Behind Modi’s Heartwarming Diwali Ad for Soldiers, An App That’s Primed for Political Messaging
The campaign, which allows users to send Modi quotes on themes like Ayodhya and the perfidy of the Opposition, raises questions about the boundaries between government, party and personal promotion.
The article by Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty was published in the Wire on October 29, 2016. Sunil Abraham was quoted.
Such messages can be sent through the Narendra Modi mobile app, the “official app of the prime minister”, or by logging on to www.mygov.in, a central government platform launched by the prime minister in 2014 to facilitate participatory governance by engaging the public. One can also send a message by recording it after dialing a 10-digit number – which would then be aired by All India Radio (AIR).
Media reports said a special module had been created within the mobile app to not only enable people to send text messages to soldiers but also to upload handwritten letters, decorated cards and videos to them expressing their Diwali wishes and feelings for the armed forces.
A special video that carried Modi’s appeal to the public to send messages to the armed forces was shared on social media along with a few other videos to promote the prime minister’s idea. One such video features a child sending a ‘thank you rocket’ to soldiers for defending the nation under hostile circumstances. That the call to send a personal message has come from the prime minister has upped the profile of this campaign.
Bollywood stars like Akshay Kumar, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan, and cricketers such as Virat Kohli, Virendra Sehwag and Mohammad Kaif have also posted their messages to soldiers on Twitter by using the prime minister’s campaign hashtag #Sandesh2Soldiers. Many Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politicians and ministers have also joined in.
As per a tweet by AIR on October 26, “Around 9,800 persons sent their good wishes to jawans of security forces so far during this festive season”. Last checked, www.mygov.in, run by the National Informatics Centre under the the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, showed 13,000 messages and video uploads recorded. The number is going up by the minute.
While the registration requirement at the government’s www.mygov.in portal only requires the sender to provide her or his name and e-mail address to be able to send a message or upload a video – a usual cyber safety procedure – those who want to use the Modi app for the purpose will have to do more: they will first have to agree to be personally profiled by the prime minister’s “official” mobile application.
Personally identifiable information
This is how things work: to register oneself through the app and send a message, a user not only has to disclose her name, mobile number and email address but also profession, the state and the district she belongs to, her voter identification card number, specific areas of interests and a personal description within “500 characters”.
This has left many potential senders and experts flummoxed. Why does a citizen, in order to express her gratitude to the armed forces on the occasion of Diwali at the call of her prime minister need to share additional information with the app, which amounts to profiling? At a time when the Supreme Court is hearing a bunch of petitions on the mandatory use of Aadhar cards by the government, some of which deal with issues of privacy and the possible misuse of the collected data, this is a relevant question.
“There was absolutely no need for the app to ask for additional information from a user just to send a message to the armed forces. As far as the additional information sought from a user is concerned, it allows the data collector to build a profile of the user but it is not profiling in the modern big data sense wherein multiple data sources are combined to create a complete profile of the data subject,” says Sunil Abraham, director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society.
Abraham adds, “There is no guarantee that the data collected (through the app) won’t be used illegally by some commercial enterprise, etc. because our data protection law, Section 43A of the Information and Technology Act, doesn’t apply to the state but only to the private sector. In other words, if the personal information is shared with the government, then it is perfectly legal for the government to disclose the personal information to other government or commercial entities.”
Unlike the MyGov portal, where a user can type or upload a message, the Narendra Modi mobile app also automatically adds a quote from the prime minister below the one typed by the user. It expresses the prime minister’s pride over “the indomitable valour and supreme sacrifice of our armed forces etched in the memory of every Indian”.
The prime minister launched his official mobile app in August last year at a function reportedly organised by MyGov, thus making him the first prime minister to have a mobile app named after him. Designed by a team of six students from Delhi Technical University after winning a two-phased contest launched by MyGov in March last year, the app has been described as “a one-stop destination for knowing about all the latest day-to-day activities of the prime minister.”As per media reports, the app would correspond to the prime minister’s official website, www.pmindia.gov.in.
Obviously then, information on how to access the app and take part in the campaign have been publicised through his portal, www.pmindia.gov.in.
This raises another question. Even though www.pmindia.gov.in is not directly accepting public messages for the armed forces but is only promoting the campaign and giving information on how to download the mobile app for it (thereby proving that it corresponds to the app), it does direct an interested user to the prime minister’s personal website, www.narendramodi.in on clicking its publicity window designed for the campaign.
The user can then download the Modi app from his personal website, which was used extensively during the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections by Modi to reach out to voters. So the app not only corresponds to the official website of the prime minister but also with his personal website through the official website. Curiously, it is not possible to access the app from the MyGov portal even though the entity under the Ministry of Electronics and Information launched the app at a function on August 6 in New Delhi reportedly organised by it.
Thus, while the app that seemed to have been developed and launched by a government department can’t be accessed directly through a government portal, it can be accessed through the prime minister’s personal portal. Also, features in the app like “forget password” are handled by his personal website, which communicates with an app user as its “Admin”.
So who runs the app? Is it not the official app of the prime minister of the country? Who owns it? Is it his personal app that he considers “official”? These are questions to which answers are not easily available.
The Wire made multiple attempts to get an official response, both from the government and the BJP Cyber Cell, about these queries but failed to get an answer. The Wire also failed to get any official clarification to why the app seeks personal details of a user to just send messages to the armed forces.
Calls and text messages to the social media cell of the Press Information Bureau (PIB) – the government’s media interface in the digital space – the office of Anurag Jain, listed in the www.pmindia.gov.in as the “web information office”, and to MyGov, which launched the app at the second anniversary function of the Modi government on August 6 last year in New Delhi, failed to receive a reply. All that a PIB official was willing to say on condition of anonymity to this correspondent, “I think it has been outsourced, we don’t deal with it. May be you can contact the PMO.”
Anurag Jain’s office at the PMO said, “You won’t get any information here on the app and the response of the people for the campaign through it. Call the appointments section, it might know.” But that section didn’t respond.
A mail sent to Arvind Gupta of the BJP’s Cyber Cell too has so far remained unanswered. A BJP source, however, pointed out, “If you go to @narendramodi_in, it clearly mentions that it is the twitter account of narendramodi.in, the personal website of Narendra Modi and also of the Narendra Modi mobile app. So it is his personal app.”
The question of why a personal app of the prime minister is then called his “official” app remains unanswered. Also, why is it then that the bulk text messages sent by a government entity, MyGov, direct the public to the prime minister’s personal app to send a message to the armed forces? Is it personal or official?
Meanwhile, the traffic directed by the prime minister’s official website to his personal portal can make use of the e-greeting section in it to send a Diwali e-card to family, relatives, colleagues, etc.
To send such an e-card, the user needs to follow four mandatory steps – choosing a card from the available options, selecting a pre-written Diwali message; selecting a quote of the prime minister from an exhaustive list made available to the user, and adding the name, salutation and email address of the recipient of the card.
The list of quotes – in English and Hindi – have been culled out of the prime minister’s speeches that straddle a variety of categories including Pakistan, terrorism, ASEAN, Nepal, Bhutan, Swacchh Bharat mission, the idea of India, secularism, disability, caste, dalits, governance, yoga, youth, et al.
It also has “motivation” as a category of prime minister’s sayings. Clicking it will give a user the choice of a long list of the prime minister’s quotes which begins with the need for the world to recognise the sacrifice made by Indian soldiers in the two world wars and ends with a quote on the 2010 judgment given by the Allahabad high court on the disputed site at Ayodhya:
The quote said, “The Ayodhya judgment will work as a catalyst to maintain peace and unity in the country. This judgment has given a respect to belief and self esteem of the people of India, and it should be linked to self esteem of the country.”
Reacting to the judgment in 2010, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat had expressed “satisfaction”, adding, “The judgment has paved the way for the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya. The judgment is not a win or loss for anybody. We invite everybody, including Muslims, to help build the temple.”
Constructing the Ram temple in Ayodhya was also in the manifesto of the BJP for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls with Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate.
So, even if the Supreme Court had put a stay on the judgment and has been hearing some petitions for and against it, this Diwali, if you wish to send an e-card using that quote of the prime minister to express his mind on the issue, you can.
“I think it is not only improper of the prime minister to allow such a quote to feature in an e-card with his name but it is also contempt of court. Being the prime minister of the country, he has to maintain neutrality. As per the constitution, there is separation of the state from religion. So being the prime minister, he can’t possibly allow someone to use that quote of him,” says well-known constitutional expert and senior Supreme Court lawyer Rajeev Dhavan.
Dhavan points out a precedent: “In 1969, the Supreme Court held as contempt a comment made by the then West Bengal chief minister P.C. Sen in a speech aired by All India Radio. The speech was made at a time when someone had challenged an order of the state government on milk production. Sen’s adverse comment supporting the order was presented first in front of the West Bengal High Court which took cognisance of it and termed it contempt of court. Thereafter, the case came to the SC which also termed it contempt of court as the comment was made while the case was pending in the court.”
Swaying public opinion
As per media reports, the comment on the September 30, 2010, HC order was made by Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister, on the same day, before the SC stayed that order in May, 2011.
Dhavan felt, “That he, as the prime minister, is now openly allowing a user to circulate that quote after the SC has begun hearing the case will attract criminal contempt of court as it can be seen as interfering with the working of the judiciary. He can obviously affect public opinion and can be seen as trying to decide the question. It can be seen as usurping the function of the Judiciary by the Executive.”
The traffic directed by the prime minister’s official website to the personal portal can also make use of any Diwali e-greeting card by picking a quote from a category named “political-general”. Many of the quotes under that category are from the prime minister’s multiple attacks on the main opposition party, the Congress, some of which must have been made before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, such as this one: “The UPA government is non-serious, it has taken the people for granted & it is not bothered about the youth. Their approach shows lack of faith in democracy. Our goal is to win the trust of the people & give dignity to them…”
“That the prime minister’s official website links people to surf his personal website where they can send e-cards using anti-opposition quotes of the prime minister is extremely contentious. Whichever party had come to power, there has always been a Chinese wall between the institution of the prime minister and the politician. Unfortunately, both have come together in the current dispensation. The common man doesn’t understand it well, so it is taking advantage of technology to erase that difference,” former Information and Broadcasting minister and Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari said.
Such e-cards are not restricted to Diwali. You can send them on occasions like “Holi, Rakshabandhan, Navaratri, Christmas, Independence Day, Gudi Padwa, Kite Festival, Namo Birthday, Ram Navami, Swami Vivekananda Janma Jayanti” and at any other time by opting for the “political (general)” category.
Narendra Modi implemented the idea of launching e-cards that could go with his quotes in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections. Reports said that “Narendra Modi E-cards” were used by the BJP as a “new marketing strategy” to canvas for its prime ministerial candidate before Holi to bypass the Election Commission of India’s model code of conduct as there was “no mention of rules for social media usage by political parties”.
Meanwhile, those who have signed up for the Narendra Modi mobile app only to send a message to the armed forces have begun receiving regular “infographics” based on the prime minister’s speeches, and also data culled out of news and study reports that are deemed favourable to him and his government. A registered user can further pass on those “infographics” by sharing them on her Facebook page and twitter handle.
The app, though termed “official”, also forwards to a registered user tweets posted only from his personal twitter handle and not from his official handle, @pmoindia. One such tweet that this correspondent received through the app had little to do with the government and entirely with the persona of the politician behind the prime minister. The tweet said, “When @narendramodi demonstrated true leadership at the Patna rally, on this day in 2013…”
Clicking on the link in the tweet takes you to a write-up that talks of the “true grit” of the “BJP’s then prime ministerial candidate” by addressing a rally after a bomb blast in Patna.