Interference in elections The Excelsior 13 Jun 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


Interference in elections The Excelsior 13 Jun 2024

          An Indian organization, @DisinfoLab published a detailed report on attempted foreign interference in recently concluded elections. Possibly on directions from the government, the investigation was publicly released just prior to counting of votes, after all election formalities had been completed.  

Had it been published during electioneering there could have been claims of the BJP influencing elections or accusing the opposition of adhering to western narratives. Evidently, the government was aware, as national leaders did hint on global interference, but maintained silence.

Attempts to influence elections in a democracy are nothing new. Canada accused China of interfering in its election process, while the US accuses both, Russia and China, of the same. Canada continues to mention ‘India as the second-biggest foreign threat to its democracy.’ China, openly attempted to influence Taiwan elections in Jan this year, but failed.

In Dacca, Sheikh Hasina had mentioned a week ago, ‘there would be no problem for me to be sworn into power if I had allowed a country to set up an airbase inside our country.’ Adding, ‘the offer came from a white man.’ China is known to influence elections in Sri Lanka and Maldives, amongst others. India is also accused of attempting the same in its neighbourhood.  

          As per @DisinfoLab, the recently concluded elections witnessed the ‘most intrusive foreign reporting – overwhelmingly negative and obviously brazen.’ It added, ‘Some of these media outlets had tacit funding, and some were explicit, while few were funded by organizations with dark backgrounds of publishing slant narratives.’ The spate of articles against Indian democracy and the current dispensation had witnessed a spike prior and during the election process.

          The report highlighted a number of individuals and organizations including Christophe Jaffrelot from France, Trivedi Centre for Political Data of Ashoka University, New York based Henry Luce Foundation, George Soros etc, of trying to influence elections or funding activities linked to them. China would have definitely been involved through fake media outlets and shell companies established by their protégé Neville Roy Singham. Singham is already being investigated in India for funding NewsClick.

          Interestingly, the crucial narrative of the opposition, dividing on caste, was the brainchild of Christophe Jaffrelot, who is assumed to be an Indian expert. He has written exclusively on the subject for multiple western media networks. This topic was exploited by the opposition throughout electioneering. @DisinfoLab stated, ‘he (Christophe Jaffrelot) came up with a narrative for caste census. In fact, never before was he referred by so many outlets in such a short time.’ To score brownie points, Rahul Gandhi, apart from promising a caste census, had even attempted to drag the armed forces into the caste debate.

          Interference in elections had been highlighted by the PM in his interviews. He had stated, ‘Many in the world are trying to influence the election, which they shouldn’t be doing… They are not merely making comments or remarks, but trying to influence them.’

The External Affairs Minister, Dr S Jaishankar, had mentioned, ‘when western preferences aren’t elected, they get upset. Only weak politicians ask for foreign interference.’ The government could do little except monitor and work to reduce the influence.   

Western governments had initially commented negatively on Indian elections, the judiciary and the ruling dispensation. They had criticized Arvind Kejriwal’s arrest and the freezing of Congress accounts over non-payment of income tax. However, post a warning by New Delhi, negative statements by western governments largely ceased. The Supreme Court also played its role by refusing to be cowed down while adopting an independent trajectory.

Most articles against India’s election process and the need for a caste census, were published in global media networks by these so-called experts. There was little which emerged in local media. These articles would impact India’s global reputation but not its populace and hence not the elections directly. These could never be referred to by political parties as the same could be exploited as playing to a foreign narrative. Reports of foreign funding to political parties to fight elections remain unverified.

Was the Indian voter influenced? Influence did not flow from articles published abroad but from agendas of political parties. Game changers were promises of renumeration from a specific party, Agnipath scheme as also possible amendments to the constitution by the ruling regime in case it obtained absolute majority, impacting some voters. Did these ideas emerge from those abroad is unknown. India has historically voted on religion and caste basis and in this case, things were no different. 

The fact remains that during elections, all gloves are off and there are no rules. Complaints to the Election Commission (EC) take days before they are acted upon and mostly end as warnings. Every political party ignored laid down EC guidelines.

Another effective manner of influencing voters is through social media. YouTube influencers have a larger viewership than political leaders’ speeches and personal interaction, most of which are unattended by urban youth. Majority of today’s youth rarely read newspapers, pay little attention to what politicians speak, prefer watching YouTube. They form opinions based on what they see and hear.

Some videos against the ruling dispensation garnered millions of views.   If few well established influencers were funded to project half-truths impacting Indian elections, then yes, they influenced voters. 

The final results were nothing what political parties expected. The BJP was already celebrating even before counting had commenced. The INDI Alliance had met the EC with complaints of the government attempting to manipulate counting. They had also planned to initiate protests as a sign of displeasure. However, once results started flowing in, everything changed. There were no calls for violence, EVMs were beyond manipulation and there was no attempt by the government to influence returning officers.

At the end of the day, it should be accepted that the Indian voter was partially influenced. However, interference and influencing voters is a global phenomenon and must be accepted as reality. Complaining like Canada and the US will have zero impact. Writeups in global newspapers had little effect but YouTube influencers did play a role.   

With elections having concluded and results announced, it is time to investigate those involved in funding to influence elections to prevent similar actions in the future. Further, political parties must evolve their own countermeasures against such attempts.

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