Why AP & Telangana Are in a Bitter Battle Over 3.5 Cr Voter Data

A bitter “info war” over Andhra Pradesh’s detailed voter profiles has broken out between TDP, TRS and YSR-Congress. 

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India
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Why AP & Telangana Are in a Bitter Battle Over 3.5 Cr Voter Data

With Lok Sabha elections just over a month away, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are engaged in a bitter “info war” over the detailed profiles of up to 3.5 crore voters, including information about their caste and voting preferences.

SInce 1 March, Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party, K Chandrashekhar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samiti and Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR-Congress Party have all been locked in a tussle over voter profiling and the attempted mass deletion of voters in Andhra Pradesh.

According to TDP, it has painstakingly built a database of nearly all of the eligible 3.5 crore voters in the state since 2014 through their membership drive and door-to-door campaign.

At the heart of this pre-election data battle is TDP’s “Seva Mitra” app which stores detailed profiles of nearly 3.5 crore Andhra voters. The Quint had reported about the official TDP app that is being investigated by the police over allegations of privacy breach and misuse of sensitive data of Andhra’s citizens.

Now, the TDP has accused the Telangana Rashtra Samiti of using Telangana police to “get the data from TDP’s App service providers in Hyderabad so that they can extract important information available of TDP to be passed to the opposition parties.”

While activists and opposition parties have alleged that TDP may have pulled data from state-owned databases, the technology advisor to the government of Andhra Pradesh has told The Quint that TDP has painstakingly built the database on their own. 

Seva Mitra App: The Eye of the Digital Storm

The app, Seva Mitra, was designed by IT Grids, a Hyderabad-based private company, to help TDP cadre and volunteers connect with the party in real time.

The app was found to be storing detailed information of Andhra Pradesh voters, including their caste, political leanings and family data. According to the Election Commission of India’s electoral roll data, the state had 3.5 crore voters in 2018, who could be at risk of having their information profiled.

The app classifies voters at the booth levels. Party volunteers are expected to verify voters at the booth level and provide voter details such as:

  • Are they living in the constituency?
  • What is their caste?
  • What is their political preference? Who are they likely to vote for?
  • How much they rate the party of their choice on a scale of 1 - 100
  • Family information
Why AP & Telangana Are in a Bitter Battle Over 3.5 Cr Voter Data
(Source: Seva Mitra App)
Security researcher Srinivas Kodali said that “the problem with voter profiling by political parties is it amounts to surveillance and the idea of secret ballot voting is being destroyed.” 

‘We Have Built Our Own Database’: TDP

While the Seva Mitra app stores profiles of Andhra Pradesh’s eligible voters, the software firm that built it for TDP is based in Hyderabad’s Madhapur and is, therefore, under the jurisdiction of Telangana Police.

Cyberbabad Police, which raided the IT Grids office on 2 and 3 March after a complaint by data analyst Lokeswara Reddy, seized computer systems, hard disks, mobile phones, electronic gadgets and “other incriminating items”, it said in a press statement on Monday.

“Prima-facie, the investigation has revealed that a private company called IT Grids India Pvt Ltd has got illegal access of various personal and sensitive data of individuals which can be misused for illegal purposes.”
V C Sajjanar, Commissioner of Police, Cyberabad, Telangana 

HOW TDP SAYS IT BUILT ITS DATABASE OF 3.5 CR VOTERS

The Quint spoke with Hari Prasad Vemuru, technology advisor to the government of Andhra Pradesh, who explained in detail how TDP went about painstakingly building the database of Andhra’s voters.

  • In 2014, Andhra’s current IT Minister and Chandrababu Naidu’s son, Nara Lokesh initiated a membership drive which included insurance cover for party members. “In the first fifty days 54 lack people joined. This number soon reached 70 lakh members and now stands at over 75 lakh,” said Hari Prasad.
  • In providing insurance cover to registered members and their family, the TDP had collected their details. “TDP has lots of information of their party members from day one to take care of their members,” said Hari Prasad.
  • According to Prasad, by getting the 70 lakh strong cadre to provide details of their family members, TDP managed to get detailed information on “2/3rds of the voter population of Andhra Pradesh”.
Why AP & Telangana Are in a Bitter Battle Over 3.5 Cr Voter Data
(Source: Seva Mitra App)
  • In 2017, TDP launched a “door-to-door” campaign to conduct a survey among the voters of every constituency about government welfare schemes availed by them and their family members. This way they digitally collected the data of nearly every voter in the state.
  • “We appointed 50,000 conveners for about 47,000 odd booths in Andhra Pradesh. What they did is they actually took the list of schemes provided by the government and went house to house to ask them if they availed the benefits offered by the government,” said Hari Prasad. “Now, please emphasise this part that TDP has gone home to home and we can show the evidence for everything,” he added.
  • If the voter hadn’t availed or received of the welfare benefits due to her, the volunteers were asked to escalate it to the concerned departments. If they did avail of the benefits, they were asked if they were satisfied and who they would vote for in the next elections.
  • When asked if a party should be collecting data on voter preferences, Hari Prasad responded “you say this info is private. If you take poll surveys what are they doing? Are they not asking people who they are voting for?”
  • When asked if this risked a blurring of the distinction between the government and the party, Hari Prasad responded that the “voters have voted the party to power and the party is running the govt.” “Just like the government the party is also responsible to keep vigilance on whether the schemes of the government are reaching every home or not,” he said.

Election Commission Silent

After several complaints were made to the Election Commission, Andhra Pradesh Chief Electoral Officer, Om Prakash Dwivedi acknowledged in a press release that there were attempts “in thousands of numbers” to remove voters from electoral rolls.

“This is a mischief and an illegal act,” the statement read, adding that there were en masse submissions of Form-7 (for deletion of voters who have died or have shifted).

On 3 March, Chief Electoral Officer of Telangana, S S Dwivedi, said that 45 FIRs were filed across nine districts of Andhra Pradesh under the Indian Penal Code as well as the IT Act.

However, the Election Commission has so far made no official statement on the Seva Mitra app or the onging voter tussle between TDP, TRS and YSR-Congress Party. 

At a public meeting on 5 March, YSR-Congress leader Jaganmohan Reddy and TDP’s primary opposition in Andhra Pradesh said “there are duplicate voters and us filing Form-7 asking for these deletions with EC is wrong according to TDP”. He also accused Naidu of creating these duplicate votes and deleting genuine voters of YSR-CP from voter lists.

The Quint has reached out to the Election Commission but has not received any response yet.

“The Election Commission of India has become a mute spectator in this episode,” said Kodali.

“Mixing political party data with govt data simply enables a majoritarian rule which our democracy was not founded on. With voter profiling minorities will lose out political representation in a majoritarian state,” he added.

ECI HAD ORDERED DELHI NCT TO STOP A SIMILAR VOTER PROFILING EXERCISE

It is noteworthy that the Election Commission of India had written a strongly worded letter to the Chief Secretary of Delhi NCT in December 2018 on an issue of a similar nature. Noting with concern that the students of all schools in New Delhi were required to submit the voter IDs of all the members of their families.

J K Rao, secretary of the ECI had written that “the data in question pertains to substantial portion of the electorate of Delhi and could be vulnerable to misuse like communal, regional, racial, caste-wise-profiling of voters.”
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