How an Indian political consulting firm works: A case study of I-PAC

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This article takes I-PAC as one example of the consultancies involved in influencing India’s digital election campaigns, to shine a light on the industry at large. The author conducted anonymous interviews and reviewed several of the campaigns I-PAC has been involved in, as well as examining the workings of the company and their attitude toward their clients.

More than 529 million people reside in an Indian state where the ruling state-level government ascended to power with the aid of a single electoral campaign consultancy. The Indian Political Action Committee, commonly known as I-PAC, stands out as one of India's most renowned, ostensibly data-driven and influential political consulting firms. I-PAC’s impact on the country's electoral campaigns in the past decade is wide-reaching and potentially unparalleled, setting standards for other firms in the industry in India and worldwide. Beyond state-level politics, the company also played a vital role in the political rise of the country’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, as well as making moves to be involved in international politics.

This article takes I-PAC as one example of the consultancies involved in influencing India’s digital election campaigns, to shine a light on the industry at large. The author conducted anonymous interviews and reviewed several of the campaigns I-PAC has been involved in, as well as examining the workings of the company and their attitude toward their clients.

Originally established in 2013 as Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) by a group of young professionals, I-PAC has evolved into a major political consultancy with connections to political parties throughout the nation. While the firm has enjoyed success, it has not been without criticism, which in interviews for this piece ranged from critiques of its overarching influence on public policies to allegations of its ideological untrustworthiness.

What makes I-PAC unique–although other agencies now try to mimic its strategy–is its vast network of “foot soldiers” who are deployed to gather micro-level details from potential voters. These workers, either as contractual staff or temporary workers, go door to door during the pre-poll stage to ask residents and citizens their opinions on civic issues, welfare measures or their priorities on topics such as education or healthcare. Due to the ever-increasing level of detail in the data, which has been gathered over time and supplemented by online data, I-PAC supposedly has an advantage in the level of analysis they are able to generate in order to target citizens with political information. This level of detail presumably advantages the politicians they work with, allowing the company the luxury of choosing to work with the highest bidder, the politician that aligns with their values, or the one they deem most likely to win.

The beginnings of I-PAC

Prior to 2014, the modern election campaign and even the idea of independent political strategists in India were still in their nascent stages. Prior to this, campaign strategies were largely developed in-house. However, between 2011 and 2014, the former year being when Kishor began working with Modi, a group of young volunteers began working with Narendra Modi, who was then the Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat. Over the three-year period leading up to the 2014 general elections, CAG, then led by Prashant Kishor, who would later be monikered PK, formulated what is now recognised as the “field election campaign” and changed polling strategies in Indian politics.

In 2011, Modi, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, was struggling to redefine his image in popular media. Critics asserted that Modi had used the 2002 Gujarat riots, which claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, for political gain. Though Modi had originally hired Kishor as a health consultant, his role in carefully reshaping Modi’s persona has been widely acknowledged in political circles, though not formally.

It is said that Kishor played a pivotal role in morphing Modi’s religion-focused political narrative into an economy-centric political image. This is essentially the phase of Modi’s political journey in which the term “Gujarat model” – a vague term to refer to Modi’s governance style – was popularised nationwide as part of the campaign.

Since Modi’s ascent into the national political scene and his 2014 victory as Prime Minister, the political consultancy firm, which then became known as I-PAC, has been actively engaged in electoral campaigns in multiple states.

I-PAC’s Modus Operandi

The modus operandi of I-PAC lies in its traditional data collection methods, such as door-to-door canvassing in the region of the election, which are implemented months ahead of the polls. Before any election campaign, huge numbers of contractual and permanent employees are engaged to carry out this work.

map showing where I-PAC has worked across IndiaBased on reported data from I-PAC's website. Source: Tactical Tech

I-PAC's staff collects extensive street-level information on what voters expect from their incoming government. They gather details and demands from citizens on the streets, ranging from local civic issues and welfare measures to specific candidatures and ideological differences.

Hardeep Dugal, who heads the digital section of I-PAC, highlighted their approach and told us in an interview, "I-PAC, along with the party, conducts large-scale exercises to improve grassroots outreach and understanding. This helps create a citizen-centric agenda that serves as the cornerstone of the entire political campaign. In addition, I-PAC provides support using its expertise in key areas, including grassroots campaign execution, data crunching, primary and secondary research, technology initiatives, as well as traditional and new-age media and communication.”

The data are predominantly hosted on I-PAC's servers, as the consultancy owns them. These details are then used to set the agenda for their political clients. However, there have been allegations that I-PAC may misuse the data it gathers. For example, when a ruling party hires I-PAC, it may allow the consultancy to access government data on voters' personal details illegally. In the state of Andhra Pradesh, the opposition party recently alleged that I-PAC possesses complete voter personal details, allegedly collected through convoluted methods.

I-PAC's teams are divided into electoral campaign and field operations, research and insights, data analytics and technology, and digital communication and media. A former staff member noted that the field workers make up the largest group. Unlike the poll promises offered by established political parties, the pledges made by I-PAC's clients seemingly follow a bottom-up approach. Former staff members, speaking under the condition of anonymity, said the average age of I-PAC's employees is estimated to be around 25-26 and that there were even rumours during the early days that the firm does not hire anyone above the age of 35. The young age of the staff and temporary workers allows I-PAC to rapidly scale up its operations, including data collection and campaign outreach, compared to that of established political parties. Young minds also mean they are largely ideologically- and party-agnostic, a distinct advantage, said some of the I-PAC staff.

The technology of I-PAC

Most of I-PAC’s staff consists of young professionals with a background in technology. They engage in various services, such as building mobile applications for party cadres, enhancing websites, and significantly expanding the party’s social media presence.

During the 2019 state elections in Andhra Pradesh, I-PAC collaborated with Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, a rising politician at that time, to challenge the well-established opponents. Ultimately, Reddy was victorious, which may be due to I-PAC’s large quantities of data and professional experts. The two-year campaign leading up to the 2019 polls involved the establishment of various teams for social media, traditional media, technology, and political intelligence. A dedicated team of 400 staff members assisted Reddy in leading a 3,600-kilometre walkathon across the state, arranging meetings with politically influential individuals at the village level, and constructing a media narrative against the adversary. I-PAC also created a custom mobile application for Reddy's party volunteers from scratch due to the party's limited online presence. These details aided Reddy's party in formulating its iconic 'Navaratnalu' (nine gems), a nine-point poll agenda that played a pivotal role in helping him secure power.

Similarly, this agenda played a decisive role in electing Nitish Kumar as the Chief Minister of Bihar. A key feature of campaigns that I-PAC works on is to create a concrete set of promises to promote to voters. During the assembly elections in the state of Bihar in 2015, I-PAC helped frame a pre-election seven-point agenda that proved to be a game-changer. Bihar, an underdeveloped Indian state but politically important on the national stage due to the number of allocated parliamentary seats, eventually saw over 60% of its budget allocated to the agenda crafted by I-PAC, which included infrastructure development, continuous power supply, clean drinking water, sanitation facilities, youth employment, education, and women's empowerment.

Though in recent years, Kumar's relationship with Kishor and I-PAC has soured, the framework and impact of I-PAC's poll promises remain influential. In a rare interview in 2020, Kishor revealed that data gathering is the backbone of the agency's functioning. He stated, “Just being open-minded, driven by the evidence of the data we gather, and being common-sensical” is the secret behind I-PAC's success. Over the past eight years, I-PAC has led political campaigns in the Indian states of Bihar, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal. All of these campaigns, with the exception of the Uttar Pradesh polls in 2017, were successful.

Rift and Criticism of I-PAC

In contrast to its track record of winning elections across the ideological spectrum, I-PAC also faces its fair share of criticism. Some view them as "political mercenaries" or criticise their strategies as “below-the-belt”. The analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, added that I-PAC acts like mercenaries because they do not have an ideology or convictions of their own. For instance, they may work with the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in one state and then work to defeat the BJP in another state in the next election. The analyst called some of the strategies deployed by I-PAC and other consultants in the ecosystem “deplorable” since they include building a nasty narrative of the political opponents and vicious social media campaigns.

Achimuthu Shankar, a political commentator who runs the whistle-blowing site Savukku (Whip), commented on I-PAC's approach in an interview, “They make their bet only on winnable candidates. One can argue that those political leaders would have won even without I-PAC. But I-PAC has professionalised their performances and enhanced the results.”

Moreover, Kishor's formal relationships with many towering political leaders and his past clients, including Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Nitish Kumar, Arvind Kejriwal, and Mamata Banerjee, have reportedly become less friendly for various reasons, such as fear of PK gaining too much power and threats of interfering in government affairs. Over the years, this negative press has forced Kishor to legally and officially distance himself from I-PAC. Currently, he holds no formal role, while the agency continues to hold sway in the Indian electoral landscape. Within the firm and across popular media Kishor is often referred to as a ‘mentor’ for I-PAC.

Many of Kishor's proteges and former staff at I-PAC have established their own election management firms, catering to different political requirements across the country. Estimates suggest that there are hundreds of full-time political consultants or campaign managers in India, and many of their roots can be traced back to Kishor or I-PAC in one way or another. Amidst on-going debates in Indian and global politics, there is surprisingly little information about the privacy and security of the data held by I-PAC or the consultancies.

I-PAC’s emergence and rise in the Indian political scene coincided with the exponential growth of technology, rapid internet penetration, a surge in smartphone usage and the dominance of social media. By being one of the first political campaign consultancies, it was able to establish itself as a leader before new consultancies were established.

With such tactics, the Indian electoral landscape is poised to become even more intriguing, opening new doors for political engagement and new players in the influence industry in India. As the country prepares for state elections later this year and the parliamentary elections in 2024, it’s worth keeping an eye on I-PAC’s role and strategies, as well as other political consultancies who are coming into the market to compete for not only political influence but also recognition.

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About the Author:

Vasudevan Sridharan is an experienced journalist based in South India who has extensively reported on multiple topics. Including the intersections between the areas such as geopolitics, foreign policy, economy, human rights, and environmental affairs. He routinely writes for several Indian and global publications, and his works can be found here: Vasudevan can be reached via X, formerly Twitter, at @Vasu_Sridharan.

If you want to find out more about the firms that support political parties engage with Google advertising, head over to The Influence Industry Explorer.

The influence industry is led since 2016 by Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics team addressing the pervasive data-driven technologies used by political groups within elections and political campaigns.

First published: December 20, 2023.

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