rudderless grassroots organisation.
The platform also reveals the limits of the so-called “data-driven” approach to elections. In this case, large numbers of bogus Shakti registrations may have skewed the so-called “insights” derived from the platform, and misled the Congress leadership.
“The data analytics department says that these guys are your ground force. This is misleading. They are not,” said the Congress worker from Telangana. “They are just random people who are receiving messages from the Congress.”
In the 2018 state elections in Telangana for instance, the Shakti platform claimed to have 14,728 registered Congress “workers”, but the candidate from Telangana Jana Samithi, Congress party’s ally in the southern state, received only 17,536 votes. The seat was eventually won by the candidate from the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS) who polled 61,558 votes.
Another Congress worker, this time from Rajasthan, put it more succinctly.
“If we had an army of 80 lakh workers,” he said. “We would have won the election.”
Earth calling RaGa
At a Congress Working Committee meeting soon after the Lok Sabha results, Rahul Gandhi lambasted senior Congress leaders for not taking up the “Chowkidar Chor Hai” campaign, which targeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the alleged corruption in the purchase of Rafale jets.
The “Chowkidar Chor Hai” campaign, and the NYAY scheme, formed the centrepiece of the Congress’s election campaign. Party insiders say they were sceptical of the traction these issues had amongst voters, but were overruled — at least in part— on the basis of Shakti surveys conducted by Chakravarty.
Congress members, even those in the data analytics team, were never told who conducted these surveys, how many people were surveyed and where, and what were the conclusions.
Congress insiders say that Chakravarty only shared the results with Gandhi, while senior leaders were left asking for the “methodology” behind the surveys.
The internal note, which was submitted to the Congress president in January, said, “Praveen Chakravarty has claimed in the media that Shakti is being used to conduct surveys. However, the truth of the matter is that external agencies have been hired to conduct discreet surveys, incurring a massive and inexplicable cost. These are being passed off as Shakti surveys. These surveys use a sample of 150-200 people per Lok Sabha constituency, which is extremely unreliable and unscientific.”
HuffPost India can independently confirm that the sample sizes in several surveys were indeed very small.
“Rahul Gandhi still believes that ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ was a good campaign, and that it failed because it was not taken up by other Congress leaders,” said the Congress worker, who had campaigned in Telangana. “He still thinks it was a good campaign. That is the failure.”
A senior Congress official, who had campaigned in Tamil Nadu, said, “People hearing ‘chowkidar chor hai’ may respond to it, but slogans don’t get votes.”
He still thinks it was a good campaign. That is the failure.
The staggering numbers of fake registrations to the Shakti platform is a consequence of how it was rolled out. The Congress leadership announced a competition to see who could register the most numbers of people to the platform. The grand prize was a meeting and a photo opportunity with Rahul Gandhi.
The Telangana youth leader, who was hoping to get a ticket, registered around 600 voters in the few hours that he had spent in the canteen at the University of Hyderabad, the Congress worker, who was with him, recalled.
This Congress worker said that he knew of at least two instances in which other workers went door to door, telling people they were linking their mobile phones to their voter ids as per Election Commission guidelines.
While some bought multiple SIMs, others — armed with voter lists — headed to malls and college campuses where they could find phones in abundance.
“The easiest thing do was sit in a crowded place like a food court of a mall for a day. You would get 600 footfalls in just a day,” he said.
The easiest thing do was sit in a crowded place like a food court of a mall for a day.
In an email to HuffPost India, Chakravarty defended the Shakti platform and the work of the party’s data analytics unit.
Chakravarty contested the suggestion that many of those registered to the Shakti platform were bogus users, or ghost entries. The platform, he said, was meant for people from all walks of life — dedicated party workers and party sympathizers who may not formally be Congress members.
The platform, he said, “verifies every individual who joins Shakti.”
“Once someone joins Shakti, since we know all the details of the person, we run checks and categorise each person as a mere sympathiser, verified Congress worker, active Congress worker, leader, office bearer,” Chakravarty wrote in his email to HuffPost India. “We have five levels in Shakti - Level 1 to Level 5. When we do polls or give booth tasks to Shakti workers, it is only to Level 3 and above. We also have a points system where people accumulate points for activities undertaken.”
As for the surveys — which some senior Congress members felt were flawed — Chakravarty said, “Surveys were carried out to gauge awareness of issues of Rafale, NYAY, etcetera. These were stratified sample surveys across various constituencies in key states. Results are for internal use.”
Yet, Congress workers told HuffPost India said the Shakti platform did not verify the almost 80 lakh people that were registered.
“There is no verification system,” said a senior office bearer from Tamil Nadu.
There is no verification system.
Congress field workers, told HuffPost India that around 5 to 10% of those on the Shakti platform were likely to be “genuine” Congress workers, but cautioned these were guesstimates based on those who were either extremely active on the Shakti platform or had taken the initiative to download the Ghar Ghar Congress App which assigns duties.
There was, they said, no way of knowing the identities of the vast majority on the Shakti platform.
These workers also said there was no merit in the claim that only “Level 3 and above” workers were given booth tasks. The party worker from Rajasthan said, “We used anyone that we could find.”
BJP in the house?
The Shakti program was envisaged as an interactive platform, which would eventually allow top leaders and workers to communicate with each other, and figure out the best strategies to move forward.
Today, the platform is being used to send texts containing information regarding events that Rahul Gandhi is attending, photos and video.
That the platform is not being used in a meaningful way is actually a relief to Congress party members, who are concerned that the party has no idea who it has registered.
The senior Congress official from Tamil Nadu pointed out that it could BJP sympathisers, even its workers.
While there are those who find it hilarious that Congress workers may have set their counterparts in the BJP with a lifelong supply of messages from and about Rahul Gandhi, others point out that there is no way of kicking these people out of the system.
It isn’t just BJP workers.
In present-day politics, where loyalties are few and far between, candidates jump ship in a heartbeat, taking their followers along with them.
They too remain in the Shakti program.
Chakravarty, the Shakti mastermind, dismissed concerns that the BJP could have infiltrated the platform.
“What prevents a non-BJP competitive worker from another party to download the NAMO app and misuse it for other purposes?” he said.
“This is not a Rahul Gandhi app. NaMo app is not a strategy app,” said the Congress worker, who had campaigned in Telangana.
“There is a huge scope for fraud, there is no verification, who is joining, who is leaving, you don’t know. That is Shakti today.”
There is a huge scope for fraud, there is no verification, who is joining, who is leaving, you don’t know. That is Shakti today.