A Anand, 31, a resident of Lawspet assembly constituency in Puducherry, received a text in the last week of February. It was a message from the BJP, asking him to vote for the party.
At first, he didn’t think too much of it. In the next few days Anand — president of the state committee of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) — received several such messages. He noticed that all of them contained a link.
Intrigued, Anand clicked. “I was shocked by what I found,” he told The Federal.
“When I clicked on the link, I was taken to a WhatsApp group run by the BJP,” he said. “The display picture had a lotus, accompanied by the words, ‘Malarattum Thamarai, Olirattum Puducherry’ (Lotus Will Bloom, Puducherry Will Shine). The group was called ‘BJP – PUD – LAW – 11 – 12.’”
‘PUD’ stands for Puducherry, ‘LAW’ denotes Lawspet constituency, and the numbers 11 and 12 denote the constituency and booth numbers.
“How can a political party get my phone number and know where I live and under which constituency and booth my house falls?” Anand said.
Anand was not alone. Many of his friends and neighbours received similar messages from the saffron party.
“Just think, what kind of campaign this is…”
Anand claimed the BJP had created WhatsApp groups for all 952 booths in Puducherry and was bombarding the electorate with such messages.
“Should this not be considered a breach of privacy? Isn’t it a violation of the model code of conduct of the Election Commission of India?” he asked.
Anand – a law graduate who once contested the Lawspet seat on a CPI-M ticket – took to social media.
“Some of us received only text messages. Others have received phone calls asked them to vote for the BJP,” he said.
Kumar, a tea-seller in Raj Bhavan constituency, received such a call.
“A woman called me and confirmed my name, address and even the booth under which my house falls,” he said. “She spoke in Tamil. After confirming the details, she introduced herself. She said she was calling from the BJP office and asked me to vote for the party.”
“I have a daughter. I asked her how she could ask me to vote for the BJP when rape cases in BJP-ruled states were increasing,” Kumar said.
“She immediately rang off.”
When Anand and his colleagues in DYFI realised that people all over the Union Territory were receiving such messages and calls, they approached the chief electoral officer (CEO). In their complaint they speculated that UIDAI, which is responsible for issuing Aadhaar cards to Indian citizens, could be sharing voter data with the BJP.
“We filed a complaint on March 5, but the CEO is yet to call us. Cyber crime officials called us and took down the details. That was on March 15,” Anand said.
The electoral roll data shared by the office of the CEO does not contain phone numbers, Anand said. “Then how did the BJP get access to voters’ phone numbers and booth-level details?”
After filing the complaint, Anand approached the Madras High Court and filed a public interest litigation (PIL). “Being the ruling party at the Centre, the BJP has misused its seat of power and indulged in identity theft under Section 66 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, clearly in breach of the fiduciary duty it owes towards its subjects, ie, the general public,” the plea stated. “The said offence is committed with an intention to threaten the security of the country, leading to the offence of cyber terrorism under Section 66F” of the Act, it said.
On March 24, in response to the PIL, the HC ordered the Election Commission to look into the allegations. Calling it a matter of “serious concern”, the court said: “It will not do for the Election Commission to pass the buck in this case and say that the cyber crimes division is conducting an investigation.”
Data Leak Theories
There are many theories surrounding the data leak. Two of the more prominent ones are: Either UIDAI shared the data; or one of the politicians who shifted his loyalty from the Congress to the BJP provided the data that his former party had collected in the past.
“Since Aadhaar is linked to bank accounts and is used to carry out corrections in voter ID cards, there is a possibility that the phone numbers were gathered through these elements. There is another possibility: Aadhaar is required to get a new SIM card or to change services from one provider to another… The data could have been leaked that way also,” Anand said.
The Federal asked residents in several constituencies if they had used their Aadhaar cards in the recent past. Most said they had used Aadhaar to buy new SIM cards.
One social activist who requested anonymity pointed the finger at A Namassivayam, who recently left the Congress and joined the BJP.
“When Namassivayam was made Puducherry Pradesh Congress Committee chief, he was asked to collect Congress supporters’ data, as part of efforts to widen the party’s cadre base. The party collected data of about 4 lakh people. It was used in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Chances are Namassivayam shared this data with the BJP,” she said.
Anand was sceptical. If that were the case, he said, only Congress supporters who shared their data with the party should have received messages from the BJP. “How can a Communist or an AIADMK supporter in a particular booth get messages from the BJP?” he asked.
Embalam R Selvam, the BJP’s candidate from Manavely constituency, denied that the party was micro-targeting the electorate.
“We have a separate number for our membership. People give us a missed call. Someone from our call centre then contacts them and takes down their details. We do this regularly. Other than that we don’t send targeted messages,” he told The Federal.
Allies of the BJP, the All India NR Congress and the AIADMK, were not available for comment.